The Anxiety of Being the “Only”

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 look at mental health through the lens of being an “only” or a first. In the context of this episode, when I say “only,” I mean someone who is a minority at their workplace because of their race background, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity. We’ll examine how being an only, or the first, can impact your anxiety and your mental health and how being a member of a minority group could affect your comfort levels with disclosing an anxiety disorder. We’ll look at being an only through the lens of an expert on anxiety among African American professionals, Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, who’s our first guest today.

Our second guest is Nilofer Merchant, who wrote one of my favorite books, “The Power of Onlyness.” Because your onlyness can also be your power. The good news is that power is changing, and dominance is shifting slowly, but surely, away from forcing those of us who seek success to conform to a certain norm. And let’s face it, in many workplaces, that norm is the privileged white man. We’ll dive into that with Nilofer and an interesting example. So, we’ll flip the script on being an only with author and technologist Nilofer Merchant and talk about how to find strength and power in your own onlyness.

Angela Neal-Barnett knows that feeling of the only. In fact, she was the first Black woman to be tenured and promoted to the rank of professor in the Kent State University Department of Psychological Sciences, where she directs the program for research on anxiety disorders among African Americans. Dr. Barnett’s work focuses on helping Black women and girls overcome anxiety and fear. Dr. Neal-Barnett is also the architect and developer of the Build Your Own Theme Song app and the author of Soothe Your Nerves, the Black woman’s guide to understanding and overcoming anxiety, panic, and fear.

Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, welcome to The Anxious Achiever.

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here Morra.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I wanted to ask you a question about your experience as an only, because you’ve got your first status loud and proud on your bio, but what has it been like for you to be a first and an only throughout your career?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There’ve been times when it’s been really wonderful, and there have been times when I thought I should get paid for being Black. So, it’s been ups and downs with challenges and triumphs. Sometimes, I think that you do it so often that you just don’t realize you’re an only until it really just hits you in the face. I had an incident rather recently where somebody said to me, “We just didn’t understand the value of your work.” And I thought, “I wonder if other people get that.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What do you say to your grad students? Because I know you have a lot of grad students.

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: What I try to do with all my grad students is protect their spirit. And so, when we start out any lab meeting, we start out with a quote or a song that’s designed to protect their spirit because of the type of research that we do, which focuses on Black Americans. And then I just try to model, “Here’s what happens when this happens, here are our options. Here’s the option that I’m going to take.” And I think for anyone who is an only, there’s a lot of spiritual or mindful work that has to go on in order for you to do it day after day, week after week, year after year. Or else, the anxiety of the depression and the anger consume you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about your work. You’ve written, “To fully understand anxiety in Black women, we must understand how Black women are viewed in this country.” So how are Black women viewed, and how does this contribute to their anxiety?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Well, there are three major images or views of Black women. Of course, everybody sees the strong Black woman, the woman who keeps on keeping on, that can handle anything. And that’s just not true. That’s just how people view Black women. Then there’s the Jezebel, or the video vixen, the highly sexualized Black woman that people use to stereotype Black women. And finally, there’s the angry Black woman image we get to see over and over again.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So I have a question that might sound naive, but you’re a Black woman, you’ve gone to a fancy – not you personally, this is a hypothetical – law school, you are working at a fancy firm, and you have all the credentials in the world. How do those stereotypes come into play when, theoretically, your credentials stand on par with everyone else’s in the office?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: So they make play in one or two ways. Either people say, “Well, you’re not like other Black women,” which goes to the idea that people believe there’s only one way to be Black in this country. And you’ll hear people in corporate law or corporate MBA say – this is just what people say to me – “You’re not like other Black women or other Black men.” And then the other way is they try to fit you into one of those stereotypes.


ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Well, they may see you as the strong Black woman, so for anything that happens, they come running to you and tell you all your problems, because you can help them fix it. The other way of that, if you assert yourself, then they say, “Oh, we got an angry Black woman in the office.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What are the stakes of failure? A lot of what we talk about on the show is, when you are an anxious person, you might have a stronger will to perfectionism, or you have catastrophized failures at work that other people might not even notice. And I’m curious, I am thinking of the pressure and, “Oh my gosh, if I screw up, if I don’t make it, I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting a community down.” And how does that play into anxiety?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Well, collectivism is what it’s called. When we do something, it’s not only our success, it’s the family’s success, and it’s the community success. I always tell people when I received my Ph.D. that 28 other people received it with me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s great though.

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: It is great. But when you’re anxious and then you’re an only, and you’re a first, then those three things then combine to make the failure feel worse than it actually is.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What do you say to that person who’s feeling, who’s up for a big promotion and is saying, “If I don’t get this, that’s it,” and who is driving themselves to a point. What do you say to them?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: What we say is, “So what?” Because what we’re really trying to get at is, what is the core fear? And if we can get to the core fear, then we can work to overcome that fear.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you would do this through therapy, through traditional mental health methods, or…?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Well, there are a couple of things that we do. Oftentimes we find that, at least in the beginning, many Black women are a little reluctant to do therapy. And so what we do is we use something called sister circles, and our sister circles are called SOS. So, we bring together four to ten Black women. And there’s some things that we use to help them recognize and then reduce their anxiety. So, what I just did with you, the “so what?” we call it the “so what” cores.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that I want one.

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Again, because many of these women are sharing the same core fear. And what they haven’t understood is, they weren’t the only ones. Because remember you’re an only. And all of a sudden, you find out, “Wait, they have three other people who feel the way I do. I’m not alone.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Are there unique challenges that Black women might face if they do get that diagnosis, and then the workplace knows about it, or they’re in a mental health crisis at work?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Well, a couple of things, again, it’s an environment where there’s no one else there who’s Black, you’re the only one, then they just might overlook. Not overlook it, but just say, “Okay, she’s having some issues. I’ll just let her figure it out.” As opposed to what might happen if it was somebody who was of the majority race in the workplace, then people might say, “Okay, let’s see what we can do to help you.”

And then I think that to have a panic attack or to endure a social situation with social anxiety, it might be misconstrued. So, whenever I see an angry Black woman, I always want to assess for social anxiety. Because that anger might be a defense form when having to actually do the cocktail parties, the small talk, the fundraisers, the soirees, the galas, et cetera.

Because those images, again, come into play. So, most Black women, particularly those who have risen through, who are in high profile positions or in positions where they are the only, see themselves as strong Black women. And to be weak and a Black woman is an oxymoron. And mental health crises at work are a sign of weakness. And you’re the only one, anyway, the belief is that people are looking for an excuse to pull you down, to put you down, and now this happens. And so, you can’t show signs of weakness and, “Oh my goodness, I just did.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So Dr. Angela, if I’m an ambitious only, and I’m listening to this podcast, and I think, “Oh my gosh, I want a sister circle. I need to work on this,” what’s the first step I can take starting tomorrow to help address my anxiety in a real way that applies to my life?

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: I think the first step you can take is just to say, “You know what? I’m anxious.” That’s the first step. Just to say, “Okay, I’m anxious.” Or, “I think it’s me. I have anxiety.” Okay. Once you do that, everything else comes into place. And the second thing you do is, “Okay, let me ask for help.” Most Black women want help from someone who understands their issues and looks like them.

So, most HRs now have EAPs, or they have mental health professionals that they contract with.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Employee Assistance Programs, for the laypeople out there.

ANGELA NEAL-BARNETT: Yes. Employee Assistance Program. And you can certainly ask, “Here’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for someone who understands Black anxiety or the anxiety of the only.” And there are people out there who do specialize in that. And if your HR isn’t helpful, then there are a number of organizations, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which is, that can refer you to a therapist in your area who is the same race or is culturally competent.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Now, we’re going to talk to Nilofer Merchant, who is a person I admire so deeply. Nilofer’s work allows us to reclaim our onlyness as a strength, even when society might say it’s not. Claiming your spotlight and finding what your unique power are not only about your history and your experiences, Nilofer, but also about defining what the history and experience of your life have come to mean to you. How it gives you a unique perspective on the world and how you can bring that to work and add value.

So, define onlyness.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Onlyness, it’s that spot in the world where only one stands. It’s a source of ideas. I coined the term back in 2011, because I was trying to identify how we stop talking about differences in a way that subjugates one group. There’s “different people,” who happen to be people of color and women, and so on, and everyone else. And I’m like, “Well, actually, every single one of us is different.” And so, we need to center correctly on that spot in the world, in which only one stands, and stop making one group distinct and one group different. One group seen for what they can only offer and one group seen through the lens of otherness. So, onlyness is a way of bridging all that into one term.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that, because it throws otherness out the window, which it should have been thrown out a long time ago. So, why is onlyness an important concept for my audience, an ambitious professional who might struggle with anxiety or depression?

NILOFER MERCHANT: The one thing I probably say to people more than any other thing, when they’re talking to me one on one, is that for a long time, you’ve been conditioned to believe that somehow your “difference” is wrong and that you have to overcome some hurdle, and also this lean-in language of, “Just try harder.” And what I just want to say is you’re perfectly fine just as you are. And the fact that the world can’t see you, or doesn’t want to see you, well it’s a challenge. It’s in some ways not about you. We can look at it and separate ourselves and all that anxiety that we carry with it. We can separate that away from who we actually are.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to tell you that I just got really, really choked up. Because my son is on the spectrum and is dealing. And he’s incredibly social and warm. Most people are shocked to know. And he’s so socially attuned, and he’s just always struggling with things in school that identify him as “other.” And that’s what school and special ed and all of it, all of our structures, are built around, to accommodate the other but never say, “You have as much right to be here as anyone else, because you’re amazing the way you are.”

NILOFER MERCHANT: Yeah, exactly. So, for those of us who have been othered for so long, whether it’s because of our sexual orientation, our age, or whatever, all the different ways in which people can be othered, it means that between half and 70% of ideas are lost in the economy at a personal level. It says to us, those of us who’ve been otherized, that we don’t belong. When the truth is, we absolutely do belong. And in fact, the work world needs us. They need the ideas that we bring.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right, or if we’re going to belong, we better damn well fit into a certain box.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Well, that’s not really belonging, right? That’s like a half-life or something in the Hogwarts world. That’s not to be alive. And so, when I want you to belong, I want you to belong as your whole, full, authentic self that can bring all of your creativity and zaniness and everything to the table, because that’s ultimately what’s going to inform your distinct ideas.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, what would you say to that person who is going through some serious anxiety and just really working so desperately hard to hide it from coworkers, from colleagues, and from their boss? Because they don’t want to be seen as an other, or as someone who is almost to be pitied or felt for, which doesn’t mean having empathy, but you know what I mean.

NILOFER MERCHANT: When I first started this work on onlyness back in 2011, I said, “If you can see how Steve jobs was centered in his difference of loving calligraphy fonts in order for him to care about design the way he did, and you can see the effect on his industry, can you see that that distinct spot in the world, where only I stand, is just as valid?”

And I anchor against things like Jobs, because of course, I worked for him. So perhaps, it’s also my context of growing up in tech and having worked for him. But I just see it as being the thing that we celebrate in so many people, but then we turn and use it against another group. I’m like, “It’s actually the same thing.” Onlyness is to center that person’s zany perspective and allow it to come in, and then put the onus back on the other person and say, “Listen, you’ve got to figure out how to include, rather than preclude me from contributing.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. It’s like we save that for geniuses but not the rest of us. Well, I know that we’re both big fans of the work of Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School, who really explored tokenism. When you represent a group that’s less than 15% of the total makeup of your organization, you experience othering that can really constrain your ideas. But it also creates tremendous stress and anxiety in and of itself. And I’m curious, if you’re visibly different in a workplace, not that you may look like “everyone else” but you’re hiding something, then how does being an other diminish your power, and how can it create anxiety?

NILOFER MERCHANT: Well, so the data is 40 years old now, so she doesn’t get enough credit for having named it and claimed it so early. She said, “Listen, if you’re the only person in a room, you’re going to get stereotyped.” So, you’re going to get told, “Oh, women are not ambitious,” or “women are ambitious, and that shouldn’t happen.” You’re going to get named in a series of ways. And so, what I found really interesting about that data was to realize … so if the stereotype happens from the outside, and I can’t control how they view me, then I’ve got to go figure out how to change the room that I’m in.

So instead of feeling like that’s on you, in terms of overcoming the room, go find a better room. I’m going to tell you what that looks like.


NILOFER MERCHANT: Yeah. So Ava DuVernay – I just wrote about her in a Harvard Business Review, so we can point to that article as a resource. But one of the things that she was able to do … so here’s a director who was in Hollywood as a press person for many years and was trying to sell the idea of her doing films and so on. And every person she was talking to basically looked at her like she was a total weirdo. And like, “How dare you? Who are you? Why would you ask such a silly question?” And she talks about how she formed ARRAYNow. It’s called ARRAYNow, and it was a little production company. It sounds like such a big deal that she formed this thing. It was her and one other person. And what she was doing was creating a room where when she was proposing as a viable idea, it wasn’t going to get shot down.


NILOFER MERCHANT: And she slowly but surely built a room that said that stories centered on women and people of color were okay. So, she didn’t have to sit there and go, “Let me sell you on this idea that you find crazy.” Instead, she actually found a room of people and curated a group of people around her that said, “What you’re doing, I’m excited about.”


NILOFER MERCHANT: And that’s how early ideas need to get incubated and ultimately scaled. And so figuring out how to get yourself out of spaces where you’re going to be invisible anyway. Stop trying. Go build better rooms.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, you’re striking at the heart of a myth here, because we love a quest story. We love a driven leader who is unafraid to face the odds alone in order to do whatever it takes. We love that myth of exceptionalism. And so, part of what I worry about is that I hear people talking about forming ERGs, Employee Research Groups, right? And resource groups, where they can go and talk about anxiety. “I’m anxious, I’m depressed. I am going to do this. I have a mental health condition.”

And part of me worries that by doing that, they’re in a great room in the ERG, but they come back to “the rest of the office,” and they become that person with the mental health condition who’s willing to talk about it. We’re making them exceptional, but part of what Kanter was also talking about is, when you are the only, you also have to be responsible for everyone who’s like you. You’re the mouthpiece for them in that room. So if I’m the person who’s out and proud about having a mental health disorder, I’m the anxious woman in the office.

NILOFER MERCHANT: They’re carrying a much bigger load.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Totally. And also, “Is that all I’m known for?” So what do I do there?

NILOFER MERCHANT: Right. I just answered this question when I was doing a workshop with a major tech company, and they had me do some follow-up work. And one of the first questions that was in the follow-up work was, “Are my people brown people? Are my people women? Are my people…” And I said, actually that’s the most important question, which is … Ava DuVernay was not saying, “I’m just building a room full of brown people, or just full of women.” What she was saying is, “I’m going to be a storyteller that centers women and people of color. Who else is interested in storytelling that is going to have this particular angle?”

And so, she got to define for herself what her people were. And so I think it’s totally fine if you end up having anxiety, and you really care about that issue, and you want to bring that forward, and that’s what you want to champion, cool. But what I want you to be able to do for your onlyness is define what matters to you. And identity can be vertical. Meaning, I was born a woman, I was born brown, whatever. Right? And it can also be horizontal, which is, “What is it I care about that connects me to the thing that you care about?” And I want onlyness. So when I say onlyness is centered in that spot only you stand in, you get to define what that identity is.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But you’re also saying that if you’re banging down the doors with what you care about, and no one else in the room you’re in is listening, stop banging, and go find a better room.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Find a better room, because ultimately, it will defeat you. Right? One of the things about … I’m now 51 years old, so I’ve watched several generations of women go to work. And I will make an observation that the generation before me, and I would say I’m on the cusp of that generation, basically tried to figure out how to be leaders like men.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Tell me your take on imposter syndrome and how you counsel people to think about it if they’re experiencing it.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Right. So imposter syndrome is, I basically say, “Listen, how can you be an imposter of your own life?” And so, what I think is happening sometimes is, when walking into a room and the predominant group of engineers behaves one way, we may want to behave another way. Or marketing behaves this way, and I don’t have that profile inside my thing. Let’s say I’m a super, super quiet guy, or let’s say I’m a guy who cares about raising my children really actively.

Those are all things that I might have to jettison, and I may adopt the norms of the majority group. And yet, if I am really celebrating my onlyness, I’m going to be the one that says, “You know what? I go home at 4:45 because I do daycare pickup. And I know it’s not the gendered role you’re all expecting, but that’s who I am. And I’m going to live true to myself.”


NILOFER MERCHANT: Right? And we can feel like imposters when we’re faking it the way we think other people expect us to behave. And we’ve walked away from our own power in that process. We’ve almost walked outside of ourselves to go adopt the norms of someone else.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m with you. And I know you and I have struggled and talked through this, but one of the questions that I get a lot from people who are ready to step into themselves is that they may be struggling and stepping into something that has a label. Like, “I have depression. I’m your marketing director and I’m really clinically depressed right now.” So how can you step into owning that at work and saying, “This is who I am. I was your great marketing director before. I’m still your great marketing director, but this is what I’m dealing with.” Without letting it almost define you or limit you in your own head?

NILOFER MERCHANT: Yeah. Some of this is how we hold it, right? So if we think about ourselves as, “I’m not enough if I’m not already perfect, if I’m not doing your business plan the way you want it done,” whatever. These are different ways in which we can have other people define us. And I think about it as three levels of conversation we have with ourselves. One is, I’m not enough, period. The next is, I’m enough if I do something and fit into a certain profile. “I’ll go make a business plan and create awesome PowerPoints,” or whatever. And the third one is, I’m enough just as I am.

And so what do I bring? What capacities do I bring today to add value into this room? And it could be, It could be that that person who was a great marketing campaigner in the past now has depression and says, “Our prior campaigns didn’t have enough sensitivity built in. Let’s actually talk about things in a different way.” And maybe her own mental health helps her have empathy with the audience in a different way.

I was a person, for a very long time, who didn’t want to live inside my own onlyness. Because that person, and I would almost point to myself now, was the person who was abused as a child, who had been raped by a serial rapist, who had been fired from a job, right? All these different things happened in my life. And over time, I’ve actually been like, “Yep, I was raped by a serial rapist, and it makes me really aware of what it is to be violated.” And so now, when other people are treated unfairly at this really deep level, I feel it. It has become almost a super skill.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So someone’s listening to us and hopefully feeling inspired. What is the first step that they take towards claiming their onlyness?

NILOFER MERCHANT: So, the biggest part of claiming onlyness is really just to look at what it is you care about. And I usually ask this in two major ways. First is, what is your history and experience that has informed and shaped what you care about today? And sometimes when I ask this question people will say things like, “Oh, I really care about equity and people’s safety,” or whatever. And they won’t share their dark side of that story. They won’t go where I just went, which is having been raped by a serial rapist. I really care about power dynamics because rape is fundamentally about power, right? They won’t own it. So, when you can claim your history and experience, both the positive and the shadow of it, you can have depth to understanding what it is you care about. That’s the first step.

Second one is to ask, “What would I do with all that?” So, the way I actually ask the question is, “If you had the magic wand, the one that in Disney movies turns pumpkins into carriages and mice into horses, what would you use the magic wand to do?” And I don’t know about you, but usually people, as soon as I ask that question, they have something that sparks in their mind.


NILOFER MERCHANT: And I go, “Okay, now combine those two things for a minute. What would you do? How would you apply that spot in the world where only you stand, which is a function of your history and experience?” That first side I just talked about, as well as your visions and hopes where that magic wand moment gets to, what would you do with it? And usually within a little bit of time, that process can be just a really clarifying thing of saying, “Here’s what I care about.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about fitting in, because that’s something that is super powerful in your book. Because I think it’s something that our inner 12-year old can relate to. There’s no one that I’ve ever met who doesn’t relate to the concept of, “Oh my gosh, do I fit in?” It’s such a powerful way in … I think about your work. And in your book, you say, 61% of people admit to covering up their true selves. And tell me if this is the right statistic, 45% of white men too. That always makes me interested and curious. And what’s the relationship between anxiety and this covering-up? It seems obvious but just give me your answer.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Yeah. So, the first thing is 61%, just think about that. It’s that well over a majority of people in a room are sitting there trying to fake it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s right. Even the boss, probably.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Even the boss. And in fact, just the other day, there was some research published that said, “Listen, if there are three or more women on the board, people have a lot more freedom to be themselves.” And I said, actually I read the research, and I thought to myself, “Actually, it’s not about the women. It’s about the fact that as soon as you’ve let enough difference in the room, all difference can manifest.” That’s what ends up happening. And so, this thing about 40%, even 45% of white men doing it, shows how predominant an issue it is. So, I think about my husband, who is a relatively quiet guy. He will wait to suss out the room before he’ll start commenting.

He’ll come home sometimes from work and say, “I didn’t get a word in edgewise, and I had quite a bit to say.” And he goes, “But only the loud people got the room today.” And then sometimes what they do is they assume that false identity of, “I’ll now be a loud person, and I’ll bow my way to the table because that’s how it works.” And that’s a form of fitting in.

Here’s some other examples. I had a major financial guy say to me, “I will never tell anyone in this room on this idea I have about serving a new bank.” And I was like, “Why wouldn’t you tell them? It seems like a brilliant idea that would expand the market share of the company.” He goes, “Yeah. In order for me to tell that story, I’d have to reveal that I understand poverty, in this room.” And then he actually pointed out all the Hermes ties. He goes, “That’s a $195 tie. That’s a $195 tie. That’s 195.” And every day, they wear different Hermes ties at this company. And he says, “So, there is no way that I’m actually showing up as my full self.” And here’s what I always say to people [crosstalk 00:34:07].

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Does he wear a Hermes tie now?


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah, of course he does.

NILOFER MERCHANT: So, it’s a form of covering, right? It’s a form in which he’s completely figured out how to adopt the norms. It’s women who have designer bags, and women of color especially will show up in their first career job with a designer bag because they’re trying to show that they fit into white women’s-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s a signal.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Yeah. So, trying to signal a white woman’s cultural status. It’s a bag. So, “Okay, I’m going to go buy that bag.” So, there’s all these different ways in which we cover up. And the way in which, in that case of the banking example, he’s pointing to the MS Tie, he had a profoundly interesting idea that he was not bringing to the table that could have served the entire company, let alone the marketplace. What I always say when I’m talking to people is, “Listen, we’re mostly all doing it. As soon as some of us break the pattern, the whole thing comes to [inaudible]. Because everyone actually really wants to be their full, authentic self.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Baby steps to being you. So I’ll share here how your work really changed my life. And I say this also being fully conscious that I am a well-educated, well-off white woman. Heterosexual, married, very, very much privileged, in order to be authentic, which not everyone is. But I realized, in the idea of containing multitudes, that I could talk on air about things that are shame-filled and taboo, like my dependency on drinking and my anxiety and my meds, and my clients would still hire me anyway. It wouldn’t affect how they thought about me as their communications consultant, just because I like to work in bed and sometimes take Xanax.

NILOFER MERCHANT: And hide in the bathroom.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, absolutely. So, it was an incredible moment. Again, I’m privileged to be able to say that.

NILOFER MERCHANT: But do you remember when you didn’t know you could do that?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Of course, I didn’t. Who’s going to tell you that you can do that? Well, only you.

NILOFER MERCHANT: What’s that moment like, that little moment where you go from, “Can I just be a little bit more meek? Can I share this one thing that I’m keeping a secret”? Can you decode what went on in your head? And then I want to comment on it too.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I think for me, it was the first time that I admitted that I had only worked a certain number of hours a day, and I liked to go to Whole Foods or the grocery store in the middle of the day, I know this sounds lame, but that felt really transgressive. Because I felt like my clients would read that and think, “We’re paying her, and she’s not working hard.”

NILOFER MERCHANT: Right. So you found a way to actually give yourself permission to go do this thing that actually really served you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you know what happened instead?

NILOFER MERCHANT: They liked you so much more.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, they’d email me from their Gmails and be like, “Oh my God, how do you do it? I want to work from home too, but I can’t. Tell me how.”

NILOFER MERCHANT: Right. Because we’re all dying to be ourselves. That’s the big lesson. Right? And that’s … we give so much permission to certain people in the organization to be themselves. And then the rest of us try to figure out how to fit in. And what I think is actually happening is, even that group of people aren’t really served by the set of norms that have been established at work, which is workaholism and loud behavior and not listening to each other and competing for interests. All these negative behavior at work, that is almost always the default, started off with alpha male behavior, competing against each other. And what we need is a range of leadership constructs, a range of ways of figuring out how to show up to work with all of our different perspectives, being able to shape that workplace so that it’s human.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or not show up to work and still be great.

NILOFER MERCHANT: Exactly. Show up to work, not at work. Right, exactly.


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, 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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