Interview with Dr. Maya Borgueta: How Ambitious People Overcome Anxiety and Burnout
Though I believe we are all born to thrive, I know there are days when that truth can feel like a lie, because of anxiety.
We experience anxiety more acutely when we most need our courage to brave a high-stakes conversation like negotiation.
In this valuable conversation with Dr. Maya Borgueta, a clinical psychologist and founder of Stella Nova Psychology, we explored:
- Why it's important to be prepared to know your worth at any time during job interview process
- What purpose anxiety serves
- Why it's not an emotion you need to avoid or push away
- How to manage your anxiety level in a simple, yet powerful way
- What self-compassion has to do with managing our anxiety
- How to recognize burnout
- Steps to take to address burnout
Learn more about Dr. Maya Borgueta on www.stellanovawomen.com
Full Episode Transcript
Hello! Welcome to Episode 39 of Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I’m your host and coach, Jamie Lee.
Usually, I start each podcast episode with a really chipper, “I believe we are all born to thrive!”
I do. I really do.
But I also recognize there are days when that can feel like a lie.
There are days when I wake up filled with a lot of anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, shame, and it doesn’t really feel like I am born to thrive. It feels more like I am born to crawl back to bed.
Ever have one of those days?
I think we all do. I think it’s the human condition. But if I’m wrong, please let me know. And if you never have days like that, I would love to hear about your life! Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I think we have days like that and I think that’s only human because our brains are hard-wired to seek out comfort and pleasure and safety. There’s a part of our brain that has never evolved from when we lived in caves and had to seek safety and comfort as if our life depended on it. As if our survival depended on it.
And so, yeah, there are days when it can feel like our brains are working against us, not for us. And I think that’s why mental health is so, so important. And on that topic, I have a very special guest.
My guest is Dr. Maya Borgueta. She is a clinical psychologist and founder of Stella Nova Psychology, a therapy group in downtown San Francisco that specializes in supporting professional women in their careers and in their personal lives.
Her practice focuses on supporting women in their 20s through 40s who work in tech, business and other industries, and the practice also strives to serve the needs of underrepresented groups like women of color. She has previously worked in a variety of settings, including university mental health, veterans’ affairs, rape crisis centers and, most recently, the health tech industry.
This conversation is going to be really useful for all of us who struggle with anxiety. I do. And I’m really interested and looking forward to learning about concrete ways we can help ourselves so that we can show up to brave uncomfortable conversations even when we have anxiety. We can do something to not let anxiety stop us from being courageous and taking the lead so that we can thrive.
So, without further ado, please enjoy this interview with Dr. Maya Borgueta.
Jamie: Hello! Dr. Maya?
Dr. Maya: Hi, Jamie! How are you?
Jamie: I’m doing great! Thanks so much for coming onto the podcast.
Dr. Maya: Thank you for inviting me. I’m glad to be here.
Jamie: Yeah! So, first thing, I’d love to hear about a negotiation in your life or career that had the biggest impact for you.
Dr. Maya: Sure. I was thinking about this recently, because a lot of my clients have been going through a salary negotiation process recently and I actually came to learning these salary negotiations, I think, a little bit late in the game. In my last job, actually. And previously, being a psychologist, I was in school for many years, I was applying for internships and practicum positions which just had a fixed salary. After that, I was working in universities where they had a fixed salary and you just kind of got set on the pay schedule and went up the ladder, kind of step by step, everybody was in the same position and then I transitioned to the private sector. I worked for a role at a mental health tech company, a startup.
So, my first salary negotiation happened at that last job and it happened really out of the blue. I didn’t know I was going into it. I was expecting to go through several steps before we got to the salary negotiation. I thought that I was going to interview and then I’d go home and if they wanted me, they’d call me and, you know, talk to me about salary then. And that’s not at all what happened.
So, I went in for the interview, and on that day I met with a bunch of people and last I met with the CEO of this tech startup and he basically said I had the job if I wanted it and asked what I wanted right then and I was not at all prepared to answer that question. So, I was winging it completely, which maybe was a good thing because I might have been a little anxious had I known I was going into a salary negotiation.
Jamie: So, he basically asked you to name your salary.
Jamie: Yeah. So, what did you say?
Maya: So, I dove in and I asked him...so, I’d been doing a little bit of contract work with the company before I was interviewing for this job and I asked him to match that hourly rate for my salary, which was a wild ask. It was way more than anything I could have possibly expected for the job. It would have made me probably one of the most high-paid people at the company. And he very quickly did the math in his head and told me that wasn’t gonna happen and he came back to me with, “Okay, well, what is your current salary at your job?” And at that time I was working at a university counseling center, so in college mental health, which is fun work but it is notoriously not paid well. So, he asked me what my current salary was and I answered truthfully, which was about $75,000 at that time and he said they were thinking of offering me something around that number.
Jamie: Quick question.
Jamie: Was this in California and how long ago was this?
Maya: It was in California and, let’s see, that was around 2015?
Jamie: Oh, okay.
Maya: Yeah, summer of 2015. So, I know that there’s laws now that you can’t ask that question.
Jamie: That’s right, that’s right.
Maya: Yes. But at that time, it was not off the table.
May: Yeah, so maybe I started off with a mistake there. I was caught off guard. So he said, “Okay, well, that’s around what we’re looking to offer you.” And so I countered that by telling him, truthfully, that I was also looking at other employment in the private sector at the time. Even thought this job was, by far, my first choice, I was looking at other jobs at that time and I told him that I would be able to make closer to, you know, around $90,000 in other jobs that I was looking at, so that that $75,000 was not a good point of comparison for me as I was thinking about making financial decisions about my next job.
Jamie: Right, yeah. And then, where did you settle?
Maya: So, we settled on that. We settled on $90,000, which I was very happy about at the time. I actually did end up re-negotiating my salary about a year later. I learned that my salary was still below what was considered median for a psychologist in this area here. It can vary quite a bit around the country, as many jobs do, but it was below median, so I was able to re-negotiate that again.
Jamie: Great job! So, what did you take away from that experience? What was your lesson?
Maya: So, my lesson was that it is a valuable thing, always, to be prepared to know and discuss your financial worth confidently. Even though I wasn’t expecting to have that conversation that day, I think I could have set myself up for a better discussion. It ended up turning out well for me in the end but I think about it actually a lot like another concept that I discuss with my therapy clients a lot, which is setting boundaries. I tell them, you can’t set boundaries with other people until you have a clear idea of what you yourself need. And I think it’s similar with your salary. You can’t negotiate your salary without having a firm understanding going into it of what you need and what you can accept.
Jamie: I couldn’t agree more. I think how you negotiate one thing is how you negotiate other things in your life and, you know, salary negotiation is just an extreme example of setting those boundaries. Like you’re saying, “This is the work I will do for x amount of money,” right? Yeah. Great lesson and great story! Earlier this week, I gave a webinar about how to anchor and basically, you ended up anchoring at an extremely high place and your to-be employer set a new anchor and then you effectively broke the extremely low anchor by countering, saying, “I am also looking at other jobs and I’m looking to make $90,000,” so, well done! This is a great story and a great lesson to take away.
So, as a psychologist, I’d love to hear about how you approach and explain anxiety. You know, for me, anxiety is something that I deal with on a daily basis, and I think anxiety is something that comes up when everyone, like a lot of people, when they think about negotiating, there’s just anxiety there in the top of their mind. So, I’d love to hear, in your expert point of view, what we can do to manage it.
Maya: Sure, absolutely. So, anxiety, as you’ve already said, it’s a really common concern for people. It’s actually, I think, the number one issue that my clients in my practice come to talk to me about. And we don’t all experience anxiety disorders but virtually everybody experiences anxiety that comes up in certain situations. And experiencing anxiety says nothing, actually, about your ability or about your competence. The clients that I work with, in particular, are really high-functioning, intelligent women. They’re accomplished and ambitious professional people, so I just want to point that out to bust a little bit of the stigma around there.
Jamie: Yeah, and it can feel like the truth when your anxiety is saying things like oh, you can’t do it, blah blah blah.
Maya: Oh my goodness, yes!
Jamie: And I call my voice the Itty Bitty Shouldy Committee.
Maya: I love that, yes. That’s exactly true. And we tend to think of anxiety as an emotion, which it absolutely is, but it’s also a really complex series of physiological responses that we have in our bodies whenever we are anticipating something to be potentially threatening or potentially dangerous. And our body doesn’t really distinguish between threats like messing up an interview and being embarrassed or something that’s actually physically dangerous, like you’re getting mugged, right?
So, when we’re headed into a scary-feeling negotiation, we’re actually, in our bodies, experiencing a low-level or sometimes a full-blown fight or flight response. And actually, we now know that that fight or flight response that most people are familiar with is actually fight, flight or freeze. So, if you’ve ever experienced freezing up when you’re in a moment of anxiety, feeling like you can’t think or you can’t talk or your brain is just on pause…
Jamie: Or crawling back to bed.
Maya: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, so, in your body, when you’re anxious, what types of feelings do you usually have?
Jamie: When I’m feeling anxious, I feel nervous. I feel shame in advance.
Maya: Mmm, yeah, absolutely. That anticipation.
Jamie: Yeah, yeah. I have this anxiety around public speaking. Even though I do it all the time, the anxiety still comes up every single time. And I would say it’s that the heart is beating really fast, like you talked about, the flight or fight response. There’s a temptation to be like, “Uhhhh, I don’t know if I can do it,” you know?
Maya: Yeah, yeah, so your heart races, you get that, maybe, sometimes when I feel really anxious I feel a little bit short of breath. Especially when I’m talking, like I can’t really catch my breath. A lot of people feel it as stomach upset, so, you know, nausea or just cramps in your stomach or, you know, that butterfly feeling.
Jamie: That’s right.
Maya: It’s really, really common. And I like to point out, you’re saying you get a little bit of anxiety every time you go to speak. A little bit of anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. A little bit of anxiety can actually be helpful for performance. If we’re not at all anxious, maybe we don’t prepare as well, right? You know, a little bit of anxiety can make you go the extra mile as you’re getting ready. In the moment, it can improve your alertness and it can give you a boost of energy, too. So, a little bit of anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. Too high anxiety in the moment can really be paralyzing and particularly if you’ve ever had a panic attack, that’s a really acute high level of anxiety. You really can’t function at all. So there’s a wide range of what anxiety can look like, right?
Maya: So, when I’m working with a client, my goal, I always tell them at the beginning, to kind of set expectations around this and normalize that anxiety is an okay emotion to have. My goal is never to eliminate anxiety completely or make anxiety the enemy. It’s to turn the volume down so that your anxiety’s not up at a 10. You want your anxiety maybe to be at a 3 or even a 4. That’s a level that most of us can still function perfectly well at.
Jamie: Yeah, yeah, that’s a really interesting point. In an earlier episode, I was having a conversation with a career coach and she made the distinction between confidence and courage and I think there’s this kind of a myth about the very confident person who shows up with zero anxiety, zero fear but in reality there’s always gonna be a little bit of anxiety and, in fact, what I’m hearing is that it actually can serve a really great purpose in helping you to prepare, be alert, do your best.
Maya: Yeah. Anxiety is, like all of our emotions, actually, it’s an evolved response and it’s evolved in humans because it helps us. If you think about your health, if you had zero anxiety you probably wouldn’t do routine things like getting your pap smear or your physical. I’m out in California, so the example that always comes to mind is a little bit of anxiety is going to get you to build your earthquake kit so that you’re prepared, right?
Jamie: Yeah. What if you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of like 8 or 9 right before you engage in a high-stakes conversation like salary negotiation?
Maya: Yeah, absolutely. And I think salary negotiation is definitely one of those situations that can trigger that level of anxiety for a lot of people. So, in that moment, I think doing something to ground yourself can be really helpful. I really love, one thing that works for me and that I actually pull out as a tool when I’m finding my anxiety creeping up, anywhere from, I get a little nervous on planes when there’s turbulence, I do it when I’m on a turbulent airplane ride, I do it before I go to the dentist, and I do it before I get on stage or go up to do speaking as well. It’s something called box breathing. Have you heard of it before?
Jamie: Yes, I have heard of it before.
Maya: Yeah, so the idea behind it is that when you’re in a state of anxiety, your nervous system is really overactivated, so it’s a way to calm down your nervous system. And it’s really simple and the idea is just that you are taking some nice, slow breaths but you’re doing it in a really specific way. It’s called box breathing because you are going to inhale to a count of four, hold that breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold the breath out for a count of four. And when I do it, I find that even doing that for like four or five cycles of breath can be enough to really, dramatically change how I’m feeling. It sounds simple and it is simple, actually, but it’s really effective and so I love having a tool like that for going into something that I know will be challenging.
Jamie: I read about it in Brene Brown’s book and I remember doing it, doing the box breathing as I was walking to work because the thought of going into work, into the office was creating anxiety for me, yeah.
Maya: Yeah, definitely, and that’s one of the nicest things about it is it’s a tool that you can literally do anytime, anywhere. I’ve done it during meetings before. Nobody has to know you’re doing this thing to manage your anxiety. It’s really kind of a stealth anxiety management tool.
Jamie: Yeah, and I love that it’s something that is so easy and it’s just breathing, but breathing in a very conscious and deep way, intentional way. Yeah, that’s very powerful.
Maya: Yeah, and I remember hearing Brene Brown actually talking about that. She learned about it from people in the military. They actually are trained, they don’t call it box breathing, they call it tactical breathing, but they do it as a way to center themselves, even in a combat situation. So, it’s used really everywhere from the military to yoga studios.
Jamie: Wow. And I know you recently gave a talk at Bullish Conference about self-compassion for ambitious people and I would love to hear from you, what is the connection there?
Maya: Sure, sure. So, I have become a little bit of an evangelist about self-compassion with the ambitious professional women that I work with and before I get into the anxiety connection, just to tell you a little bit about self-compassion and what it is and how I think about it: the reason that I ended up developing this talk which I’ve had the opportunity to give in a few different places at this point is that I was noticing this thread coming up again and again with my clients and also myself, for that matter, the tendency to be really hard on ourselves. And even really accomplished, competent, ambitious women were struggling with really impossibly standards for themselves, harsh self-criticism, stuff that we [audio drops] goes on with people in our lives that we care about.
So, to give an example of this, you could imagine watching your best friend just blow a presentation that she’s worked really hard on for the past week, for past six weeks. Everything’s gone wrong. She’s tripped up, she’s forgotten things, she’s given misinformation. Most of us, in that situation, we would really, deeply cringe for her, right? It would be painful to watch. But we’d also comfort her. We’d remind her that she’s still awesome, that she’ll get the next one. We might actually even also help her figure out what actions she needs to take to move forward, right? Maybe she needs more practice, maybe she needs to talk to a therapist about her performance anxiety that might be getting in the way, right? What we generally don’t do with our best friend who’s messed up in this way is we generally don’t call her a loser. We generally don’t tell her she’s never gonna amount to anything or that she’s worthless or that she’s nothing but an embarrassment.
Jamie: Ooh! Good one! Yes! You hit it on the head right there.
Maya: But the thing is that when the tables are turned, when it’s us that’s made the mistake, it’s exactly what we do. We tell ourselves we’re idiots, we’re losers, we’re stupid, we obsess over the situation and we can play it over and over again in our heads.
Jamie: Yep. Been there. Done that.
Maya: Yeah. I think it’s really relatable. When I did this talk for the first time in San Francisco, I was actually just like kind of putting it out there. I put some tickets up on EventBrite. I was like, I don’t know if people will come to this, but worth giving it a try. I was just starting to build my practice. It sold out in three days. I didn’t do any paid marketing, I just posted in a few Facebook groups. And it resonated so deeply because it’s something that I think is so, so very common.
So, basically, self-compassion is the practice of treating ourselves with the same care and kindness that we would treat somebody we loved. It doesn’t mean that we’re coddling but we are supporting and encouraging and offering empathy and kindness to ourselves. Even and especially when we’ve messed up.
Jamie: Yes. So powerful.
Maya: Yeah, so bringing it back to your original question about anxiety, what does this all have to do with anxiety? Well, one thing is that you can imagine that your self-critic can cause a ton of anxiety. It’s obviously anxiety-provoking to be hearing you’re not smart enough for this, you absolutely can’t mess this up, or everybody thinks you’re an idiot, right? Anybody would be anxious hearing somebody telling us that, whether it was somebody outside or ourselves telling us that same message. So, when we learn how to calm that inner critic and quiet that inner critic it can really be helpful for soothing our anxiety.
Jamie: And I think the first step is just recognize that this is the voice of the inner critic. It’s not me. We tend to over-identify with our own thoughts, so being able to make that distinction, oh that’s just the inner critic. That’s just the part of my brain that talks to me like that. Nothing’s actually gone wrong.
Maya: Yeah, exactly. You know, you were saying before about anxiety how when you’re in the middle of it it just feels true. It feels like all your anxious thoughts are true. I think we can have that same kind of distortion around our inner critic that because it’s being harsh, it’s the unblemished, objective truth and that if we think anything else, we’re just deluding ourselves. But really, having a negative bias on how we look at ourselves is just as harmful, if not more harmful, than having an overly positive filter.
Jamie: Yeah, and I love the self-compassionate way, because compassion just means to be with, right? And so it takes being able to recognize and acknowledge it, not push it away or reject it, but like, okay, I have these thoughts in my head. These are just thoughts. For that reason, I always advise my clients, what I do all the time is write down the stressful thoughts, the anxious thoughts, like you’re not gonna amount to anything, you didn’t do a good job, or whatever. You’re a loser.
Maya: Exactly! So, you know, if you were noticing that you were anxious, either, you know, some people are more tuned in with their body, it’s easier for them to kind of first recognize that they’re feeling anxious, because they notice that their heart’s racing and their palms are sweating and they’re feeling a little shaky. Other people are really heady and might notice that they’re really just ruminating on an anxious thought. Whatever your personal kind of red flags are that, ooh, this sounds like anxiety, this sounds like my self-critic, it’s a signal to yourself to check in and take a pause and see what you need in that moment. Self-compassion is figuring out what is good and helpful for you in the moment.
Jamie: Excellent. Yeah, so I have one more question about this.
Jamie: So, I know that anxious people, anxious people who are very ambitious, we also tend to burn ourselves out because we listen to that inner critic that says you gotta do and do and do and do more.
Jamie: So, I’m curious to hear, what are some ways, some strategies that you advise your clients take to avoid burnout?
Maya: Yeah, so burnout is a really specific type of exhaustion. It’s one that we get, mental and physical exhaustion, when we’re under chronic stress and it seems to be a theme in our conversation today but we don’t always realize that we’re in the middle of it. So, the first step is to be able to recognize that that’s happening for you. It’s something for me, as a psychologist, that I’ve had to work at because I think, you know, those of us that are in caregiving types of professions can burnout and experience compassion fatigue at really high rates.
So, you know, signs that I look for to recognize when I’m burnt out is if I’m feeling tired all the time. Even when I’m getting enough sleep, I still have that bone-deep exhaustion. Another sign that can come up is feeling cynical or pessimistic or maybe even resentful about some kind of project that you really care about, something that you’re working on. If I find myself getting unusually annoyed at my clients, that’s a sign to me that I’m burnt out. And another one that is, I think, particularly relevant to those of us who identify as being ambitious, professional women is we can lose confidence in ourselves and also find it really hard to enjoy our success and kind of discounting that.
So, that’s step one. Recognizing that you’re in the middle of it. And the next step is figuring out what needs to change in the structure of your day-to-day life. A lot of people kind of jump from oh, I’m burned out, I need to take a vacation. And a vacation can be a wonderful first step, but just taking a vacation does not solve burnout. I think we’ve all had the experience of going on vacation and it is lovely and it’s heavenly for a week and you think, “Ugh, I’m gonna go back to work and I’m never gonna be stressed again. I’m just gonna imagine myself back on this beach.” And you get back to work and your emails have piled up and maybe your boss is still a jerk, or maybe there’s still too much work to get through in your work day and you’re there until 9PM. And nothing has changed and you’re right back to square one and maybe even more underwater now that you’re back from a vacation. So, take a vacation, I am not anti-vacation, but you need to think about what needs to change in a bigger way in your life.
Maya: Yeah. Are you making space for your self-care basics? Do you have enough time for food? Are you getting routine medical care? Are you making time to get enough sleep to be fully rested? Not just enough to function, but to be rested. Are you exercising? Are you getting social time? All of those things are non-negotiables. And maybe we need to set boundaries in our life or delegate some of our responsibilities if we’re not able to make time for that.
Jamie: You’re giving me a lot to think about here.
Maya: Sure. What stands out for you?
Jamie: It’s thinking bigger. It’s not just about quick fixes but structurally, how are you designing your career? How are you operating in your life? I think those are the bigger questions that you’re helping to raise for me. Thank you!
Maya: Absolutely. And I think it can be helpful to think about what is your personal mission statement. Or what are your core values? What really matters to you in your life and are you getting to engage with that stuff in your normal day-to-day?
Maya: If the answer is you’re not doing that much, then if you want to reduce your burnout, you also need to find a way to fit things you’re passionate about into your life. And it seems a little counterintuitive, right? Add something new in when you’re already burnt out? But those are the things that energize us. We need rest for energy but we also need kind of emotional energy that we get from doing things that are really meaningful.
Jamie: I think for me it’s the constant thinking about work.
Maya: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. I’m a psychologist but I’m also an entrepreneur and building a new business and I’m in the process of hiring employees and we’re getting ready to move into a new office and there’s always something new on the table and that has been something that’s a struggle. Putting work down at the end of the day.
Jamie: Yeah. It’s mental hygiene.
Maya: Exactly. We need to take care of our mental health as much as our physical health.
Jamie: I love that even those of us who work with people and help other people, like you and me, we still gotta do our own work.
Maya: Absolutely. You know, I think it can even be harder sometimes. One of the downsides to being a person who loves to help other people and who really gets joy out of being able to help people reach their goals is we can lose sight of our own and there has to be that balance. Because, you know the saying, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Jamie: Exactly. This has been such a valuable conversation and I’m really getting a lot of insights for me. Thank you. Where can people go to learn more about you and the work that you do?
Maya: Absolutely. So, you can go to my private practice website, which is stellanovawomen.com and that is the website for my therapy practice in downtown San Francisco where I focus on serving the needs of professional women to care for their own mental and emotional health. And you can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter @stellanovawomen.
Jamie: Okay! Dr. Maya, thanks again for your valuable time. I have some things to follow up now after this conversation and I look forward to hearing more about the wonderful work that you do at stellanovawomen.com.
Maya: Okay! Thank you so much, Jamie. It was really wonderful talking to you.
Jamie: Bye bye!
Maya: Bye bye!