Notes to My Future Manager Self

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORRA AARONS MELE: Welcome to season three of The Anxious Achiever, the show where we look at stories from leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. I’m your host, Morra Aarons Mele. I first got to know today’s guest through her writing. At the height of the stress of coronavirus this summer, the Black Lives Matter movement took over the national consciousness like never before, and it’s still playing out today. It likely will be for some time, as managers, workers, and everyone with the careers grappling with the ways they’re affected by race, either as perpetrators of stereotypes, the status quo, and unfair systems or as those who feel the effects of bias and racism.

All that’s to say, I’m still thinking about the piece that I read by Priska Neely, her article, “I Don’t Need Your Check-in Texts.” But like all of us, Priska isn’t just thinking about one thing all day at work. She’s a new first-time manager with a big new job. And she’s someone who works hard to articulate feelings and encourage others to do so. And she has, unfortunately, also felt the burden of being the only. For those of you who heard our episode on The Anxiety of the “Only” in season one. You’ll already know about the anxiety of being the only person of color or a woman or anything else in a room. It’s difficult to be an only, and it’s a difficult burden to explain to people and the majority, why their behavior needs to change.

And because we’re all just people after all, and we are all constantly saying things that set others off even when we don’t mean to, workplaces are rife with lots and lots of unexpressed feelings. So, Priska can help us wade through all of this. She’s skilled at asking herself this question at work and turning it into good change. “How did this interaction make me feel and how can I do something different next time?” It’s just one piece of management advice from this new manager, that I took away from our conversation. Tell us about your new job and why it’s a big step into a different direction for a reporter like you.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a small child and I’ve always been drawn to leadership, and I’ve been thinking a lot about working in the South in particular. My parents are both from the South and I’ve only really worked in big coastal cities. And I think that it’s a real responsibility to tell stories in this part of the country that may not be covered in the same way, all the time. And so, it’s a really exciting opportunity. It’s a job that’s looking to build collaboration between the NPR stations that are in Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So, to increase the regional coverage here and also get more stories from this region, nationally on NPR.

MORRA AARONS MELE: And one of the things that I thought was kind of awesome and also unusual as we spoke earlier, was that you said that you had always wanted to be in management, you wanted to manage people, which is, I think, something that we’re almost not used to hearing people say, especially very highly skilled craftspeople who are so excellent at their craft and have honed it, and to say, “Well, actually, no, I want to manage a whole bunch of stuff and all that mess.” It sort of took me aback.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that people have talked to me a lot over the years, when I was pursuing different leadership programs, and people would say, “Do you want to focus more? You’re really good on-air, do you want to focus more on a hosting track?” I really just had to do, I guess, an audit of what gives me joy. And even when I would be working on a story or a series that was really impactful, like if an intern asked me for help or if a new reporter was brought on and I was helping to onboard them, I would just really get this rush from doing that, from helping other people, from training people and helping other people do their best work. And I think, so much of management is really just about communication.

PRISKA NEELY: And I think that I have those skills to be able to just have conversations, to treat people as people and not just only thinking about, like budgets and stories, but thinking about people and their goals and how to help them grow. That’s part of what I’ve always craved. And I’ve seen it lacking in a lot of the spaces that I’ve worked in. So, I’m really excited to finally… to have this opportunity. I think it’s a little harder when you’re a younger person and you’re telling people, from the beginning, that you want to do that. And they’re like, “Okay, cool. Well, you got to do a bunch of other stuff first.” The interest is a huge thing because so many people are getting to management positions just by default or reluctantly, just because they’ve been doing something a long time.

MORRA AARONS MELE: I mean, that’s what I think is interesting, and tying this all back to the show, I think that part of the reason why work makes so many people anxious is because, a lot of managers may not want to be managers, because it’s hard and communication is hard, and they’d just rather be out doing their thing. And so, I actually love that you’re sort of bringing light to the art of management, and I don’t think it should be something that if you just last long and pay your dues, you get rewarded by, like, a big office and a higher paycheck because if that’s not what you want to do, no one’s going to be happy.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. And I think, when you’re working for someone and you can tell that they really just miss getting their hands dirty and making the thing, it affects how you do your work. You can tell when someone doesn’t really want to do it. So, I think it is kind of a slightly unpopular path that I’ve chosen, and I had to think a lot about what it would mean to not be on the radio anymore, especially as a Black woman in public radio. And I’ve done a lot of really important reporting on Black maternal health and things like that. And people have been so excited to have me in the field and being able to collect those stories. So, it was a big decision to think about leaving that and transitioning. But ultimately, I just feel like I can have a greater impact, hopefully, in helping to train people and validate people and get their stories on the right track so that there can be more people doing what I’ve been able to do.

MORRA AARONS MELE: Mm-hmm. I first learned about you… I don’t live in California and I didn’t hear you so much on the radio, but I read some of your writing, especially, writing that you wrote earlier in 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement really reached, again, the forefront of the consciousness around George Floyd’s death. And you wrote about your experience of white people coming to you to check-in and say, “They were so sorry, you must be going through so much. What could they do?” And you wrote about it was overwhelming. You wrote that, basically… I think one of your articles was called, I don’t need your check-in text. And I have to admit, Priska, that made me… I read it in the cut, and I seized up because I had sent quite a few check-in emails myself, and texts to Black colleagues and friends. And I thought, “Oh God, I’ve done this wrong.” And-

PRISKA NEELY: Well, you’re not alone.


PRISKA NEELY: After the piece came out, I got another wave of apologizing for the check-in texts. And I was like, “Oh dear, this was not the goal.” This is really like a public service because it was happening so much, and it was just sparking this rage within me. And I was talking to other Black friends and they were hearing from people they hadn’t heard from. I mean, I understood where it was coming from, I understood the intention, but the result and how it felt to be on the receiving end of that, it just wasn’t helpful.

MORRA AARONS MELE: I totally… When I read your piece, it was so… after I got over my own personal shame and anxiety, it was so clarifying and I, so instantly, saw that and it made so much sense and it was just very clear. And I also got the sense though, of the sort of weight that you felt, and in other writing that you’ve done as an only, often. We did a show last year that was one of my favorite shows ever, called, The Anxiety of the “Only”, and you’ve expressed that a lot, that you are often the only, or one of very few, especially Black leaders, Black senior people, reporters, and public media. And that just puts a tremendous mantle on your shoulders.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. It’s definitely pressure. And it was interesting with the check-in text. I had conversations with a couple of Black people, and I was asking them if they were getting these texts and they were like, “No. I don’t know anyone who would do that.” And I was like, “Right. It’s because I work in public radio and I went to NYU. I know a lot of white people.” And I was like, “Yeah. I guess it could be a different experience based on what circles you’re in.” But it did feel like, especially because I was often the only Black woman in the spaces that I’m in, it did feel like there was that aha moment, like, “Oh my God Priska is Black. Just realized that this week.” When it’s like, “This has been going on for me the whole time, this experience.” And in the reporting that I’ve done about Black maternal health issues, I was so glad that I was able to tell those stories in a thoughtful, nuanced way, that I was able to connect with people as a Black woman. It can often be a burden. And I think it’s also a burden for me too, like when I was walking away from that job, reporting in Los Angeles, it was like, “Wow. If I leave, who will tell these stories? Who is going to think about these stories in the way that I did?

MORRA AARONS MELE: Did you feel like you had to answer that question?

PRISKA NEELY: I just felt like a lot… Not like guilt, exactly. But I had to tell all of my sources personally. It was really exciting because I had this big group of Black women in LA who were working, were so excited. And I just felt like I could be letting them down or that they would be really upset to not have me as that reporter that they knew they could go to when things were coming up around those issues. When you are a reporter who’s Black and you think about stepping away from that to do something else, it has been like a weight, like, “No. If I’m gone, who will do this?” But that’s why I’ve come. It’s like, there are going to be more people feeling that way and feeling that weight and that burden until there are more people in leadership.

MORRA AARONS MELE: I would love you to talk a little bit about something that you’ve written about and you’ve alluded to, when you were brought in for a job interview and felt very much like you were sort of there to tick a box, and that they were not necessarily seeing you for your skills or your other qualities that you would have brought to the role, and you confronted, I guess, the hiring team about it.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. Well, confronted, I guess, is a nice way to put it. I burst into tears during an interview and therefore talked about how I was feeling because I was crying during an interview. So, that was very embarrassing.

MORRA AARONS MELE: What kind of tears were they? I mean, was it like tears of frustration? Just, “I’ve been talking for so many hours and I’m exhausted and…” What did the tears feel like?

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. It was a combination of those things. It was like, “I took a day off of work to fly for an interview and I was nervous about getting back.” It was a lot just overall anxiety about skipping out for an interview. It was also just these marathon interviews where you have to go and sit in on a million things and talk to a bunch of people.

MORRA AARONS MELE: And then your face hurts from smiling?

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. And telling the same stories. “Oh no. Well, no, I can’t eat that.” Whatever comes up. “Oh, thanks so much. My name, story…” Whatever. Telling the same things, and then I got to the end of the day and sitting down with the main hiring manager and there’s just this pulling out of my resume and going over different things and asking about if I’ve had certain types of experience.

PRISKA NEELY: And I was like, “We just did this whole day. We had a phone thing, you reached out to me to apply for this. We had a phone thing, we had a Skype thing, now I’m here.” I thought that my skills and that my growth areas were clear and like, “No. I don’t have this experience and that’s why I was interested in this because I would grow. But what I could bring to the team is this other skill that you guys don’t have.” And I just felt like we talked about that so many times, that had the tears rolling down my face. And I was just like, “I just never want to be considered for a job because I’m a Black woman.” If I’m-

MORRA AARONS MELE: Did you say that?

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. And the hiring manager said, “I want you to know that’s not what’s happening. And we considered a lot of people, we’re really excited that you’re here.” And I just was able to walk them through, like, “Here are the things that have brought me to this point of tears. Here are the kind of strange things that were done during this interview process that made me feel kind of hyper-aware of my Blackness in this space.” And I just offered some feedback, like, “In the future, if you’re bringing someone in, please don’t do this thing. If you’re going to do this, maybe do it this way.” And they were thankful for that feedback.

MORRA AARONS MELE: I love that you went from tears to enlightening them. That feels so strong. There are so many stereotypes about women crying in interviews. I liked how you flipped it on its head.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. Well, I don’t want this to happen to other people. I just feel like I often end up in situations where I have the tools to be able to communicate what’s happening, similar to that piece that I wrote for the cut. A lot of people were getting those texts and were frustrated, and they were just not responding to them or they were mad about it or whatever, or people were tweeting things like, “I call for a moratorium on these well-intentioned guilt tinge texts from white people.” But that wasn’t getting to, “How does this make me feel and how can you do something different?”

MORRA AARONS MELE: So, one of the things I also want listeners to learn is how… people who understand their emotions, and how they communicate effectively to other people. There’s a lot of pronouns here, but how they’re feeling and why it matters. Because again, that’s really hard. Communication is really hard. We don’t get enough of that, especially as we’re becoming leaders. It sounds like you’re a person who really is in touch with your feelings, and that you have built a process that allows you to say, “This makes me feel this way. This is how I’m going to communicate that to the person next to me, in a way that they’re going to understand it.”

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. I think it’s just my incubation in my family. My parents have done communication seminars throughout my life. And my dad was a pastor, growing up, and I was always sitting in on their parenting classes that they were doing. Just growing up, that’s what I heard, was about the power of communication and how the power of words, and how words can hurt, and words can heal, and just being really thoughtful in communication. And my dad wrote a book called The Gift of Criticism. So, he thinks a lot about how to actually use criticism to receive it and to give it as a tool, but not to fear it. So much about feedback is things that we fear. So many of the things that happen, that are problematic at work, at home, or whatever, is because of the buildup over time, is because we haven’t said things in the moment when they’ve made us feel uncomfortable.

PRISKA NEELY: So, that’s something I’ve really challenged myself to do when it comes to microaggressions or anything in the office. Just sometimes I can’t find the words in the moment to be able to do it, but to be able to come back and say, “Hey, that thing that happened earlier today, or last week or whatever, I’d love to talk about it more.” I have not managed before, but I think about it more than most people, I’ve been keeping a document called notes to my future manager self, for like the past seven years or something. Just whenever something happens that I see people get really hurt by it, or I see how meetings break down because of these patterns, like if you bring up the digital plan in a meeting that’s about radio, the meeting will cave.

MORRA AARONS MELE: Well, okay. So, I’m going to put you on the spot. What’s your advice for someone who has experienced, say, a microaggression in a meeting or something’s been said to them that they have been so rattled by, they can’t shake it. But doing what you’ve been talking about, makes them so anxious that they would rather just [inaudible] or leave their job or go hide in the bathroom than have a conversation about it. What is your advice for getting in touch with how you feel about it? Because a lot of us, we can’t put words around our feelings, we just know we’re upset, and then turning that into a constructive but appropriate conversation at work.

PRISKA NEELY: I think it’s really hard. And I call this the confident revisit. Just realizing that if you can’t find the words in the moment. I think, so many times, we just walk away, especially women. I’ll see dynamics in meetings or whatever, where men will fire back and be like, “No. That’s not what I was saying, that’s not how I feel, that… Whatever.” And I’ve never been able to do that. And I thought that it was something that I needed to get better at, but I’ve realized that “Yes. I do need to challenge myself to say things in the moment if I do have the words.” But often, when people fire back in the moment, they’re not actually saying something that helpful. They’re just saying something because they’re mad. So, like taking a beat, collecting, knowing if someone touches your hair or says something, or belittles you or questions you, if you don’t have the words in that moment, that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring it up again.

PRISKA NEELY: So, collect your thoughts, journal about it, call a friend. I have a lot of friends who call me to talk through different situations. I call my dad a lot and role-play. I’ve role-played difficult conversations with him. So, bring it up… Sending that email a day later or a week later, “Hey, I’d like to follow up on something that happened yesterday. Do you have some time?” And then just walking through it in a sensitive way, really practice and think about what you want people to take away from it. Avoid using pronouns like, “You did this to me.” This is the one area where passive language is really powerful, being super passive. But like, “When this happened, it made me feel this way.” Because I think when people hear “YOU,” they can just Blackout and get super defensive.

MORRA AARONS MELE: It triggers so much defensiveness. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that it sucks that you have to do this, and it’s a lot of work and a burden also, and I’m sure you’d probably rather be spending your time doing something else than rehearsing a difficult conversation over some crappy thing someone said.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. And it’s definitely… it’s challenging when there’s another layer of being an only or feeling like you’re in a position where you have to have a lot of these conversations more than other people. But everyone, I think, should be thinking more strategically about revisiting issues that come up, because, those things do fester. And even in friendships, things fester, and it does become a confrontation, unnecessarily.

MORRA AARONS MELE: So, Priska, you are someone who’s known huge grief. You lost your beloved older brother. We also know that you’re someone who doesn’t shy away from talking about the hard stuff, the big stuff at work. You’re going to be, I would assume, walking into an office where people are having, of course, as we all are, lots of feelings in a region that is affected by lots of different things that are scary. Do you have a sort of management philosophy or a way that you’re thinking about helping the people who work for you manage their own grief? And does your experience with grief, with depression, with hard times, anxiety, inform your management or how you think about mentoring new people?

PRISKA NEELY: I mean, I think… My older brother, Bill, died when I was 13. He was 30. He had a heart issue that we didn’t know about and he died suddenly. And he was like my best friend. We were super close even though there’s a big age difference. And I’ve really only gotten to the point, in the last five years, that I could talk about it without bursting into tears. But I think that having that experience so early in life shaped so much of how I think about everything, of the reporting that I’ve done, and being able to talk to people about the loss that they’ve experienced. And my brother, he was in the tech world and he had a really promising career ahead of him. So, there were several high-profile articles that were written about him when he died.

PRISKA NEELY: And just thinking about what it’s like to be on that side of things, there are certain questions that I would never want to ask or ways to approach interviews in breaking news situations that I would never do, just because I think about people’s humanity a lot. I think about what people could be going through during the pandemic times in various workplaces. I think it’s so important for leaders to just keep that in mind that whatever assignment they’re giving or whatever you’re thinking about, there’s so many things that, any question that you ask, could have this whole other layer of things behind it. So, I think that developing trust without going so far, as to be oversharing, that’s kind of the line that you have to be strategic about.

PRISKA NEELY: But that’s something that I was thinking a lot about during the whole check-in text moment, where I was getting messages from some white colleagues too, asking how I was doing or whatever. And I was just like, “Have you ever asked me that before? Have we had this relationship?” If you’re a manager, hopefully, you’ve talked to someone about how they’re doing and how things are going for them during a pandemic, aside from anything that could be going on with racial unrest in the country. Hopefully, you’ve developed that type of trust and knowing that it’s a safe space to bring things up. If you need to take a day, if you need to take a half-day, to just be able to trust your people that they’re not going to take advantage of that.

MORRA AARONS MELE: I want to go back. Well, first, I want to ask what your relationship with anxiety is?

PRISKA NEELY: I think I’m a pretty anxious person. I don’t know that I always… I feel like it’s a more recent thing that I’ve identified that. But when I think back to how I was, even in middle school or in college, just worrying about things, I overthink things a lot. And it’s not even overthinking, necessarily, it’s just running through different scenarios. That’s what makes me good at my job, to run through, like, “If X happens, what will we do? If Y happens, what will we do?” It’s been interesting because I’ve been in a transition to a new job and I’ve been off work for a couple of weeks and I’m just sleeping so well, because I don’t have anything to think about. I don’t want to have any… I mean, I was moving and that was stressful, but it wasn’t… When I was reporting stories that were close to me, I would lose sleep just because the character, the people are in my head, running through, “Did I get this right? Is everything… How are people going to feel about it? Was I sensitive in how I wrote this and how I captured the story?

MORRA AARONS MELE: Well, and you did write… You reported a lot about mental health among mothers, among women of color, how did doing that work make you think about your own mental health and also the intersection of race and mental health?

PRISKA NEELY: So, I’ve done a lot of stories about infant mortality and Black maternal health. And the fact that Black babies are twice as likely to die in the US as white babies, that Black moms are three or four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. And I don’t have children, so, doing to know that so much of the research now, is telling us that it’s about the toll of stress, about chronic stress and the experience of being a Black woman, and how that translates into health. So, that is a scary thing to be reporting on. And it was also an issue that had touched both of my sisters. And that was another reason that it was a project that I really threw myself into. So yeah. I was more stressed in doing those stories and in putting together an event.

PRISKA NEELY: When I was at KPCC in LA, we wanted to have an event where Black women came and we had a discussion with a doctor and an advocate who had a personal experience losing a child, and a midwife, and just a really great panel. And we wanted to have Black women coming, and that’s not necessarily the prime public radio audience. And that was one of the most stressful times. I had to get a new therapist when I was putting together that event. I was so stressed, and it was really because I wanted it to be good, but it was also just high pressure because I wanted Black women to be there. I wanted the audience that we were trying to get this information out to, to actually be served by it. And that was a lot of pressure that I was putting on myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself a lot. And so, one thing I’ve realized is to sometimes lower my expectations because I realized that my baseline is so high that I can chill a little bit.

MORRA AARONS MELE: Sometimes I think that the worrying about it makes it better. And then I have to kick myself and say that, that’s just my hypervigilant perfectionist anxiety talking, but it’s almost like the worry is the secret ingredient.

PRISKA NEELY: Well, one thing that I’ve realized is, and I was in this leadership training once and someone said, “If you’re worried, write it down.” Because, the thing that’s keeping you up in the middle of the night may be something that you need to tackle, or you may get an idea, but just write it down. Don’t just sit there spiraling. Make a to-do list, put some action items behind the worry, because it can be productive and then you can start to frame it in a different way. You’re like, “Okay, I’m going to give myself 30 minutes to really think this through in all the different scenarios of how it could go to prevent or to ensure success. But recognizing what is in my control and what’s out of my control. And trying to be a little bit more sensitive to that.” So, just writing things down. I’m also really into setting alarms. I set alarms for everything so that I don’t forget things.


PRISKA NEELY: Just throughout the day. Like, sometimes I set them before bed and then they go off the next day for things that I truly had forgotten about. And I’m like, “What? What a great idea. Thanks.” Like I say, “Thanks, Priska from the past for this reminder.”

MORRA AARONS MELE: But in all seriousness, what we’re talking about is a very proven sort of strategy, both for anxiety management, but it really does help to give yourself time to worry, and then if writing things down helps you put it all on a piece of paper, everything, all your worries, and then take a step back and organize it and you will see amazing things emerge. I mean, I use that strategy often at three in the morning, but all the time. It just like, [inaudible 00:33:03] Well, so my last question for you is, knowing all that you know about the impact of stress on your health, your own experience, and the meta experience of being a Black executive, a Black woman, a Black person in the society, all the stressors of moving, starting a big new job, I mean, you’ve got a lot going on, and how are you thinking about your stress and managing your stress as you enter this big new chapter? Do you have a plan for it?

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah, I think I’ve been in just attack mode for so many weeks, just with to-do lists out of control. When it comes to moving, “Call movers, arrange car, put car there, put…” Just going through all of that stuff, and then, now, I’m actually in my new place and I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I’ve gotten this job. I am going to start this job soon.” And I think I’ve been dealing with so much of the logistics of just getting here, that I haven’t put that part of my… totally engaged that part of my brain yet. I think that’s something else that’s really helpful for me in those moments of doubt that inevitably creep up, is just reaching out to the network of people that I have in my corner, just to give me pep talks. I have a friend who is just excellent at pep talks, and I’ll call her and just be like, “Hello. I need you-”

MORRA AARONS MELE: That’s great.

PRISKA NEELY: “…I’m having this doubt. I’m having this worry. Tell me that I can do this.” And she’s like, “Oh, okay. Here are the reasons… Here’s something that you did five years ago that made it very clear to me that you were on the right path.” But I mean, as I said, I put a lot of pressure on myself. So I think, also, in this goal and this vision that I have for this job and this huge responsibility of finally getting this leadership position that I’ve been working toward, it’s a little bit scary because it’s like, “Oh wow. Now I’ve gotten it and I will be able…” When you have been managing up for so long, and everyone is… I can’t count the number of times that people have said, “I can’t wait to work for you one day.” And like, now, I will actually have people working for me. And so, it’s exciting, but it’s also like, “Whoa.”

MORRA AARONS MELE: That, I just want you to take a moment though, and think about the fact that people have said that to you. That is not something that people say very often to anybody.

PRISKA NEELY: Yeah. A lot of my managers have said that to me.

MORRA AARONS MELE: That’s awesome.

PRISKA NEELY: So, I think that… I am thinking a lot about my sleep and how to not go back to the waking up in the middle of the night type sleep, because I don’t enjoy that. But yeah, I mean, also working from home right now is weird. This is a very weird time to start a new job, but I am trying to just set myself up for success with all of the people that I have to support me, and just like certain lifestyle things. I drink a lot of calming tea. I love calming tea. And I guess, believing in myself.

MORRA AARONS MELE: What? Wow. There’s a concept. Well, Priska, it’s been such a joy and I wish you all the best.

PRISKA NEELY: Thanks. This has been really great.

MORRA AARONS MELE: Well, that’s it for this week’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thank you to the team at HBR and the studio team who made the audio happen, especially in these challenging times. I’m so grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences, and for you, the listeners, please send me feedback. If you want to hear, I’ve gotten some great feedback over the break, which I’ll be incorporating. You can email me at, or tweet me @morraam, M-O-R-R-A-A-M. And if you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe, or leave a review. From HBR presents, this is Morra Aarons Mele.

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