How to Know When You Need a Break at a Professional Conference

How to Know When You Need a Break

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be writing this post. It’s a lot different than pretty much all of the others I’ve been seeing out there, and I didn’t think it would be received well. Not for any negative reasons, but because it was against the norm of what was experienced by others.

I started writing this more so for me, to be cathartic and get my thoughts down “on paper”. The plan was not to release or promote this.

Then a wise person urged me to go ahead and publish it. He said, “it might be different from others, but it is yours.”

So with that being said, here we go. This was my first FinCon experience.

Attitude is Everything

There is something to be said for having a positive attitude. For one, it makes life a heck of a lot easier when you see the glass as half full instead of half empty.

I’ve written in the past about the power of positive thinking and having faith in your own abilities. Of course, having confidence in yourself isn’t always easy. But it can be learned. And it can become a behavior that is honed, built upon, and improved.

The more work you put into it, the easier it gets. And the growth compounds from there—baby steps to feel better about yourself, your goals, and your overall purpose.

But what happens if you push too hard, go too far, lean a little too much into a world that you’re not quite ready for?

That’s when it’s best to know your limitations. Identify your triggers.

Because if and when that momentum begins to slow, you may start rolling backwards down that hill again.

And sometimes, instead of pushing yourself forward, you need to know when to take a break.

The Best of Intentions

You may or may not remember when I published this post. It essentially talked about finding your voice, going “all in” on whatever genuinely excites you, and absorbing as much knowledge as possible to propel yourself and your dreams forward.

The main gist was that you could do whatever you set your heart upon and have faith in your abilities.

I intended the post to be motivational and maybe a little bit inspirational to anyone teetering on the edge of something new.

Someone branching out in an alternative direction or wanting to make a bold and courageous life change.

Because I, myself, was headed out on an adventure.

I attended a conference to meet and connect with people I so desperately wanted to share an affinity with.

At any rate, there’s a point in my post that talks about friends and family being extraordinarily supportive & proud that I was facing my fears.

And to quote, there’s a specific part that goes:

“… I also wonder if any of them think I won’t go through with it. Like I’m biting off more than I can chew and should start with smaller baby steps.”

Any guesses on who felt that way? Where that random thought initially manifested? Because it wasn’t my friends or my family, they had complete confidence in me.

It was someone else. Yup, that was me. Or that little voice inside my head — my inner critic.

The one who questions my every move and sprinkles doubt on top of every positive thought that ever enters my mind.

Now that the conference is over, I’m seeing a ton of online cohorts posting about what they learned. How life-changing of an experience it was. And how broken-hearted they were to leave because they’d miss their new friends like nobody’s business.

And that makes me feel sad and defeated. And angry — with myself. Because I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the same monumentally positive experience everyone else had. I failed.

And believe it or not, I did try. I leaned into my discomfort until I was practically parallel with the floor. I volunteered to help out with the conference staff and maintained an open mind and accessible stance.

And I smiled because everyone says, “No matter what, you need to have a smile on your face, so people will know you’re approachable”.

I went to social gatherings that I never in a million years would have willingly attended. But I still failed.

Because at the end of the week, I didn’t feel any more enlightened or inspired, or like I’d made insane professional connections or found “my people”.

I just wanted to go home. I missed my family, dogs, bed, and “normal”. And that made me feel just awful — because it was entirely my doing.

Over-Stimulation and Overwhelm

Let me clarify —

Every single person I encountered at the conference was amazing. From the conference staff to every attendee I had the pleasure of crossing paths with.

Everyone was kind and helpful, and encouraging. No one was mean, or dismissive, or condescending. The problem was with me. Internally. I was inside my head every single second of every single day. And it sucked.

I’ve written before about my social anxiety. Unfortunately, it sometimes complicates things with my career progression, social life and relationships.

But when I decided to go “all in” and attend FinCon, I thought the hardest part was behind me. I had made my decision to attend, and I was committed. Anything beyond that would be “mind over matter”, and I could “will” the social anxiety away.

After all, the negative thoughts and feelings were all in my head, right? So as long as I knew that, I could convince myself that it didn’t matter. Surely once I accepted this logic, the anxiety would just disappear.

Especially since back home, I had entire groups of people cheering me on. So proud that I was stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new. They were waiting on pins and needles to hear how my experience had been. Messaging and texting me to make sure I was having a wonderful time — and that I would promise to reach out if I started to falter.

But I couldn’t do it — I couldn’t ask for help because I didn’t want to admit defeat. And didn’t want to let them down.

This should have been a big moment for me — breaking out of my shell. I should’ve come home with a new outlook on what my fledgling “business” could potentially become.

But I pushed myself too far, didn’t heed the warning signs, and had to make a hasty retreat on multiple occasions.

 

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Sensory Overload

nerally used when there is too much of something; too many things are going on at once, an over-abundance of noise, energy or mental chaos.

Locations that are too loud or too busy — like a packed concert, bus station or conference hall. There are so many things going on at the same time, competing for your attention, that you just can’t focus.

This article does a great job of describing the effects of over-stimulation and sensory overload.

The world becomes overwhelming and intolerable, which leads to anxiety and stress. And there can be both mental and physical symptoms that manifest due to this stress level.

I can tell you for certain, my heart *appeared* to be beating out of my chest — for my entire trip, from start to finish. And yet, every single time I’d consult my handy little hot-pink FitBit, my heart rate was well within my normal range.

I noticed another physical symptom practically the entire week: a hyper-awareness, sort of like a “buzzing” in the mind and body. I was super-aware of every single minuscule noise or activity around me—kind of like being startled over and over again.

A level of stress and rush of adrenaline that never gets the chance to wind down. I remember laying in bed in the hotel room, wondering when and if my body would finally allow itself to relax when my mind would finally shut up and be quiet.

But I was operating on full throttle in this highly sensitive state. It just wasn’t happening.

Not sure what it means to be “highly sensitive”?

Dr. Elaine Aron is an expert in the field of high sensitivity. She presents an extremely helpful description of a highly sensitive person on her website, including a self-test.

Other physical symptoms:

  • Fight or flight response — either throwing a tantrum or heading for the hills
  • Panic attack
  • Muscle tension/nerve pain
  • Mood swings/emotional outbursts
  • Adverse effects to all five senses, including decreased (or no) appetite*
  • *Note: I lost 4.8 lbs that week, which I suppose could be considered one of the silver linings?? I was too nervous and agitated to eat a proper meal. Guess I should reconsider the next time I want to purchase the Food Pass — since I only showed up twice.

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Here are some known methods and general ways of dealing with over-stimulation and sensory overload:

  • Taking breaks often and as needed
  • Breathing exercises
  • Retreating to a quiet and comfortable place
  • Meditation, yoga or exercise
  • Learning, managing or avoiding your triggers

And here’s another great article on adults dealing with over-stimulation and sensory overload.

Are You All Talk, or Can You Walk the Walk?

One thing I can say for certain — I was definitely as prepared as I physically could’ve been for this trip.

I made packing lists. Wrote down questions to ask veteran attendees. Read books and articles on the art of small talk.

Learned how to be a “croissant” instead of a “bagel”. (Yep, I did buy that book.)

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I jotted down witty little one-liners to keep potential conversations moving.

And studied the online hotel layout, to identify conference room locations, as well as how to execute a quick getaway back up to my room.

So much time was dedicated to preparing for this trip that I thought I had every base covered.

And I did everything in my power to hype myself up and stay motivated to ensure a positive experience.

However, even with all of this preparation, I still had a massively difficult time feeling comfortable in my own skin.

“We believe that preparation eradicates cowardice, which we define as the failure to act in the midst of fear” – Divergent / Veronica Roth

Digging Deeper — What Does Any of This Mean?

So you may be wondering — what on earth is she talking about?

You might have even met me at some point during the conference and thought I was a pretty normal person.

This facade we all wear at some point or another — eventually, the mask comes off, and reality begins to seep in.

I’ve learned to do fairly well at meeting new people through the years, but not so great at keeping the conversation going. (Or so says, my inner critic)

But for those of you who are not highly familiar with what social anxiety does, here’s an example in a nutshell:

Meet a new person, make introductions, chat for a bit about what each of us does.

Awkward pause as we attempt to transition into another topic. Then the wheels in mind begin turning.

And the less glamorous thoughts start hammering their way in:

“This person doesn’t want to talk to you”, “they’re looking around for someone more interesting”, “you shouldn’t have come, you don’t belong here”, “you’re not like anyone else here”, “no one will remember you”,

“you’re too boring/ugly/old/broke/stupid/fat/low-class/high-maintenance.

Inconsequential. You. Don’t. Matter.”

Fun stuff, huh?

 

meditation mind words

 

Even though I didn’t appear this way on the outside, all of this junk was going on inside my head.

And at several points over the four days, I had mini-meltdowns, usually, after being in some social situation — like a mixer, an after-party, even the conference registration, when there were hundreds of people milling about in the hallways.

I pushed myself until that voice got so strong that I started to believe it. And I needed to escape. Typically to a nearby restroom, where I proceeded to lock myself in a stall and cry silently for roughly 20 minutes at a time.

I thought about texting a few friends from home. But I wasn’t ready for another pep talk. I also considered calling my partner to help me book the first flight out of there; but reconsidered, given the amount of money we had spent to send me on this trip.

At the end of the day (pretty much every day), I made it through by the grace of God. Also, with the numerous photos and snaps received of my two dogs.

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Not Your Average Drama Queen

Now you might be wondering why I’m even writing this. As I mentioned in the beginning, this post was initially for my eyes only. I did not intend on sharing this with anyone else.

But now, I feel my experience needs to come full circle to begin to improve. And please believe I am not a drama queen. I am not looking for attention, sympathy, or even new subscribers.

I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if I lost a few followers due to this post. Because I’m supposed to be writing about ways to save money, right?
The basis of social anxiety is not fishing for compliments or looking for attention. On the contrary, it’s quite the opposite — I would prefer to avoid any spotlight.

The point I want to make is that it’s okay not to be okay. But also, it’s not okay to ignore being not okay, thinking it will just go away.
(Still with me, with that one?)

Meaning: I shouldn’t have entirely ignored my social anxiety, thinking the entire conference would be sunshine, roses and buttercups.

 

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Not a photo of sunshine, roses or buttercups. But this picture made me happy.

I’m still proud of myself for attending FinCon and making it through to the end of the week.

But I wish I had taken more intentional breaks. Instead of forging forward into something I knew would be extremely difficult.

Will I be going to next year’s conference? Not sure at this point —  I would love to say yes (Does that surprise you?)

Or at least, I’d love to be able to enjoy it to its fullest and return with tons of stories of all the fun things that happened and all the incredible friends I made.

That will be a future goal. And needless to say, I have some work to do before even considering attending next year. The underlying issues have allowed this anxiety to take control of my life.

It’s not something that can be rationalized or wished away. It’s not mind over matter. But, there’s more to it than that.

What I Could’ve Done Differently

Here are some ways I could have better handled the situations I encountered during my trip:

  • Registration: Instead of heading down to register at the 12:00 pm opening, I could have waited an hour or two, for when it was less crowded
  • Social mixers: Avoid venues that were too packed or crowded; choosing outings that were either outdoors or had easy access to an exterior door (to step out and get a breath of fresh air)
  • General attendance: Finding a “buddy” to attend each session with, to feel less alone and vulnerable; pursuing hotel roommates, so I wouldn’t have to attend events solo (something I did contemplate but ultimately decided I’d rather have personal space)
  • Throughout the day: Taking a pulse check on how I was feeling. Gauging the level of anxiety on a 1-10 scale. Making a conscious decision to retire early if getting too close to the threshold
  • Pre- and post-conference: Continue to build and foster any online relationships, to feel a closer kinship to those I felt a connection with
  • Every day: Not beating myself up over what I was or wasn’t capable of doing in the moment

Here are some things I did do that helped me better handle my anxiety:

  • Pre-planning: Connected with a few fabulous ladies ahead of time and made plans to meet for a few of the events
  • Volunteer: Helped out the conference staff with registration and crowd control. This gave me actual tasks instead of focusing on my discomfort. I could get out of my head and concentrate on the goal each position required.
  • Relaxation: I took a mid-day nap on one of the days that I knew had back-to-back activity going into the evening
  • Retreat: I stayed in my hotel room and ordered room service on the last night of the conference, instead of attending the closing party. (But also sad I missed the dance party, which sounded like it was an absolute blast.)
  • Communicate: I found myself able to connect with a few attendees personally. This allowed me to share my feelings with them without judgment, which removed a huge weight from my shoulders.

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Final Thoughts

I would still like to be a part of the personal finance community.

And again, everything that I encountered during my trip had a root cause that started from deep within me.

Nothing that I’ve written reflects experiences specific to this particular conference.

In other words, if I had attended any other conference or event (away from home and entirely by myself), this still would have happened.

It’s just that I really wanted to do well at this conference. I wanted to meet people, make connections, and build authentic relationships.

I was able to gain some positives from this experience (in addition to the weight loss.)

I created friendships with a handful of people that I hope will continue. And as I mentioned above, they helped me get through some of the tough times I had been experiencing.

I also gathered the courage to introduce myself to someone I had been following online for some time. He was super-nice (as I knew he would be), and it was great to have an actual in-person conversation with him.

(There were four other people I had wanted to connect with, even to introduce myself. So yes, I chickened out — but hopefully, this is something I can remedy the next time around.)

In addition, I would like to thank every person who was kind to me over that week, who asked how I was doing, and who made a point to ease my discomfort.

Honestly, I had just met you folks, and it was not your job to look out for me. But you did, and for that, I am grateful!

You all know who you are — I have reached out to many of you — before, during and after the conference.

If You’re on the Fence About Attending a Future Event

The way I’d like to end this post is by saying this:

Don’t let fear hold you back. Don’t let anything (or anyone) dictate what you can accomplish with your life.

However, you do need to remain true to yourself. Take care of yourself. Don’t back yourself into a corner.

If there is something you want to do — there is absolutely no reason why you can’t work towards that goal. But be smart about it, and be mindful.

Taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can commit to. Regardless of where your friends or acquaintances are in life and what they’ve been able to accomplish. That’s their story, not yours.

Own your story. Do it your way. Don’t apologize for being you. And give yourself a break.

Your story may be different from others. But it’s yours.

Thanks for joining me, and hit me up in the comments with any thoughts you might have on this —

Robin