Do you have advice for someone who self-sabotages during interviews?
I look very good on paper, and I always get called to interview nearly everywhere I apply. Unfortunately, I have diagnosed PTSD, and my fight or flight instinct kicks in on the morning of my interviews, every time, without fail.
Employed-me is polished, organized, and confident. Interview-me is sweaty, shaky, and rambles through her answers.
I have five interviews next month, three of which are for “dream jobs.” My friends and family keep saying how exciting this is, but I simply feel dread about having to go through the interview process that many times over.
How do other anxious humans get through this?
You definitely aren’t alone. I get a ton of letters from people who feel like their nerves interfere with their ability to show interviewers what they’re actually like to work with day-to-day.
Sometimes changing your mindset about what a job interview is supposed to be can really help. At their core, your interview nerves probably come from feeling that you’re there to be scrutinized and judged. Interviews can feel like you’re under a big spotlight and have no choice but to passively wait for your interviewer to render a verdict on you — and of course that’s nerve-wracking. Often though, you can change that dynamic in your head by deciding that you’re there to interview them.
Because the thing is, you are! Or at least you should be. Interviews aren’t just about an employer figuring out if they want to hire you; they’re also supposed to be about you figuring out if you want this job, at this company, with this manager, and these co-workers. That means that you need to be scrutinizing and evaluating right back. And sure, the way interviews are typically structured means that you won’t control the agenda as much as your interviewer does — but you absolutely can ask your own questions and collect your own data throughout.
That means, for example, that if your interviewer is asking a bunch of questions that strike you as odd — let’s say four different questions about your experience dealing with difficult colleagues — it’s perfectly fine (and I’d argue, necessary) for you to say, “You’ve asked a few questions about that. Is that something that the person in this role should expect to encounter a lot of challenges around?” It also means paying attention to everything you’re learning about the employer during the hiring process, from how organized and efficient (or chaotic or bureaucratic) they seem to how genuine their answers to your questions feel.
Taken one step further, it can help to realize the employer’s evaluation of you is in your best interests too. After all, you don’t want a job that your prospective boss thinks you’ll struggle in — that’s bad for your career and frankly miserable — so it’s to everyone’s advantage for you and your interviewer to put your heads together and figure out if this job is the right match. To feel good about doing that, you have to remove all the moral judgment from the equation. It’s not about whether you’re “good enough” or smart enough or impressive enough. It’s just about whether this particular job meshes well with your particular set of strengths. Maybe it doesn’t, and that’s okay! If so, let’s find that out now, rather than after you’re already working there.
In fact, try to think of the interview as a meeting between two prospective business partners, since that’s actually what it is. You’re getting caught up in the emotional dynamics of candidate/interviewer, but what if you thought of yourself as a consultant who is meeting with a prospective client, with both of you trying to determine if it makes sense to work together? The best interviews are collaborative business discussions — not one-way interrogations.
Beyond that, the most helpful thing you can do is to practice the crap out your interviewing skills. I’ve just binge-watched Cheer, and coach Monica Aldama’s framework is exactly what you want: “Practice until you get it right and then practice until you can’t get it wrong.” I know that sounds terribly tedious — and it probably will be — but it even if it doesn’t fix the problem entirely, it will significantly strengthen your interviews.
So: Spend time going through the job description line by line and coming up with examples from your work history that you can point to as evidence that you’d excel at the job — similar challenges you’ve tackled and what results you got, and specific successes you’ve had using the skills the job requires. Then spend time with some lists of common interview questions and practice saying your answers out loud, over and over. In particular, make sure to focus on questions that make you especially nervous. If you’re hoping you’re not asked why you left your last job or why you never finished your graduate degree, practice those answers even more than the rest until you’ve taken some of the dread out of them.
Don’t skimp on this step — really deliver your answers with the same wording you’d use in a real interview. You might feel foolish doing that alone in your bedroom, but practicing out loud can lodge your answers in your brain in a way that can become almost muscle memory when you’re in the actual interview.
You may never like interviews, but the more you can see them as collaborative fact-finding missions that are in your and the interviewer’s best interests, the better they’ll probably go.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.