your next move

‘I’m Terrified of Making Even Tiny Mistakes at Work’

A woman with long brown hair stares anxiously down at a cell phone in her right hand. A laptop is open on the desk in front of her.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Hi Kimberly,

I feel like even the smallest mistakes at work are treated as mountains instead of molehills, and as a result I get incredibly anxious any time I make one (and I don’t even make many!). I’m the social media person for a relatively known organization, so a lot of people see my work, but usually any mistakes are the result of back-end glitches or easily fixable issues that our audience doesn’t even notice. Still, because everything is so front-facing, I’m being held to a standard of perfection, and now I freak out when I fall short because I know it will be held against me come performance review time. I like my job and the thing is, I am great at it 99 percent of the time, I swear! But it seems as if the one percent is what matters more. Am I just not a good fit after all? How can I navigate feeling like I’m on a tightrope every time I clock in?

Feeling pressure to perform to a certain standard of excellence is a very common source of anxiety in the workplace, especially if your work is client or customer facing. In many work environments, management looks for a scapegoat when a mistake happens, which can create unnecessary pressure to be perfect and quickly lead to burnout.

But making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process, and even the most experienced professionals can screw up. You are not the sum of all of your mistakes in the workplace. As you mentioned, your audience may not even notice the back-end glitches or other issues you can easily fix. It’s important to give yourself some grace and recognize that perfection is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, focus on doing your best and learning from any mistakes you do make. Creating something as simple as a posting checklist may help you catch errors before you post publicly.

It’s also worth discussing your concerns about how heavily your mistakes are being weighed with your direct manager. It’s possible they’re not aware of the pressure you’re feeling, and they may be able to provide you with some support. Set up a conversation outside your normal cadence of one-on-ones and come prepared with some context. Take note of three times when you did something incredible for the organization, and three times when you made a mistake. It’s important to approach this conversation with a solution-focused mind-set, so ensure you include which lessons you learned from those mistakes and how you’ve adjusted things that are in your control in order to mitigate future errors. I recommend candidly sharing your experience while leaning on your track record of success. The anxiety of conversations like this can leave you rambling, so make sure you allow time for your manager to reply.

Think about which anxiety-coping strategies may be helpful to you. During my time in corporate America, my office was located near the water. I would block off time on my calendar before or after tense meetings to grab my favorite drink at a local shop and take a quick walk along the water to recenter myself. It was something small, but it significantly helped with my workplace anxiety. I’m also a huge fan of apps like Calm for guided meditation. Even five minutes of meditation can help you better manage the emotions that make you feel like you’re walking on a tightrope and lead to overwhelm.

It sounds like you’re doing an incredible job, so you shouldn’t be questioning whether you’re a great fit for the role. However, it may be worth contemplating the level of stress the role puts you under. I believe that a certain level of work stress is normal, especially as you begin to grow in your role and have more influence, power, and autonomy. But you have to determine how much stress is too much for you. If this anxiety is beginning to negatively impact how you perform your job or your life outside work, it may be helpful to speak to a mental-health professional. They can help you develop strategies to manage the anxiety and give you additional resources and support. Your company may even have complimentary (and confidential!) sessions available through an employee-assistance program.

Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move, here, every other Wednesday. Have a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here.) Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here.

‘I’m Terrified of Making Even Tiny Mistakes at Work’