Take a minute to think back to the last several emails you sent. Who were they to? What did they say? Were you anxious before, during, or after writing them? Were they assertive and concise, or far from it?
If you’re like many of my clients, most of the emails you write are probably work-related. Something I’ve noticed in my therapy practice is that anxious millennials – especially women – have been taught to soften and sweeten their professional emails so much that they become even more anxious. This is just one factor that can reinforce what’s called email anxiety, which is anxiousness around sending and receiving emails.
So what is email anxiety, and where does it come from? Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes, and what you can do to cope.
Opening, reading, and sending out emails can cause a huge stress response in some people, with all the typical symptoms of anxiety: racing thoughts, hammering heart, sweating, and restlessness. Email anxiety is real, but it’s not often talked about.
Most millennials grew up using email occasionally but then made a switch to other, more immediate forms of communication: things like AOL Instant Messenger (anyone else remember AIM?), then texting, then messages on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and now dating apps. All of these modes of communication had quick response rates from all parties and were often very informal.
However, it’s almost impossible to avoid email in the workplace. With a few notable exceptions (such as seasonal positions or working in the service industry), email is an inescapable part of many people’s workday. If you’re a millennial woman, you’re especially likely to have been taught mixed messages about how to communicate. You likely learned that in order to be palatable, you needed to be sweet and friendly all the time. You also probably learned that your worth was tied to your ability to make others happy, which turned you into a people-pleasing machine. If you’re like many of my clients, assertive communication feels scary and mean.
However, you’ve also probably been told to be more direct and to ask for what you want. You may have heard contradictory advice, like…
Be formal, but not stuffy.
Be forward, but don’t be abrupt.
Be assertive, but not rude.
Ask for what you need, but in a way that makes it seem like it was their idea.
All of this mainstream advice is conflicting and confusing. It can make it feel impossible to simply communicate with someone else without second-guessing how it came off. With email, especially in a professional setting, there are an impossible number of ever-changing rules to follow. It’s enough to make anyone anxious.
Mixed messages about how we as women are told how we’re supposed to be communicating is just one reason for email anxiety. Here are some other reasons you might find yourself asking, “Why does email make me anxious?”
As I mentioned above, there’s a lot of pressure on women to be perceived by others as nice, friendly, sweet, caring, and accommodating. There’s obviously nothing wrong with any of these characteristics, but they can turn into people-pleasing and become a problem. Softening emails with modifiers (just, only, etc) and adding things like smiley faces and exclamation points is actually taught in some workplaces. This style of communication can keep you from speaking up or setting boundaries. Instead, it often reinforces passiveness, people-pleasing behaviors, and anxiety.
Email inboxes can be places of utter chaos and overstimulation – especially if you have lots of emails to respond to regularly or if you have ADHD. Most people don’t enjoy spending time replying to emails, because it can feel like a bottomless and all-consuming task. Instead of managing your inbox, it can be easy to fall into avoidance behaviors – not replying, not deleting, and just watching in horror as they continue to pile up, unanswered – which naturally increases anxiety.
Should you keep it casual or formal? Should you err on the side of short and boring or risk sounding like a hopped-up sorority girl? How are you supposed to address the receiver of your email? These questions can be hard enough to answer in the simplest of contexts. When there are other factors at play, such as engaging with someone you’re intimidated by or don’t particularly like, anxiety can increase even more. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll probably fret even more about what you should say and whether it sounds good enough.
Things like tone and humor are often completely lost through written text, especially in a format like email. This can ramp up your anxiety, especially if you tend to ruminate and worry about things you’ve said. You also might spend a lot of time wondering what someone else meant by what they said. Was that person being condescending or genuine with that comment? Are they mad at you or were they just being concise? It can be impossible to tell.
When you struggle with anxiety, having to wait long periods of time between sending an email and receiving a response can be excruciating. This depends on context, of course, and is especially true when your subject matter feels vulnerable or scary. You may read into the amount of time it takes for someone to respond and worry it means something personal.
To soothe your anxieties around email, it’s helpful to first understand what the underlying worry is. Does your anxiety stem from overwhelm or from problems with tone? Is it stressful because of your tendency for people-pleasing or perfectionism? Maybe all the of the above?
When you understand what’s really going on for you, then you can start to figure out ways to manage the anxiety. For example, if you struggle with overwhelm, you may need to unsubscribe to unnecessary newsletters or commit to daily bite-sized chunks of time for email replies.
If you struggle with perfectionism or people-pleasing, you probably need to practice setting boundaries and heal underlying beliefs about your worth and productivity in order to ease your email anxieties.
If you feel helpless against using one hundred exclamation marks and emojis in each email you send, you may need to practice using more assertive communication.
All of these changes can be uncomfortable and difficult. Struggling with anxiety in your life in any area, including email, can be a lot to manage. You don’t have to deal with it alone. If you want extra support, I’m here to help. I offer online therapy in Idaho and Iowa and coaching services wherever you’re located for anxious clients who struggle with things like people-pleasing, perfectionism, burnout, overwhelm, and ADHD.
Reach out today and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.