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The Four Anxiety Traps

Often you’ll find yourself having those sleepless nights in Seattle and in other places and it’s only when you are asleep that you aren’t basically stuck with this metronome of worry. 

The first reason when someone wants to talk to me and it might be in a professional assignment to coach or to work with a senior team or it might be a 26 year-old Harvard MBA that has real doubt about something. 

The first thing that comes out of their mouths is something like you know at the end of the day I’m really not sure what my purpose is. In fact, I don’t know who I am and so the first fundamental anxiety that emerges when we’re going through various transitions and by the way growth happens through transitions, but every time we move from one job to another, every time we move from one relationship to another, every time we move from a different city to another city during those transitions or if we have a boss that we don’t like or we’re not keeping up the pace with other people we step back.  We start to get very, very insecure and we start asking questions about purpose. 

So the first anxiety that jumps out is this one of my identity.  Who am I?  What is my life about?  What is going to happen if I’m 35 and I still haven’t figured out what my purpose is, my reason for being?  So that’s the first anxiety.

The second anxiety that emerges is what I call significance and what I mean by significance is I don’t care what organization it is.  I don’t care if it’s a university.  I don’t care if it’s on the shop floor of a factory.  It doesn’t matter.  The question that individuals ask in the morning and they never say it out loud, but they’re thinking it, particularly during times of transition and particularly during times that they’re questioning their purpose.  The question they ask is does anybody but me care about whether I show up to work or not and it’s a question of significance.  It’s a question of do I matter?  I can’t tell you how important that is to humans to know what the answer to that is and I can’t tell you how important it is for them to get the answer of “what is my purpose?”

The third anxiety that people experience relates to what I would call connection.  The flip side of that is isolation and more and more that individuals are in some ways leaving communities where labor markets are moving, people are moving from city to city.  They’re moving from relationships to relationships.  In those olden days however, we define those olden days individuals would be raised in one community.  You felt like you had a neighborhood.  You felt like your neighborhood helped raise you and in fact, you might even go to a church community and there you had a network of individuals where you were raised or you lived close to relatives and you felt like there was a community.

I don’t want to steal from Secretary of State Clinton when years ago she talked about it takes an individual to raise a village, but the metaphor holds true when we look at organizational theory and when we look at organizational life, so the fundamental question that individuals ask is one about community, but more specifically they ask the question am I in or am I out and so when professionals show up to work they ask the question am I in the in club or am in the out club and then they start asking questions around so what did I do to deserve being voted off the island and then what we know and we have videos of it.  I have historical records of it.  I’ve written about it.  When someone starts to feel like they’re no longer a member of the club however we define it what that person does is start to isolate him or herself and they start to pull back.  They start to spend more time alone.  They start closing the door more.  They start doing more individual projects.  For some they begin to feel a little bit paranoid like people are watching them.  They start to obsess more and more about their careers and in the process it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because then they’re no longer focused on the work.  They’re obsessed about themselves.

So these three fundamental anxieties through our research have emerged loud and clear and we can talk about others on the margins around things like affirmation as an anxiety, but that for example, I think we could classify into significance and into isolation or connectedness and so this is the crux is that when Julie or Laura or Victoria or Tom are feeling any of these anxieties what we do is that we start using counterproductive behaviors to solve the problem and that’s why I call these next four kind of categories or behaviors traps and these traps are vicious cycles.  These are not virtuous cycles because all it does is make the situation worse. 

One of the first traps that we do and I have alluded to it earlier as I chatted with you.  The first trap is what I call business and what we do is when we start to question our purpose we become so uncomfortable with it we think you know just if I work harder this feeling is going to go away or I’ve had some people own up to the fact that what they say is on Friday night they say if I’m so exhausted on Friday that I can barely make it home I guess that means I’ve had a productive week.  I guess that means I’ve had a meaningful and purposeful week and then catch themselves saying that and saying to themselves well I’m exhausted and I’ve been really busy, but the question is have I been purposeful and I can go on and on about the other—again about the other anxieties, but the business trap is particularly acute for the high need for achievement personality because that is the first thing that they do is they start to do more and more and more and it’s interesting where I hear MBAs talk about in the locker room or I hear them talking in the cafeteria in the student union.  I hear them say things like, oh my gosh, I’ve got 40 emails or I have 400 emails and I’ve got all these voice mails and you know I’ve got all these different things I’ve got to do and I appreciate the fact that they have so much to do, but one of the other things in my mind is there seems to me like they’re either trying to convince themselves or they’re trying to convince the people around them that they must be important because of all the things they’ve got to do.  

The second trap is what I call comparing and what we do is that we quickly start to look at other people in terms of how much they’re achieving or how much they’re not achieving and through that process of comparison it gives us temporary relief that maybe we’re ahead in the game or look there is other people that have stumbled and I’m accomplishing more than they have, but on the other hand what happens if you slow down and begin the process of comparing is that the end of the day the high need for achievement personality always ends up concluding that conversation with him or herself by focusing on other people who are ahead, so it’s counterproductive, very counterproductive.

The third trap is really related to what we call the attribution error and the attribution error in its most simplified form or definition has to do with the tendency and the disposition of humans to blame other people when things go wrong and to want to have credit and get credit when things go well and so my life isn’t working, it must be my wife’s fault.  If things aren’t going well at home it’s because my kids are disobedient.  If things aren’t going right at work well it must be my boss and it must be my colleagues and if things aren’t going well at school it’s these teachers who are so boring and aren’t keeping up.  Now you can only do that for so long, but at some point, at some point you actually do begin to listen to this story, the story that you’ve created to help relieve the tension and the anxiety and you realize at the end of the day through this—even though it is a viscous cycle that the trap of blaming really is adding oil to the fire and it also is very counterproductive.  

The fourth trap and this trap is so chronic that when I talk to leaders about it they actually begin the chuckle because it’s become a way of life.  The fourth trap is what I call worry and that is what happens with this individual is when they get up in the morning within the first 5 to 10 minutes they have turned on this chronic way of being, of worrying about everything, or ruminating, of what are the implications for this, what happens if I don’t do this and then all of the traps start to intertwine and play with one another and through that process you become paralyzed or in psychological terms we say that you start to become or experience undifferentiated anxiety.  You just basically start to hand wring.  Other people actually start to have panic attacks around that in ways of dealing with it.

So on this final trap of worry is that you worry all day long and whether you take caffeine to deal with it or if you take antidepressants to deal with it.  Now I know that depression comes in many forms and many reasons.  There is not just because you’re in these traps.  There is a lot of different reasons this might happen, but the body starts to react in very interesting ways, chemical imbalances, whatever. But what happens is that at night when you need to go to bed you’re still worrying and you’re still concerned and often you’ll find yourself having those sleepless nights in Seattle and in other places and it’s only when you are asleep that you aren’t basically stuck with this metronome of worry.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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