Strategies for Managing Day-to-Day Anxiety

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


MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. Each episode, we look at stories from business leaders who have 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. Today, we’re going to talk about you and your anxiety for the long haul with Dr. Alice Boyes. Now, I have to say right at the top here, stay tuned to the end of this episode. It’s gold! I find it very helpful advice.

This is Alice Boyes’ real point of view, which is that it’s not the anxiety, and you may not be able to get rid of your anxiety. What you work on is making good decisions and managing the traps that your anxiety might lead you into. Right? I think that this is so helpful because for some of us, anxiety is our reality. Some of us feel like maybe anxiety is our old friend. I always say it’s one of my most intimate and long-standing relationships. A dysfunctional and not 100% well-meaning one, but nonetheless.

Understanding your anxiety, its bad habits, and your patterns around it is really important. Way back in our first episode, Scott Stocile reminded me of a famous quote by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Now, if you’re anxious by nature, fear may be part of your daily life in ways others just can’t relate to.

Today with Dr. Alice Boyes, we’re going to focus on understanding the fears and understanding the ways that we react to them, how we can make those reactions more adaptive and less destructive, even while we’re making peace with our anxious nature. Let’s explore the many sides of life with anxiety with Dr. Alice Boyes. She’s the author of “The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.” She’s a former clinical psychologist and researcher-turned-writer, and I really love her helpful and practical approach to living with an anxious nature.

Alice, one of the things that I think I’ve noticed about your language is that you don’t really like to use the term “trigger” for anxiety. You use anxiety bottlenecks or traps, but the idea is that you can notice and then control some of the bottlenecks or traps?

ALICE BOYES: You can. As a general rule, I try and stay away from the idea of controlling anxiety because the typical thing is the more that you try and control it, the more it will fight back. You can get into a real tug of war with anxiety. It’s generally better to treat anxiety more lightly. To be more accepting of your responses, but also more aware of the ways in which you might be making it worse.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What are some of these common bottlenecks or traps that people should be on the lookout for?

ALICE BOYES: A really common one is perfectionism, especially if you’re an anxious overachiever. People will often respond to anxiety by trying to be more perfect and more in control. To not only have a plan B, but to have a plan C, D, and E for anxiety. All of the responses or tricks are things that can backfire. What happens if you take a perfectionistic approach is that if everything goes fine and if you’ve used a perfectionistic approach, your brain often jumps to the conclusion that the only reason it went fine is because you did that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You worked 80 hours on that presentation. Therefore, you must always work 80 hours on a presentation.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. That kind of thing. Rumination and overthinking are other ones. People often think that worry has some sort of protective benefit so that it helps them make good decisions. “If I don’t worry about something, I’m going to let things slip through the cracks.” I’m not going to foresee something that might go wrong. People end up believing that they need to think through everything in advance. They need to worry about things in order to make good decisions. If anything, it often goes in the other direction as well. Occasionally, overthinking something will result in a new idea, but it’s equally likely to make you feel more confused, feel more stuck, and get into a pattern of inaction.

The other huge one is avoidance. People will tend to avoid things that make them feel anxious, and then their anxiety about whatever they’re avoiding tends to snowball. Avoidance causes lots of interpersonal issues as well, with colleagues at work or the person who’s wondering why it’s taking you over a week to respond to an email. It’s also with people at home or in your personal relationships, if you’re dragging your heels on things that are making you anxious.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is it possible that people who use these tactics, I think especially avoidance, may not even be aware that they’re anxious about something? They’re just unconsciously avoiding because that’s a pattern that they’ve done?

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. People often overlook the role of anxiety in procrastination. Sometimes, it can be quite hidden. Maybe it’s something that you’ve done a lot of times before, but for some reason, there’s something about this time that’s a wee bit different. For example, obviously I do a lot of writing, but if I get a new editor, then maybe I’m more avoidant in getting started with that because I’m dealing with a new relationship there.

Sometimes, people overlook times when anxiety is involved. Another real hidden one is where somebody is wanting you to do something and you resent being asked to do it, so you blame the other person for why you’re not getting on and doing that thing without recognizing that as well as that anger and resentment. There’s a significant amount of anxiety involved in why you don’t want to do that thing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: With no disrespect to my beloved husband, I feel like that may have happened once or twice in my marriage.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Me too. I’m sure.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay. What about ruminating backwards? I’ll use a real-life example from my life. I have a lot of anxiety around money. Recently I’ve been re-running a scenario in my head where I made a bad financial decision because I was really anxious about a potential outcome. I basically left money on the table because I just wanted it resolved because I was so anxious.

I made a bad decision. It’s okay. The world won’t end, but sometimes, I wake up even at night filled with regret and anxiety over this decision. It’s a rumination vortex. Why did I do that? As I replay this scenario, it feels like a loop that I’m stuck on. What is happening, and why do we sometimes get stuck in these rumination vortexes? Vortices, I think, is the plural form.

ALICE BOYES: What you’re tapping into there is a really common pattern with anxiety, that anxious people like to resolve uncertainty as soon as possible, and often, they can end up rushing into situations that don’t need to be rushed into. People will end up accepting worse outcomes over potentially better ones because they don’t want to tolerate uncertainty.

One example I often give is to imagine that you’re selling a secondhand car, and you can either trade it into a dealer and get that resolved today, but you know you’ll get a low price for it. That said, that offer’s not going away. You can always choose to go back to that option, or you could stick it on Craigslist and sell it yourself, but you don’t know exactly how much that you’ll get for it, or you don’t know exactly how long it will take to sell. An anxious person is much more likely to go with the option where they can just have certainty straightaway and have the uncertain situation resolved. Dealing with that is just recognizing that pattern.

Again, treat it a little bit lightly when you know that you’re doing something that’s self-sabotaging. When you know that you’ve got some sort of pattern, it doesn’t make you this horrible no-good person who’s never going to succeed. That means that you’ve got an Achilles heel, and just treating it that little bit more lightly can really help. Also, just acknowledge that your brain is trying to resolve it for you. It’s whirring away trying to do the best that it can to resolve it.

Although that mechanism is trying to help you, it’s just not doing a very good job of it, like when a computer is trying to get something done, but it doesn’t have the memory to complete the task, so it ends up getting stuck. Recognize that you’ve got some emotional pain there, and your brain is trying to help you figure it out, but it’s just not doing that in a way that is actually helpful.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think also understanding that once you’ve done the research, and you’ve talked to people, that sometimes… I don’t know if you think this is an “okay” adaptive strategy. I call it my emotional BATNA, the term in negotiation for the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If something is really stressing me out, say it might be selling that used car, or it might be trying to negotiate over a salary or a fee with a client, and I am losing sleep with it, there have been times that I have said, “You know what? This is not worth my anxiety. I may be leaving money on the table, but I am okay with that. I need to move on.” Is that okay?

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. There are no hard and fast rules with things. It may be okay, and it may not be okay. It’s something that you have to assess for yourself. I think that’s a really tricky question about when you should take your anxiety into consideration and perhaps not put yourself out there on the anxiety ledge to the same extent as you might otherwise. Before I forget the point, one of the things I think I find incredibly helpful in terms of other people is people who have a different thinking style than I do.

One of my anxiety tendencies I know is to think small. There is something that I do to try and manage my anxiety. It’s to only make small bets on things. I have a brother-in-law who takes a lot of bigger risks. He makes bigger bets on things and tends to get better results from that. It’s really useful for me to have his thinking style there in the background. His name is Lee, and so I think, “What would Lee think in this situation?”

Just having someone who’s got a different thinking style than mine without even asking him directly, I can think about the alternative approach that he would take. Again, that comes back to self-awareness and knowing the impact that anxiety has on the choices that you tend to want to make and adjusting for that. I always say that the goal of anxiety management isn’t to feel less anxiety. It’s to make better decisions. It’s to understand the ways in which anxiety impacts your decision-making.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What if instead of maybe an avoider or a procrastinator or someone who doesn’t go for things they want because of their anxiety, you’re like me, and you’re a leaper? You’ve done enough work with your anxiety that you don’t let it stop you from taking on risk. Here’s a scenario. I get invited to give a speech that I’m really honored to give.

Now listeners, not all of you may be public speaking, but some of you are. I am because I host this show, and I’m a crazy person like that.

I get invited to give a talk at a venue that I’m very honored to be at. I say yes. It’s six weeks away. I spend the next six weeks not only wracked in anxiety but also probably letting it take up a lot more of my time than it might need to both in terms of preparing and anticipating scary things.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. I would set some limits on that. Set a concrete limit. One thing I read was that you want to prepare an hour for every minute of a talk. If it’s a 40-minute talk, then you want to put 40 hours into preparing for it. I would sit down with that as the goal. If it’s a really important one, maybe it’s that you spend 40 hours writing it and 40 hours actually practicing the delivery.

I would put some limits on yourself in that situation. Make sure that everything that you are doing behaviorally is what is logically going to give you the best chance of success. After that, it’s all about acceptance, knowing that you are doing the things that are rationally, objectively, empirically associated with you being successful. Then leaving it at that point and recognizing that you will have some bubbling anxiety because you want to do a good job and that that’s okay. That you don’t need to reduce your anxiety beyond that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. Also setting a limit that I’ve done what I needed to do, and I’m not going to ruminate or criticize myself. Right? Getting into the negative self-talk that, “If only I had done x and if only I had done y, things would be different.”

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. It’s recognizing that there are costs to doing something else. People who are anxious don’t tend to do all of the sensible things. Anxiety is much more likely to cause people to focus on the wrong things or to avoid than to overdo the right things.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What’s a wrong thing that we focus on?

ALICE BOYES: It might be that the person puts off practicing or that they just get hung up on one aspect of something. They get so hung up on a little aspect that they miss the bigger picture or that they don’t recognize that unexpected things will happen and that they need to mentally prepare for being able to absorb those – that knowledge that you can’t predict everything that will go wrong.

Part of preparing is being in a decent psychological place that you can adapt to whatever might come up on the day. When you’re anxious, you don’t. That’s the trap that takes you away from doing the things that are really sensible rather than an idea that people that are anxious do all of that stuff and are also stressed out. It’s usually that they’re either focusing on the wrong things, or they’re avoiding.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, let’s talk about something that I think is really important for doing something amazingly, which is getting feedback. Right? Positive and less positive. Obviously being able to handle feedback is a huge piece of career growth. Yet I think that many of us anxious types, we just avoid feedback or potentially difficult conversations for many reasons. Shame, being found out, having feelings we’re uncomfortable with, et cetera. I know for me I miss out on probably growing and learning and even having more real relationships by avoiding feedback, but I still avoid it. Is there a baby-step way that we can get more comfortable with feedback?

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. One of the big things is to identify what helps you take onboard feedback. What helps you be more willing to accept it? A lot of that can be who you’re getting it from. Making sure that you have somebody who generally trusts in your talent, who generally trusts in your capacity and your psychological flexibility that you can get a point of feedback and adapt to that.

It’s a lot easier to get constructive feedback from somewhere where you fundamentally believe that they believe in your basic talents and competencies. You want to get feedback from someone who thinks you’re talented and who thinks you’re a competent human – someone that you’re sure doesn’t see you as flaky or someone that sees you as a mentally balanced person. When you’ve got those people that you trust, it can be a lot easier.

Also, just realizing the format that you like to get feedback in can be really helpful as well. It’s a lot easier not to be defensive sometimes if you’re getting feedback in a form that’s written rather than being given it on the spot. Just figuring out what’s useful for you. It might be that you realize that too much feedback can be really difficult so you might think, “Instead of getting 100 people to do a survey, I might get five people and then digest that first.” Just figuring out what’s a helpful way for you to get it.

Also, realize that sometimes feedback is not that helpful. Think about the fact that even from someone who’s a really useful feedback giver, it may be that only 80% of it is on point. Take that into account as well and recognize that you don’t need to accept every point of feedback, that you can disagree or prioritize. All of that. Also, it’s just managing that psychology about you. Don’t go from, “I’ve got this one thing I’m not doing well,” to “I’m never going to succeed. I’m doomed to fail. I’m terrible. I’m horrible.” That kind of thing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Catastrophizing. Sometimes, feedback happens, and it’s not thought out. Sometimes you’re in a meeting, and you say something stupid or offensive in front of all your colleagues. You might get, in the moment, a really post-haste feedback. I think that for many of us, that taps into that harsh self-criticism. It can freeze you up in the meeting or in the day. It can really create a bomb of shame, right?

ALICE BOYES: Give me an example. Part of working through stuff like that is actually un-layering some of that shame – to not couch it, to not say it in a vague, general way, to actually give an example of it. “This is what I did, and this is the stupid thing that I said.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, god. I say stupid things so often. It’s really hard because I blurt things. I get nervous, and I blurt things, or I feel like I’m not being heard, so then I blurt things. Recently, I was in a meeting with a client, and they were presenting a new line of videos that they had created and had spent a lot of time on, and one person on the team had really spearheaded them. I said in the meeting, “Well, I just don’t think these are as creative or as good as our other videos.”

The minute I said it, you could hear a pin drop. It was like my internal monologue had spoken, and it was a major faux pas. I definitely got feedback. Then I just really lost the rest of the day. I felt so ashamed. I was so angry at myself. I do that a lot, and then I think, “Oh, should I send a follow-up email? Do I need to apologize to that person?” It’s all a little squishy because your own negative self-talk gets so involved even if you may have legitimately screwed up.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Was it wrong? Was it an on-point piece of feedback?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It wasn’t useful. It wasn’t useful at all. I was cranky.

ALICE BOYES: Okay.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was cranky, and my ego was offended because they didn’t take my advice.

ALICE BOYES: Okay. Okay. Whenever you have anything that happens and that triggers a rumination, I think you’ve got to ask yourself if there is a lesson to be learned here. What is the practical takeaway from this? Sometimes there isn’t.

I’ll just quickly give a couple of scenarios where it’s different. We got burgled. We’ve actually been burgled twice. The first time it happened, I went through all of the “would have, should have, could have” things – things that I should have done to make our house less of a target for a burglary. In that scenario, there were things that should have been done, some basic things that could have been done to not make that happen.

Another scenario was where I accidentally got a parking ticket. I didn’t notice a sign that said that you couldn’t park on a particular road during street cleaning hours.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That happened to me yesterday. I almost got towed.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. This happened on a vacation. Somebody told us. We had mentioned that we had parked, and somebody said, “You’ve probably been towed.” Actually, we hadn’t been towed. We’d just gotten a ticket, but it took several hours before we figured out that we actually hadn’t been towed. It wasn’t as bad as what we thought, but in that scenario, that was the only time in the last five years that I’ve gotten a parking ticket. There was no logical lesson to be learned from that. I don’t need to be paying more attention to signs because I’m already paying pretty good attention to signs. There wasn’t a lesson to be learned there.

I think sometimes it’s just distinguishing that and recognizing that there isn’t always. Just come up with a really simple plan. In the burglar example, I might have thought of 10 or 15 different things that I could have done to make our house less appealing to burglars, right? If I think that big, then I’m just going to get overwhelmed and not do all of those things. Really streamlining it down to, “What are the real top priorities here?” Maybe it’s just one.

What is the number one thing I need to change that is actually doable to change in that situation? If you were to think about that for your scenario, because it does sound like you’re saying it falls into the category of when there is a lesson to be learned… Prevention-focused lessons. What would you say it would be? What’s the number one doable thing that would help you stop making that mistake again?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, it’s funny. It was actually the culmination of a big lesson for me, which is that I have to choose when I talk. What I started doing is trying to count the times when I talk in meetings and making sure… This is a really crazy analogy, but I think listeners might appreciate it. You know when you buy something on impulse, and you regret it, versus when you’ve researched something? You’ve saved up, and you’re like, “This is gold. I have to buy this. This is a great purchase.”

I’ve tried to approach my presence in meetings, because my job requires a lot of meetings, like that. No impulse purchases. Only things that I know I really want. It would be, “Don’t blurt out things that you’re thinking. Especially if you’re in a certain kind of mood. Save up for when you feel that you have something that’s really additive to the conversation. Actually listen. Get out of your own head about how anxious you feel because maybe you feel like someone doesn’t like you, or you’re going to get fired, or there’s some dynamic in the room that’s making you feel anxious. Stop. Actually, listen to the conversation, and only talk when you have something important to say.”

Now I am not there yet, but I am working on it.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. I think that even translating that principle into behavioral terms as much as you can… It might be something like if you practice giving sandwich feedback or something like that. That would be something that would help.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Sandwich feedback like something good, something bad, something good, or vice versa?

ALICE BOYES: Yes. Something good. Something bad. The poo sandwich.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well done. We are a clean podcast.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. If that’s how you standardly speak, then that’s going to help prevent the blurting because then you’re going to need to think about the ingredients of that sandwich.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I like that. I like that a lot. I also in my mind always repeat the lyric from Hamilton, “Talk less. Smile more,” which is really sometimes good advice.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. I think just acknowledging that you know that one of your patterns is impulsivity. That’s what I said about how anxiety management isn’t about reducing anxiety. It’s about better decision-making, having some really concrete strategies. It’s to help prevent those patterns from happening. Then, once you’ve done all of the practical things that you do, then accept the level of remaining anxiety that you feel after that.

It sounds like you need some real practical strategies around managing impulsive decision-making when you’re feeling anxious. You’ll end up with a handful of strategies for doing that, but also just think in terms of behaviors that you want to do rather than behaviors that you want to avoid because it’s just too hard to have a plan to not do things. You want to have your plans be, “This is what I’ll do,” rather than, “This is what I’ll not do.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think you just changed my life. As you said that, I thought, “That is completely what I do. I make impulsive decisions when I’m feeling anxious.” With money. With talking. With all kinds of stuff.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Everybody has a slightly different manifestation, and that’s why becoming a self-expert is so important. It’s to understand the ways in which anxiety manifests for you. That’s something that seeing somebody, seeing a therapist, on an individual basis can be useful for. Sometimes, someone that works with anxious people a lot or works with anxious overachievers a lot is going to be able to see those patterns really quickly and help you have those insights and light bulb moments much more quickly than you could have had them on your own. That can be useful too.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: One of the things that I think those of us who have traveled with anxiety for many years is that we do get to know our anxiety. Hopefully, we get a certain level of power and awareness over our bad habits, but I think for a lot of fellow travelers, feeling your anxiety might ironically be more comfortable than doing something that scares you or talking to someone who’s an actual person who you might have to introduce yourself to. Instead, you could just have a conversation with your anxiety in the corner, right? There’s so many ways in which those of us … For me, my anxiety it’s one of my oldest relationships. It’s traveled with me throughout my life.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. You really want to get a better psychological distance from that. There’s a couple of main different therapeutic approaches to anxiety. There’s the cognitive behavioral therapy approach, and then there’s what’s called the acceptance and commitment therapy approach, or mindfulness and acceptance approach. The mindfulness and acceptance approach uses a lot of quickie strategies that are designed at helping people get just a little bit more distanced from anxiety.

One of the interesting things that you can do is to write down an anxious thought on a piece of paper and put that piece of paper in your shoe. Now walk around with that piece of paper in your shoe for the day. What it is a physical lesson on the fact that you can have this odd, nagging, uncomfortable sensation and you can still go about and do everything purposeful that you needed to do in the day.

Another thing is to think of your anxiety as a character who’s kind of different than you – to come up with a funny character, some sort of obnoxious character, that when you’re thinking about your anxiety voice, you don’t think of it as you but as this other character. For some people, those sorts of strategies don’t appeal at all.

For some people, they do appeal, and they actually want to carry them out. For some people, just hearing about the concept of the strategy can be useful for recognizing that you want to externalize your anxiety a little bit and have a lighter relationship with the anxious voice.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Frankly, tell it to buzz off, right? I will never forget. I talked in an interview with Ashley Seaford, who’s a writer and a television host. She said that, “My anxiety is a liar, and I don’t trust it.” Almost like you’re a girl in third grade, who’s like, “She’s not my best friend anymore. I’m not going to be friends with her.” It was such an amazing attitude because this is a very intimate relationship, but “I don’t trust you, and I know how to manage you. Don’t manipulate me today.”

It’s so complicated though because it is when you’ve had anxiety, sometimes for decades, or it comes and goes, it is, in a way, one of your most intimate relationships, and you have to negotiate with it sometimes.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Again, it comes back to recognizing the ways in which that voice leads you astray. Anxiety is telling me that thinking more about this issue is going to lead to making a better choice. Anxiety is telling me that there’s a right choice and a wrong choice in this situation. Anxiety’s telling me that the choice I make here is really important when actually it’s not important at all. It’s pretty irrelevant. It’s a pretty minor choice, and you don’t need to overthink it.

Anxiety is telling me the only way I will ever be accepted in life is if my performance is perfect all the time and if I make no social faux pas, or if I never lose my train of thought, all of those kinds of things. Everybody’s relationship that they come to with their anxious voice and the way that they see it is going to be something that works for them.

For some people, it might be telling their anxiety to buzz off. For some people, it might be seeing it as the cranky old uncle who’s used racist things that you need to deal with every Thanksgiving whose nevertheless part of the family and still gets invited. You’ve just got to figure out what is useful for you. One thing I often say is, “One person’s light bulb is another person’s eye roll.” Strategies that are life-changing for one person might just be completely an eye roll for somebody else. It really is just figuring out what works for you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I can’t let you leave without talking a little bit about email and social media’s role in triggering a lot of those bottlenecks, whether it’s rumination, negative self-talk, or perfectionism. “If only I had worked harder, I would have been like her, who’s got this big article that I’m reading about on LinkedIn.” Et cetera. Et cetera. For those of us who are ambitious who have some of these bottlenecks that we fall into, sometimes just opening our email or going on LinkedIn or Facebook can be a landmine.

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. One of the things that works really well for me is if I get an email that works me up, I go back and read it the next day. I give it a night’s sleep, or I give it 24 hours and go back and read it the next day. Often, I will have actually misremembered or will have taken in the contents of the email wrong. I’ll remember it as using a certain word, a much harsher word than the word that was actually used. Recognize that there are all sorts of reasons why email communication can be funny sometimes because you’re missing all of those context cues about what the person was doing when they sent the email. It’s just like you were saying before. You were cranky in that meeting.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was.

ALICE BOYES: You were coming into it cranky. There could be all sorts of reasons why the person who is writing you an email is cranky at the time, and the lack of smiley faces or this short fuse is actually nothing to do with you, but you don’t have any of that information.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What about social media that triggers perfectionism, stewing, and the what ifs?

ALICE BOYES: Just recognize that everyone’s on their own path. Also, that in terms of your own social circle, think about that idea of “a rising tide can lift all boats.” The more that your network of people is filled with successful people, the better it’s going to be for you. Just the basic recognition that you only see the highlight reel from what people are posting on social media. You’re on your own path. The reason that you’re not doing what somebody else is doing is because you’re not choosing that.

There’s always an opportunity cost with things. You can only choose one path at a time. There are all sorts of things that you’re not seeing. That if you’re making a choice to have kids or that kind of thing, and that’s meaning that you’re not able to work the crazy hours that someone else might be working to have a different kind of success, that’s what you’re choosing because that’s what you want for yourself.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Also, I think I remember hearing you say this or reading this, there’s a little bit of narcissism, right? In the anxiety and the ruminating. Right? Making it all about yourself instead of, like you said, celebrating another’s achievement, or an accomplishment, or goodness in the world.

ALICE BOYES: It’s recognizing that everyone needs to have a turn at being the star. There’s nothing fun about a life in which you are the best at everything that you do. A lot of kids might have grown up where they were always the smartest kid in their class or always close to the smartest kid in their class and maybe felt frustrated. They didn’t like to work on teams or that kind of thing because they felt like their teammates weren’t as dedicated or ambitious as what they were.

When you reach higher levels of things, you’re swimming in a different swimming pool. You’re not going to be at the top all of the time. Know that not only is it not possible to always be the star, but it’s also just not desirable either. You really want to be surrounding yourself with people who are better than you at some other things. You don’t want to be attempting to be good at everything because you want to be good at the things that are really important and meaningful to you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s so funny. My therapist said this yesterday to me because I’m so anxious, and I’m so frazzled. She said, “Why do you have to be so special at everything? Whoever told you that?” I said, “I’ve always been special since I was three years old.” She said, “Well, who says?”

ALICE BOYES: Yeah. That’s the fear for people with anxiety. It’s sort of what I was saying. It’s a self-protective thing. It’s the idea that you end up believing, “The only way I’ve succeeded in life or the only way I’m being accepted and loved and that I’ve got my basic needs met is by being excellent, by overdoing everything.” It’s recognizing that you don’t need to be doing that self-protective thing, that “not being special.” Not being the best at everything isn’t a threat to you. It isn’t a threat to you getting the basics of what you want out of life.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you like what you’ve heard, be sure to subscribe and submit a review in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows. If you have an idea for the show or want to tell us your story, drop me a note at anxiousachiever@gmail.com, or you can tweet me @morraam. That’s M-O-R-R-A-M. Special thanks to the team at Harvard Business Review, my producer Mary Dooe, the team at Podcast Garage, and all of our guests who are telling us their stories from the heart. From the HBR Presents Network, I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever.



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