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Tiffany McLain LMFT
Tiffany McLain LMFT

Clashes in Class: Tech Culture & Chronic Stress

Are the class-related divides within your company leading to chronic stress?

Kat* described her first industry holiday party as “mind boggling.” When she witnessed colleagues casually drinking bottles of wine that cost hundreds of dollars at company meetings, she was in awe. “This is what people get paid for?!”

At first, it was thrilling. As a child, Kat and her single mother had to visit food banks to put meals on the table. Kat’s childhood dream was to live in a house and she’d never been exposed to the concept of graduate school. It is no surprise then, that when she scored her first tech job, the displays of wealth that she experienced felt like an abstraction. Being a queer, multi-racial woman who grew up in relative poverty , the resources she experienced in tech felt so far from the reality of her life up until that point.

stockbroker/123RF Stock Photo
Source: stockbroker/123RF Stock Photo

If you grew up with little access to education and financial resources, it is initially exciting to suddenly find yourself smack dab in the middle of a world that had previously only been experienced via shows like "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Once the honeymoon period is over, however, you may find yourself caught in a cycle of stress in efforts to keep up with this culture of privilege that feels so tenuous.

For Kat, the cultural disparities between she and her colleagues led to psychic and emotional strain. The daily disconnects between them, resulting from her lifetime of financial struggle and their relative comfort, created an invisible wall of tension.

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress: Acute Stress; Episodic Acute Stress; and Chronic Stress. According to the APA, acute stress occurs in response to daily demands, be they tedious or exciting. Many of us are familiar with the symptoms which include feelings of anxiety, tension headaches, or stomach problems.

Episodic acute stress is experienced by people who are constantly in a state of chaotic activity. This is your typical “Type Apersonality—overworked, always tense and often irritable (and irritating to those around them!).

When this last type of stress—chronic stress—strikes, it is often much harder to notice. Chronic stress results from years of large or small stressors that build up—often silently—over time. Because its impact is gradual, we often fail to recognize it. If you are the the first in your family to go to college or to achieve the next level of financial success, chronic stress is often an insidious bedfellow. It can lead to serious health risks, like strokes or heart attacks.

Unlike the other types of stress, chronic stress results from your core beliefs—beliefs that you may not even know you are carrying. These beliefs can be characterized in the form of:

Imposter Syndrome: The constant fear that you may be “discovered” at any time as being unfit for your current level of success

Keeping up with the Joneses: Feeling pressure to spend your time and money attempting to fit in by adopting the lifestyles of your colleagues

Hyper-vigilance: Excessive energy spent on keeping up with the latest trends of your affluent colleagues in order to avoid seeming ignorant

Underlying each of these beliefs or activities is the fear that you “should not” really be here, that these resources were not meant for “people like you.” It is a nagging worry that you do not really have anything of value to add—to the company or your relationships. It leaves you asking yourself, “Is it them or me that’s to blame?” when conflict arises.

wavebreakmediamicro/123RF Stock Photo
Source: wavebreakmediamicro/123RF Stock Photo

Chronic stress leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. For some, it manifests in the overwhelming feeling that quitting your job is the only way to survive. Others deal with it by drinking and partying hard over the weekend, blocking out all thoughts and feelings of insecurity. For others still, it feels like a slow tightening in your chest, the feeling of being trapped with nowhere to turn.

While many people in the tech industry suffer acute stress, for those who are managing a new level of social privilege and financial resources, the risk of experiencing chronic stress is higher and often goes unnoticed by either those who are experiencing it, or by their colleagues who may not be facing similar challenges.

Here are three things you can do to cut down on chronic stress:

1. Talk to someone you trust.

Acknowledging your experiences out loud to another person who may be struggling with something similar is the first step to finding relief. Research shows that acknowledgment is a major mitigator of stress. There are many communities, both offline and online, where you can find support.

2. Set up "Me" Time.

It is very easy to get caught up in a cycle of stress and avoidance. By setting aside some time every week that is just for you, you are clearing a space for any feelings of frustration, overwhelm, anger, despair to show up and have their say. By finding healthy ways to process your feelings, be this through joining a kickboxing class, meditation, therapy, or getting regular massages, you will be releasing the pressure valve, thus decreasing the build up of bodily and emotional stress.

3. Know Your Roots.

While it is easy to feel like you’re up against these challenges alone, the history of class struggles in America is an old and tumultuous one. There is increasing dialogue about the difficulties posed by racial disparities in tech, but the ways that class and education intersect to inform your identity are often ignored. I recommend two books that can help you get a deeper understanding of your struggle within the larger cultural and historical context of race, class and education. The first is Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehasi Coates. The second is White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.

While breaking new professional ground has its challenges, it can also be incredibly rewarding. It does, however, require a level of self-awareness, emotional IQ and support that goes above and beyond the needs of those who were raised with plenty of financial and educational resources.

While luck plays its part, equipping yourself to deal with the obstacles of leveling up will give you the foundation to succeed in a sustainable way. In the words of Jesse Williams, "Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real."

*Some details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the interviewee

About the Author
Tiffany McLain LMFT

Tiffany McLain, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple sociocultural identities.

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