Tackling Leadership Struggles, Burnout, and Performance 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 pick themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

Showing up at work every day can make you really anxious for really common and really understandable reasons. Am I doing well enough? Did I make the right decision? Will I be a success? Do people like me? Did I say the wrong thing? Our next guest actually argues that that kind of anxiety that comes with the package of success and advancement and leadership can contribute to another common problem: burnout. In fact, our guest, Steve Cuss, says burnout has less to do with workload and more to do with internal and external leadership anxiety, which was news to me. But it makes a ton of sense because making decisions creates anxiety for most of us, and people are exhausting.

And no matter what level you are in an organization, being in charge of things, of something, is really stressful. Steve offers a toolset that allows leaders to become more self aware about our own anxieties and those of our teams. He says, “If a leader can think about the way she thinks, not only can she become a powerful presence, but she can stay strong and manage leadership anxiety for the long haul.” Steve Cuss is the lead pastor of Discovery Christian Church in Broomfield, Colorado, and he teaches leadership development classes and conducts self awareness seminars for all kinds of teams.

So, Steve, I found your work by literally googling anxiety in leadership, and I came across your book and your podcast, “Managing Leadership Anxiety,” and I was intrigued. And then, I learned you’re a Christian minister. I must say that I sort of hesitated. I’m not Christian. I’m not religious. And so, in our modern culture, I was nervous about approaching you, but I was so drawn to your… The more I sort of dug in and read your book, I just loved it. It seems to me, you operate almost as much as a psychologist and a therapist, as a leader of a big organization, which I admire. I wish more people did. And I’m just curious, why do you use family systems theory and other therapeutic approaches in your leadership? How did you come across that, and when did you start?

STEVE CUSS: I love that question, and I think it took me several years to be able to have an answer to the question. I think now I know why. I think as a pastor and as a proclaimer of the teachings of Jesus, I think the primary interest of Jesus is transformation, and peace in life, and freedom. And what I have recently learned is that I think those are the very same interests of psychology and therapy. I think your average therapist is very interested in helping people get free, experience peace, and have transformation. And so, what I do is I look for freedom and peace everywhere, and I filter it either through a theological point of view or a psychological point of view, or quite often both.

Where it started for me is… The simple answer to your question, Morra, is, as a trauma chaplain, I was 24. I was trying to make sense of the pain and grief that I was supposed to be working in, and I just found that systems theory and paying attention to not only the anxiety bubbling under the surface in my life, but also what’s going on in the room when I’d walk into a room where someone had died or someone’s dying, all the subtext between people kind of raises to the surface. And when you’re trained in systems theory, you learn how to notice it. And I think you can offer a different level of care to people when you can care for what’s going on between people as much as what’s going on inside them. So, that’s kind of how it started for me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And also, I would assume what you’re bringing to other people and how that interplays with what’s already going on.

STEVE CUSS: That’s right, yeah. For every caregiver, we infect the room we’re in, or in systems language, we become part of the system, whether we want to or not. I think one of the great mistakes for an organizational leader is that they never believe they’re above the system.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You use the word caregiver. Is a CEO of a technology firm a caregiver in your parlance?

STEVE CUSS: Yeah, I mean, I would go so far as to provocatively say they should be the caregiver in chief. I think if you want the most productive employees, and if you want the biggest profit margins and the best return for your investors, caring for the people under you, under your care, is the best way to get that done.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I would only wish more of that. So, before we dive into burnout, which is what I really would love to focus on here, you have this sort of interesting phrasing where you talk about internal and external leadership anxiety, and I’m curious if you could just define for us the difference between internal versus external.

STEVE CUSS: Yeah. And I guess we probably should define leadership anxiety first, because anxiety is a big word. Obviously, everyone’s talking about it nowadays, but I think we’re still talking too broadly about it. And so, there are forms of anxiety that I don’t cover, but leadership anxiety is chronic anxiety. And every leader I know carries quite a high level of chronic anxiety. So, if your listeners are listening to this and say, “Well, this doesn’t really apply to me, because I’m not an anxious person-”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.

STEVE CUSS: Just find someone in your life who loves you, maybe it’s a spouse or a child, and I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you when they know that you’re anxious. Because leadership anxiety isn’t just worry and fear. Sometimes, it’s the need to do something. Sometimes, it’s the need to have the last word to shut someone down. Mansplaining is always an anxious response, and so is gossip. So, leadership anxiety or chronic anxiety is when you think you have a need that you don’t really have. So, if you’re a CEO of a large organization, you may have a strong need to look like you’re really achieving, and that drives you. And so, if somebody thinks you’re not achieving, that could generate anxiety.

In my field, it’s very common for a pastor to be chronic people-pleasers. We always want people to like us. We’re kind of all a bunch of Golden Retrievers. And so, if somebody doesn’t like me, my body thinks that I’m under threat because I have this belief that I must be liked to be okay. But of course, being a leader, and being a faith leader that uses public speaking to make provocative statements, of course, people are going to go away angry at me or provoked and upset.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay. I have to just poke at the mansplaining. Talk to me about why mansplaining… Well, okay, first, is mansplaining-

STEVE CUSS: You know why already, Morra.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I know why, but I just want to hear it so that I feel better and then can play it for many men in my life. Is mansplaining an internal anxiety focus? Is it external?

STEVE CUSS: It’s external-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is it about anger? What’s it about?

STEVE CUSS: It’s about a man’s need to have an answer. I grew up for a variety of complicated reasons not feeling like a very smart kid. And it’s no one’s fault, I was raised by loving parents, and I had a good upbringing, but I just saw myself in the world as not a smart person. Actually, quite honestly, I saw myself as a stupid person. And that was part of the way I viewed my life, and so, I have this chronic need. I’ve been working on it for 20 plus years now, but I have this chronic need to look like the smartest in the room. And there is something when you are at the center of power. I’m a six-foot-two, deep-voiced white man. I’m in the very center of power in our culture, but I’m not aware of that.

I’ve actually only been made aware of that recently in the last couple of decades, that you think you need to tell people what to do. And you actually think you’re being helpful, but it’s actually just an anxious response. It’s quelling a need that you have, because the woman that you just interrupted and spoke over and explained something to, she actually didn’t need you to do that, and nor did the people in the room.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: One thing that you say that I think probably provokes a response in a lot of people is you say that burnout and stress, which are two of our favorite topics, especially in leadership land and success land, are not about workload, but rather, they are caused by anxiety created within yourself and interpersonally. So, I would imagine a lot of people just hear that and think, what’s he talking about? I’m not anxious. I’m just really, really stressed out because I work so hard. So, I really want to dive in and deconstruct this. Because our response would be to say, “No, I’m just really overloaded, and you don’t understand me.”

STEVE CUSS: Yeah. I think it’s a great misunderstanding of our day that we believe workload is what causes burnout. And what it really is, is a pile up of chronic anxiety that we either know we have and can’t manage, or I think what’s even more dangerous is we don’t know we have it. Most driven leaders I know who are successful, who have really done amazing work of building a company, they actually think all of those talents that got them to this place are all an asset, and they are an asset, but they all have a shadow side to them as well. And I think if you have the courage to look at the shadow side, you don’t lose the asset. You just become a healthier entrepreneur, a healthier CEO. And so, chronic anxiety shows up anytime we don’t get what we think we need in any given situation. I’m talking about that garden-variety, day in and day out, challenging relationships with staff, challenging marriage, challenging family dynamics, stuff that causes anxiety in us because we’re not getting what we believe we need.

So, I do, Morra, have to just turn to a religious tradition. Both the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition have a rich history of teaching about idolatry. I think we’ve made a terrible mistake nowadays where I think we say to ourselves, well, “We’re so much smarter than them. We don’t have idols anymore.” I think we have a real arrogance in our society because of technology. We basically say, “Well, we put a man on the moon, and we invented WiFi, so we don’t have idols.” But an idol is any good thing that you make into an ultimate thing. Money is a great thing, but if you make money an ultimate thing, you’re now a slave to it. The thing that you thought you had in your control, it now has you in its control. And in the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures, I think that’s where their concept of repentance actually comes from.

I think repentance has a bad rap in our society because it sounds like an angry preacher telling us off. But I believe it’s actually a god, or whatever divine being you might or might not believe in, inviting you to turn from the thing that is killing you and instead turn toward life. For your average leader, we all have a number of idols that we’re living for that we may not realize, [inaudible] good things, but we’ve made them into “have to have them” things. I know for me, when my kids were younger, respect was an idol in my life. I noticed that if one of my kids’ friends would disrespect me, I’d get unusually angry. And so, for you, listeners, that’s one of the ways you can identify anxiety is when you have an overreaction.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How does this contribute then to me feeling burned out? I mean, that’s what I’m trying to unpack because I mean, that makes a lot of sense. How does it all accumulate into burnout?

STEVE CUSS: Well, anxiety, if it’s not addressed, just grows to an unmanageable level in our body. If you’ve ever thought you’re doing fine and put in a hard day’s work or a hard week’s work, and then you wake up in your day off and you’re just like in a brain fog, that’s your body telling you, you’re carrying a lot. But it’s not like… For most leaders I know, when they’re not anxious, the more they produce, the more energized they feel. That’s the fallacy, when we say, “Oh, I’ve got too much on my plate.” Most leaders I know love having a lot on their plate. They love the feeling of accomplishment. For most people I know, the items on their plate aren’t the problem. It’s when things aren’t going as well, say, when they have to have a difficult conversation with a coworker. It’s when there’s a pileup of criticism.

And all of that is the reason we get anxious because, whether it’s our people-pleasing idol or our need to be efficient … I know some people who believe the lie that they have to get it exactly right the first time, every time, and they kind of accomplish that. And so, when they get it wrong, they go into shame or condemnation. And that is what does the damage. That’s what makes you want to quit, for example.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, that makes a lot of sense. What are some ways, especially… I think, for me, I mean … I talk a lot about the fact that I’m an introvert, and people really provoke me, and I have extreme reactions to people in that I’m both very tuned in and empathetic to people but that I also, I find them overwhelming, over stimulating. Is that my relational anxiety that could lead to burnout? I used to be a political consultant, and I would work on a campaign, and I would… That being with all those people and juggling all their needs, right? Or a lot of managers might hear this and think, “Oh my god, yes, it’s all these people’s needs that are creating burnout.” Is that anxiety?

STEVE CUSS: Yes, that’s a great example, Morra. So, when I heard you talk about, “I’m an introvert, and I was a political consultant and all these needs,” what that triggers in me is the reason you would be in potential for burnout is because you believe somehow that your job is to try to help meet their needs. So then, what I would be doing if I were consulting in this, is I would be helping you – if you felt safe – to try to name the needs that you believe you are unable to meet. So, just in a short interview like this, I would invite the average leader to say, okay, what is mine to carry, and what is theirs to carry? And I think what happens is, if you care for people, you end up believing that you should be carrying something that is, in fact, theirs to carry.

And it’s not being irresponsible, and it’s not making people do all the work. It’s just getting real clarity on, for example, with a political candidate, can I meet all his needs? This idea that I need to be on call 24/7, and everything’s always urgent, and all of that, that has nothing to do with workload. That has to do with unmet expectations over time.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. I’m listening to this, and I’m thinking, well, yes, maybe my leader is anxious, and yes, they’re creating all this, but what can I do? I need my job.

STEVE CUSS: Yeah. So, what you can do is you can define your values. In family systems theory, this is the beginning of differentiation, and your listeners can Google “differentiation.” But step one is just define your values. Who am I? What kind of person am I? What kind of person am I becoming? And then, when the system is violating your values, it ends up… It’s not an easy choice, but it becomes a simple choice. Am I going to stay in the system or not? And what’s my ability to affect change so that I can hold my values? Maybe over time with this candidate, I can help them see that “24/7, everything always urgent” is never going to work. But maybe the candidate says that’s all right. There’s plenty more morrows where that one came from, and maybe they just see people as disposable.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That is indeed what happened, but okay, well, keep going.

STEVE CUSS: Yeah. So then, that’s the way it goes. So then, I mean, that’s the reason I’m a pastor and not in politics, not the only reason. But I also recognize, Morra, I think it’s very important. In my system, I’m at the top of the food chain. So, I want to confess, it’s easy for me to talk about this because I have the most power to affect change. But if an administrative assistant in my church were listening to this, and I was not a healthy leader, they’d be in a really tough spot.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, you write about over-functioning leaders, how do I know if I am one? And what is that?

STEVE CUSS: Oh, yeah. You can know you’re an over-functioning leader if somebody is not performing to your level of satisfaction, and your solution is some form of you do more about it instead of them. That’s generally the sign. So, maybe they’re not performing, and you have a meeting, and you try to show them where they need to step up, and they don’t, so then you do more. You have another meeting. And what you’re doing is you believe the lie that insight works for people who are unmotivated to change. So, the general signs of an over-functioner are the people who say, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me,” or if they say, “It’s quicker if I just do it,” or if they always find themselves being the smartest person in the room. If they’re in a series of meetings and didn’t learn anything from another person, they’re a classic over-functioner. It’s not healthy for the team. And they’re definitely shortchanging their team because there are people who have learned not to share a smart idea with a person who needs to be the smartest in the room.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you’re probably increasing your likelihood of burnout exponentially because your system just can’t take all that, being so smart and being so perfect and doing everything.

STEVE CUSS: I tell you, your people [inaudible 00:19:27] and they’ll resign, and you’ll say, “Well, they were the problem.” And then, you’ll notice that you’re churning people. You’ve got an annual turnover rate of 30 to 50% or something.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question sort of asks you to zoom out, because you see so many different microcosms of work and leadership, are there big picture issues in workplace culture or even society that you see that you think are currently increasing our anxiety and our mental health concerns and burnout in general?

STEVE CUSS: I do. Murray Bowen, the founder of Family Systems Theory, began his work in 1954, so it’s a relatively old theory. He was saying in the mid 1960s that society is on a path of regression, and here we are in 2019. I think a couple of the ways it has manifested is we have lost the capacity to listen to each other while staying connected, particularly politically. And I think social media has inflamed our inability to listen to those with whom we disagree while staying connected to them. The other thing I’m seeing – and I feel a little stuck on this one, Morra, because I am aware that I’m a person of privilege, so it almost feels like I have the benefit of being able to say this – is we’ve lost all of our patience to live in a broken society. It’s like we suddenly need everything to be fixed now.

And I think people are getting worn out on the 80 to 90 genuine issues that have to be addressed in our society. And the reason I’m so sensitive about saying that is most of those issues don’t personally affect me, so it’s very easy for a person like me to say it. But I think we are generally seeing ourselves as the victim of other people. And I think we would be freer if we could see how we are perpetrating the problems. On a macro level, our society would do much better if every one of us could first say, “What am I doing that makes the situation worse?” Instead of first saying, “You did this to me.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or, “It’s all so bad, I’m just going to give up.” Because that’s tempting too.

STEVE CUSS: Yeah, nothing can be a doom. So, I think, let’s go back to being a political consultant. It’s not the candidate’s fault if you’re burned out. It’s that you had some complicity, whether you bought into the system or believed that you had to do it. It doesn’t even mean it’s your fault. It’s just this understanding of, “You know what? I agreed to be on call 24/7, and when he or she would call where every matter was always urgent, I just went with it. I never said no, because I was afraid I’d lose my job.” And then, what I would be doing in that role is trying to… “Well, what happens if I lose my job? What happens then? What if I’m homeless, or…” It just really helps to get to the bottom of your fear and try to get really real on, “What am I actually afraid of, and what are the chances that it’s going to happen?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Steve Cuss, thank you so much.

STEVE CUSS: Oh, this was a treat. Thanks, Morra. Thanks for having me on.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Performance anxiety conjures up an image of an athlete getting ready for a big game or a speaker getting ready for their TED Talk, right? And we all know the feeling, if you work, when something big is coming up, and you’re nervous. But the truth is, public speaking is everywhere, and it’s rarely at a podium. As my guest, Leah Bonvissuto, says, it’s in video conferencing, giving and receiving feedback, speaking up in your staff meeting, meeting someone in the hallway, or giving an impromptu presentation. And this everyday conversation is high stakes. Our guest, Leah Bonvissuto, says many emerging leaders feel anxiety every day in everyday interactions, especially if you’re transitioning into a new role where you need to be more external facing or have more executive presence.

And the thing that she and I will dive into is that often these terms, which frankly mean nothing, are coated in bias, gender bias, race bias, age bias, bias against your personality, if you’re quieter or more introverted, and yet, they exist and persist. And we have to deal with them. So, we’re going to have a really, really practical conversation. I guarantee you will leave my conversation with Leah with a new skill set. Leah is the founder of Present Voices where she helps people speak their truth at work. So, Leah, you say that, “I believe the spoken voice is the most powerful vehicle for change in the world,” which is an amazing… and rings true to me as a sentiment. But so many of us struggle to articulate what we mean to say, and many of us struggle to merely be heard. How does your work address this?

LEAH BONVISSUTO: I have been for my whole life aware of the fact that those people who this comes naturally to have exceeded in ways that those of us who it comes less naturally to have not. And I’ve been so interested in this since I was a child with social anxiety, since I was called shy, and I started to explore the ways that those of us who might be socially anxious, who might call ourselves introverts, can really turn ourselves out in the world in a way that still feels truthful and authentic. I have come to know in my work that most people have trouble articulating themselves in the moment when there are high stakes at work. And I’m talking 85 to 90% of people.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Is this new? Is it just the nature of work today with how much we’re multitasking, when we have analytical people being more forward facing, and we have remote teams who feel less connected and more isolated? Or has it always-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or obsession with collaboration too, constantly interacting.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Exactly. And also with emerging leadership. And we are giving younger leaders more roles and asking more of them without enough support or training. And so, has it always been this way? Have people at this rate always felt this unable to articulate themselves when the stakes are high? Or, is it the workplace today, and that this is a changing dynamic, and we have to adjust in order to account for that?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, probably all of the above. I mean, it’s funny. One of the things that I just reflected on while you were talking for now is that, I’m an introvert, and I have really, really bad social anxiety, but I show that by blurting. I’m a blurter. And so, I’m not quiet. I’m a little discombobulated. But the effect is the same. I’m not able to articulate clearly what I mean, but it’s not because I’m not talking. It’s because I’m not talking strategically because of my social anxiety, if that makes sense.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: It absolutely does. I see a certain constellation of experiences amongst most people that I talk to, losing train of thought, making themselves small or speaking fast, second guessing themselves, difficulty maintaining eye contact. And then, one thing you mention, which is perhaps saying too much, and I like to put this in the context of taking space or making space… I work with a lot of people, for example, who take a lot of space verbally, like you’re saying. They might take up space and fill the silence in order to not put the onus on the person they’re speaking with to fill the conversation gap. We as Americans are not very comfortable with silence.

But also, I would see in that same person that seeks space physically that they will give up their space. They will not take enough space physically, and they’ll make themselves small. We know that the more space you take up, the more confident you feel. And yet if you are shrinking in your chair or perhaps speaking fast, you might inadvertently be giving your body the signal to lose confidence and to up your anxiety.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: One of the things that this has stirred for me … I got feedback from actually two people, that I trust and really like, that I sabotage myself in serious work settings, and I am not taken seriously as a businesswoman. Both people offered to work with me on this, and of course, I was too scared to take them up on it. And so, I have been left, for months now, with this feeling of, “Oh my god, no one takes me seriously.” And I’m a writer, so I’m really comfortable in my words. I am tending more to retreat in my words. But when I walk into a room now, I am crippled by that anxiety. What the hell do I do to pull myself out of the abyss?

LEAH BONVISSUTO: I understand, and of course, it sounds like these two people who you trust were very well meaning in this feedback. But then again, what do you do with this feedback if it’s not tangible, and it feels like a judgment on yourself? Personally, this does not come naturally to me. What I do … I’m pulled to this work because I have had to develop my own process for interacting in the world. It’s something I’m calling social work anxiety. It’s not anxiety about doing the work. It’s anxiety about talking about the work. And I imagine that if-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or even being at work, I would imagine, too.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Yes. Well, yes, absolutely. And if you have a tendency to fill the silence, as you mentioned before, is that something that resonates with you?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And I blurt.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: And you blurt. So, how does blurting manifest for you? Give me an example.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I won’t be strategic. I’ll just say exactly what comes to my head, or I won’t filter. I sometimes think I offend people, I overshare, and my good thoughts get buried by noise.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Sure. So, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough time to think, enough silence in which to think. But again, going back to the physical manifestations of this, 93% of communication is nonverbal. 93% of communication is tone of voice, body language, facial expression, eye contact, everything but the words, and yet we tend to spend so much time on the words, especially when we’re speaking. We think that we can craft perfect words, and yet it’s so unimportant. So, I would go back, and in terms of your physicality, are you someone who leans in or lean back, particularly in these sorts of interactions?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And it’s funny, of course, the image when you say lean back that pops into my mind is this sort of alpha male, jerk boss who’s in the meeting, right? But he’s leaning back in his chair, his hands are behind his head, and his feet are on the desk like he owns the place, right? And he has many better things to do than be in this meeting.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: That’s something to listen to, right? For those of us who do not take the space that we deserve, it is really something to listen to. And to give you an example, when I am “managing up” – this is another one of these terms that we’re hearing so often now – when I am managing up, meaning going in to meet with a CEO or someone when I really need to prioritize my own confidence, I will always lean back. I will lean back and then let my hand gestures be very expansive. I will project my voice so that I’m taking up a lot of space, and I’m really feeding my confidence and working against my anxiety. But when I’m meeting with a new client, I will lean in, I will give that person all of my power, and I want that person to feel confident.

And when we talk about unconscious behaviors, this is something I talked about a lot, there’s this almost judgment that unconscious behaviors are bad. By unconscious behaviors, I’m talking about fillers, the way that we fill the space between our thoughts, qualifiers, the way that we might lessen our confidence unintentionally, or apologies, where we can literally apologize for taking up space and being in the room. Here’s the thing. I am a big believer that all of these behaviors have a purpose when used intentionally. And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these behaviors. The only problem with these behaviors is when they’re unintentional, when I’m unaware of them, because they become signals to me of something else going on.

Another problem with something like fillers is because 93% of communication is nonverbal. If I’m hearing the same sound, like an “um” every… When I’m… All of a sudden, I think I’m hearing the same thing, and so my brain turns off, and I go up to my to-do list of what I need to do later today. And I’m again not giving myself time to think. And when I see people slow their rate of speech so that it aligns with their thought process, all of a sudden, they feel more in control of what they want to say. And that’s often all they need.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay, I want to talk about beforehand and in the room scenarios that I hear a lot. Do you have advice or tricks on how to sort of get ready to walk into that room?

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Yes, I absolutely do. I do have very significant social anxiety that was debilitating for a very long time. I also have very fun, breath-based anxiety, which has wonderful manifestations like feeling like your heart is in your chest, and air hunger, and like you might die, and so my work has really been my cure in a lot of ways. I go into organizations, even the most conservative organizations, and I talk about this, and I find that every single person in the room feels this way. Quite honestly, that is 50% of this. It really is. If you can acknowledge that other people feel this way and feel less isolated in it, because anxiety wants us to be alone, it’s how it feeds on itself, that is so much of this. But then, there are very practical ways to prepare before you go in.

The first thing, and I think this is the most important thing, is that the nerves are not going to go away. It is adrenaline. I’ve asked many medical professionals about this. I’ve gotten some differing opinions, but a lot of people tend to agree that someone who enjoys public speaking might call that energy and those sensations and adrenaline, for someone who hates public speaking, might call it anxiety. But it is very similar from a physiological standpoint. And I like to use a term that my client, Katie McKenna, used. It’s called nerve-cited. She’s nerve-cited, and it welcomes the nerves, it brings the nerves, and the more that you can welcome the nerves and bring the nerves, the better.

When I decided to take a deep dive into my breath-based anxiety … It was so debilitating for so many years that I would check myself into the emergency room convinced that I was having a heart attack. What I started to do at that time was I would go running. Running was my biggest trigger. I knew it was going to simulate a panic attack. And I would go running, and I would welcome it, and I would feel my heart beating out of my chest, I would practice speaking through it, and I would say, “You’re not dying.” And doing that enough really helped me at least trust again that idea and sit back into myself, instead of trying to leave myself for some tools out there or be someone else that’s not myself. And I recommend that all the time with clients. If you like Spin Cycle, do it there, get your heart right up, and simulate this sensation that we are so afraid of that is so common.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And does that help you with your breath as you prepare to give a speech? Because that’s also a huge issue, right?

LEAH BONVISSUTO: It does.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Your voice sounds weird if you can’t breathe well.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Sure. When I work with people, we work on how they can build their voice and how they can speak forwardly. I often use the analogy of speaking to New Jersey because I’m often in Manhattan, and if you can build the sound of your voice… And it’s not shouting, this is really a matter of projection. There’s a wonderful tool called the second circle. This was developed by a theater practitioner in the UK named Patsy Rodenberg. It’s the idea that some of us only project to our first circle, and we’re not projecting much past our bodies. Some of us project to our third circle, very much projecting past the people that we’re speaking to. And that if you can find the second circle in any interaction, you are actually going to meet the people that you’re trying to connect with. It’s not a tool of volume. It’s a tool of projection. Now, I am naturally a 0.5, and if I’m nervous, I’m a 0.2, below first circle. So, I am going to find my four if I’m teaching. I’m going to project myself outside of myself and really try to reach the last person in the last row.

Also, though, and this is a huge thing for people who have breath-based anxiety, you have to ask yourself, is it helpful for me to ground myself, or do I need a lift? So this morning, as I’m prepping to come and prepare for this podcast interview, I really wanted a nice coffee. But I knew that since I have a tendency to feel flighty, to feel out of body, where my anxiety makes my heart race, that is not very helpful. So, instead, I opted for warm tea, which I never do. I also particularly wore shoes that are going to be grounding. I booked myself a conference room instead of a phone booth because I wanted to be able to project into space. These are all choices that I made about how I can make myself feel grounded. And then, I have a preparation module that I walk through with all of my clients, and they make it adaptable to themselves. But it’s a five-step process. It can take anywhere from a minute to hours and hours depending on how much you want to prep. And it’s not about content. It’s about mindset.

How can I really focus my attention in this particular speaking engagement so that I know exactly who I’m talking to? I know how I want to make them feel, which will direct my energy. I have thought about the logistics of the situation. I might have prepared some content, but that might be in the form of two or three bullets. And then lastly, and this is the root of all the work I do, of, what is a physical tool that is going to anchor my attention so that I’m not lost in thought, not thinking about another bad past experience that I might have had a few months ago, not thinking about what this person was thinking about me, and not thinking that I don’t know what they’re going to ask next? I’m rooting my attention in the physical present moment. And that in itself is going to help me project myself and help me focus my energy so that I can speak in a way that feels truthful and rooted.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is that also a good tool for in the middle of a meeting? Even if you’re not giving a speech, per se, but you’re part of a meeting, and you say something, as I often do, that you feel embarrassed, guilty, you’re stewing on, and all of a sudden, you’re a million miles away, and you’re in a shame cycle. Does that help bring you back? Because that’s a tough one.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Of course. And I always say that these tools should be integrated 5% of the time. And if you do that, that’s successful. When you’re changing these lifelong behaviors, and especially for those of us who are driven, it can feel like we’re failing at just another thing if we set up unrealistic expectations, and so instead, it is essential to use the tools as a reset button. You will naturally go back to your innate tendencies, which might be not cultivating silence, but might be the opposite of that. And when you notice it, you can reset to an anchor like leaning back. Leaning back physically is going to get… It’s going to create one more step to interjecting in that conversation.

Leaning back is going to physically manifest more space and time for yourself. But it also might be a mantra, something like “make space or cultivate silence” is one of my favorites. “Cultivate stillness” is another one of my favorites. The way that I approach this work, and it’s really been my personal process, is that I believe that communication is like meditation with another person. Are you a meditator, Morra?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: No, I’m a wannabe.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: I often ask that question, and people will say, “Well, I try to meditate.” And they say, “But I can’t make my thoughts stop racing.” To which I say, “Oh my goodness, who can?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Thank you for saying that.

LEAH BONVISSUTO: Of course. My father was a meditator when I was a child, and it was very private, and I never understood it. And a few years ago, I really took a deep dive into it and learned very painfully that for me, meditation is not about stopping thoughts. It’s about realizing I am lost in thought. And then without judgment, I move my attention to something physical. And then, within moments, I’m back up lost in thought, and I move my attention to something physical. And the actual muscle I’m building is that gentle moving of myself to a different attentional focus and not slapping myself on the arm.

And the way that I relate this to communication is that when I’m in conversation with someone or in a meeting, I’m going to choose that physical anchor. It might be eye contact, it might be leaning back, it might be having one of my feet on the floor and moving my physical attention to where my foot sits in my shoe. It might be a prop, even something like a stress ball, and that depends on where you are, of course. But something to actually move your attention to a physical sensation, and you will be back lost in thought within moments and back to your habitual behavior. And then, when you realize it, you bring your attention back. And all of these tools have the happy benefit of jump-starting a connection with you and your audience.

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. And 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-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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