I have lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember and will continue to for the rest of my life. And even being able to formulate this sentence is an act of bravery and a result of a long and tumultuous journey.
It took losing the job I have cared most about in my life to admit that I have a problem that will not go away on its own. At the time, I was working with autistic children as a psychologist. The emotional strain and the fear that I might fail them got so bad at one point that several times a day, I would have to step out of a therapy session to throw up and then come back and continue my activities. As you can imagine, this could not go on for long, so I had to leave.
And years later, it took having a child of my own and thinking about the impact my emotional state may have on him to accept that the measures I was taking were too slow and inefficient, and I had to be more active in my coping strategies.
Now I have things mostly under control for most of the time. I even managed to lower the dose of my anti-anxiety medication. And while my anxiety and I will never be buddies, we coexist fairly peacefully. And having overcome the indignance of “why me” and the guilt and feelings of failure that I cannot make anxiety go away, I can see some of the rewards it has brought me.
When getting out of bed is an act of bravery
For many, anxiety is a sign of weakness. Even some of the people I hold dearest see my anxiety as a flaw that I should be able to overcome. And honestly, this infuriates me at times. Because guess what, my friend, while I may not be able to overcome anxiety, I do overcome a thousand little things every day that you never have to face.
Research shows that people with anxiety perceive as a risk stimuli that may otherwise be neutral or benevolent. Our brains are wired differently, and the world is a much more frightening place for us, full of threats and danger.
There have been times, amid an anxiety attack, when it was a nearly impossible task for me to get out of bed. My body would simply not move, and it felt as if I and the whole world would just shatter into pieces if I so much as brave out of my bedroom. It’s like being attacked by a vicious dog, saying “I love you” for the first time and showing up for an exam you have not studied for all rolled into one. Or whatever the things “normal” people fear most are.
And yet, I have a job and a kid and a multitude of responsibilities. So I had to swallow the bile, get dressed and show up. And fall apart and then put myself back together and keep going.
As leaders, we continuously need to face and overcome obstacles, cope with failure and dust ourselves and go on. And after falling apart a hundred times a day, I have become an expert in putting myself back together, so no amount of failure can truly throw me off my tracks.
It’s easy to step out of your comfort zone if you have no comfort zone
We all hear time and time again that to be successful, we need to get out of our comfort zone and take risks. Well, when you live with anxiety, you have no comfort zone.
It is nearly as terrifying for me to pick up the phone to order a taxi as it is to deliver a presentation in front of 300 people. It took me years to realize that, but once I did, there was no stopping me.
I have been promoted five times over the last five years, and all of those promotions have come because I jumped into a new challenge and was willing to take risks and try something I had never done before.
For five years:
I moved from an individual contributor to a people manager
from a local to a global role
helped implement several HR technologies that were entirely new for me
changed my employer
traveled across the world
and more and more.
I figured that if I am to be scared of failing all the time, I might as well learn new things and grow as a professional in the process.
Anxiety helps you brave authenticity
I have to admit. For a long time, I also perceived my anxiety as a weakness. And for the thousand little battles with anxiety I need to win every day, the biggest one has been to accept that it is part of me and it will be with me for the rest of my life.
Resigning myself to the fact that this is as good as it gets has helped me acknowledge and own my other deficiencies. My inability to ever tie my shoes properly, my mediocrity in building PowerPoint presentations, and my complete lack of motor coordination merely pale compared to my anxiety disorder.
This self-acceptance has helped me be brave enough to present myself in my entirety and be more authentic as a leader.
I have been able to build more trustful relationships with my team members. My willingness to admit to my flaws has given them the liberty to be open about theirs. I have become more relatable and approachable. And hopefully, as this study shows – a more effective manager.
Being at peace with yourself and knowing and accepting your limitations also gives you an unexpected competitive advantage in the corporate rat race. The higher up the hierarchy you reach, the more you are surrounded by overcompensating, insecure opportunists who spend a lot of time and effort to hide their flaws. Being friendly with your deficiencies saves you the energy to try to conceal them and allows you to focus on doing your job and excelling.
And makes you more empathetic
The Center for Creative Leadership studied 6371 leaders, and their research demonstrates empathy is directly related to leaders’ performance. As building and maintaining relationships becomes a more important aspect of leadership, leaders’ ability to connect to their employees in deep and meaningful ways is ever more critical.
The struggles that we go through while living with anxiety make us more attuned to the difficulties others may encounter. We also know very well that what is shown on the surface is often not the full picture, making us more attentive to others’ signals.
A recent study reveals that people with social anxiety may display greater empathic accuracy (the ability to decode the cues provided by the words, body language, expressions and tone of others) – in short, we are better mind readers. And while we often use this skill to our own detriment, becoming overly sensitive in social situations, it can also help us be more alert and empathetic to our team members and give them the care they need.
And gives you the guts to stand up for what is right
As leaders, we sometimes face situations where we have to defend our team or our integrity at the jeopardy of our relationships with others, our reputation or even our employment. This may be frightening, and we are often tempted to shy away from taking a stand, which over time may ruin our credibility.
My anxiety constantly plays disastrous scenarios in my mind. I am convinced I will get fired at least five times a month, often because of some minor mistake I have made or imagined. And I can tell you, this makes it much easier to take a real risk for what’s right. I don’t really care if others will like me if I voice an unpopular opinion, because most of the time I am convinced they don’t like me anyway. I have no problem saying “no” to senior leaders because I always have contingency plans in case I get fired (told you, in my mind this is a quite regular occurrence).
And after all, what worse thing can happen than I have already lived through in my head a thousand times. So bring it on and watch out because I will not be intimidated.