Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Becoming The Most Powerful and Confident You”
During this Spring season, we are encouraged to bring into focus key issues around both stress awareness and mental health, and are reminded that signs of depression and anxiety can be hidden in plain sight—particularly among leaders. Take, for instance, the recent experience of Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, who received treatment for depression following a “downward spiral” he described to newsmakers this month.
In my own prior work as a marriage and family therapist and now as a career and leadership coach, I witness firsthand how mental health issues can be extremely common among high-achieving individuals. Yet at the same time, mental health challenges can be debilitating and interfere with healthy functioning, effective communication and interpersonal dynamics. Often, depression and anxiety may not be readily apparent either to the individual suffering from these challenges, or those people working and living alongside of them.
To learn more about how our mental health can impact our leadership and success, I caught this month with anxiety expert and top podcast host Morra Aarons-Mele, author of the new book The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower. Aarons-Mele speaks to the “performance of wellness” and how a better understanding of our mental health can shape leadership and success–by transforming a perceived weakness into a critical strength.
Aarons-Mele is the host of The Anxious Achiever, a top-10 management podcast that helps people rethink the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. Aarons-Mele helped Hillary Clinton log on for her first internet chat and has launched digital campaigns for President Obama, Malala Yousafzai, the United Nations, the CDC, and many other leading figures and organizations. She has also been named among LinkedIn’s Top 10 Voices in Mental Health in 2022.
Her book The Anxious Achiever strives to normalize anxiety and leadership. As leadership expert and self-proclaimed anxious achiever herself, Aarons-Mele argues that anxiety is built into the very nature of leadership and it can—and should—be harnessed into a force for good.
Here’s what Aarons-Mele shares about being an anxious achiever and thriving as one:
Kathy Caprino: Morra, what is an “anxious achiever” as you define it? How do we know if we are one?
Morra Aarons-Mele: An “anxious achiever” is an ambitious, career-focused individual who succeeds in life and professionally while also struggling with mental illness on a day-to-day basis. Anxious achievers are all around us, and they rarely take the time to rest their bodies or their minds. You, yourself, might be an anxious achiever if you find that you are goal-oriented, future-oriented, and take your work extremely seriously. An anxious achiever tends to be composed of three shared characteristics: the drive, the voice, and the traps.
An anxious achiever has an ambitious drive for success, a strong work ethic, and always wants to achieve utmost excellence. But the voice inside an anxious achiever’s mind acts as an inner critic, telling them that they are not good enough. Because of this inner critic, anxious achievers often find themselves getting stuck in negative thought traps.
But there are many benefits to being an anxious achiever. We are prized team members because we go the extra mile, and in our minds, nothing less than the best will do. We create extraordinary outcomes because we are driven to always strive for excellence. We can learn to channel our drive and anxiety to help us achieve excellence. We can learn to take back control from the inner voice that acts as our toughest critic. And we can learn to manage through anxiety and ultimately put our anxiety to work.
Caprino: What advice would you give a business leader who feels deeply anxious at work and constantly strives for perfection?
Aarons-Mele: Understand that anxiety shows up at work, in ways big and small. It shows up no matter if you’re brand new or you’re the CEO. We have this preconceived notion that industries prefer business leaders to never break a sweat or show any emotion beyond ruthless drive. But anybody at work can feel anxiety in their day-to-day life. Anxiety shows up in our emails, presentations, meetings, our interactions with customers and each other, and in our management and leadership. It shows up because life is stressful, and people are human, and anxiety is a normal human emotion. So be kind to yourself. First, acknowledge that you’re anxious and work is making you anxious. Just get it out. It really helps.
For instance, you can say to yourself, “I’m anxious. I think it’s because I’m really dreading this meeting with my boss.” When you acknowledge that you feel anxious, you give yourself a little distance from the emotion and take some of the teeth out of it.
Then, practice noticing when your anxiety spikes. What happened before? Did you bring the anxiety into work, or was it set off by something at work? We’re all triggered at work. Start playing detective and try to isolate what triggers those anxiety spikes.
Caprino: What are the true pitfalls of being an anxious achiever and how can one turn those into gifts to help you achieve success at work or in life?
Aarons-Mele: As an anxious achiever, you never stop and things rarely feel done or good enough. You’re always thinking ahead and probably planning for the worst. This makes it challenging to stop and smell the flowers.
But at the same time, we are gifted. We are ambitious, career-focused people who succeed while struggling with mental health. We are prized team members because we go the extra mile as a matter of course, and nothing less than the best will do. We create extraordinary outcomes because we are driven to always excel and succeed at any challenge we set for ourselves.
Caprino: What are the first steps in making anxiety your ally, and using it to your advantage?
Aarons-Mele: The first step is understanding that anxiety is a normal human emotion, and feelings aren’t facts. Because anxiety is an emotion—not an external threat over which you have no control. You have control and you have the ability to manage your anxiety, make it your ally, and use it to your personal and professional advantage. Anxiety is an internal state you can learn to manage—you can build a life that isn’t ruled by it. You can even learn to rely on this complicated emotion as your loyal partner and a leadership advantage because it provides helpful data and drives self-awareness.
If we can align our drive with a larger purpose, we can move mountains. If we can confront our bad habits and develop healthy coping mechanisms, we can thrive in any workplace on any team. If we can manage our anxiety and lessen the personal toll, we can approach our work with incredible energy and ingenuity. We can be the visionaries who create bold change, and the leaders people want to work for—even if we sometimes feel afraid in the process. It may not feel like it yet, but anxiety can truly enhance your leadership, ambition, creativity, empathy, communication, and vision.
Caprino: In my coaching work now, and from my time as a therapist, I’ve observed a very common but damaging behavior among high-achieving professionals that I describe as “perfectionistic overfunctioning”—where one is constantly driven to do more than is healthy, appropriate and necessary and tries to get an A+ in all of it. This behavior can be truly debilitating and unhealthy, and often wreaks havoc on our health, wellbeing and ultimate success. This behavior is often formed in childhood, and I work with people to shift away from this drive to be perfect and constantly chase a moving bar about what success really is.
What advice would you give a perfectionistic employee who feels they are never doing enough?
Aarons-Mele: As a start, practice setting good goals. If there is a project at work that’s bringing out your perfectionism, make a deal with yourself that you are only going to spend a certain number of hours on the project. When you’re tempted to do more, don’t. If you’re tempted to step away and procrastinate because you’re worried the project won’t be good enough, don’t. Commit to doing the hours on the project and see how it feels when you’re done. The results may surprise you!
Caprino: What are common thought traps for anxious achievers?
Aarons-Mele: Anxious achievers tend to have a negativity bias. This means that their thoughts are more negative than they need to be. Anxious achievers might be catastrophizers, always assuming the worst. They might jump to the worst possible conclusion, based upon little or no evidence. Or they might be all-or-nothing thinkers (such as “I got this forecast data wrong so I’m definitely getting fired.”). They often miss nuance, so, for example, a performance review in which they get one criticism among many compliments will only stand out for the criticism (this is called mental filtering). They also often discount the positives, rejecting positive experiences by assuming they “don’t count” or qualifying a success as “just a fluke.” Anxious achievers also might be labelers, only using extreme labels about themselves, i.e. “failure,” “incompetent,” “unqualified,” and “undeserving.”
If understood and harnessed constructively, anxiety and thought traps can become powerful tools for growth, aligning strengths like greater vision, empathy, and communication skills.
Caprino: How can we break bad habits that result from anxiety?
Aarons-Mele: Practice! To break habits, you first have to unpack the habit itself. For the book, I interviewed Dr. Jud Brewer, who is an expert about the habits of anxiety and worry. You’re probably triggered, and then you react. The habit lies in your reaction. If you’re reacting out of habit, you need to look at that reaction and ask, “Is this good for me or bad for me?” If it’s bad for you, find something to replace the habit with. So, if your habit is worrying nonstop, ask yourself, “Is that worry helping me or hurting me?” “Worry feels useful but is it actually lessening my anxiety?” If the worry isn’t helping, what’s something helpful that you could replace the worry with? Perhaps doing an activity or writing a to-do list?
Dr. Jud also says that we all have this innate capacity—or, what he calls a superpower—for breaking bad habits and overcoming anxiety. That capacity is curiosity. When we are feeling anxiety or worry, we want to pause when those anxious feelings arise and get curious about our own experience. Curiosity and practice are the keys to really listening to what your mind and body truly want, ultimately breaking bad habits.
Caprino: Finally, what can we start doing today to allow anxiety to support our goals (and not undermine them)?
Aarons-Mele: You can take the teeth out of your anxiety and lessen its grip on you by understanding that it is a normal human emotion. It’s just an emotion, not the truth, and it’s trying to tell you something. When you look at your anxiety and ask what it’s trying to tell you, it can’t control you anymore and you can begin to have a more managed relationship with it.
You also might learn to manage and rightsize your anxiety through everyday practices such as therapy, meditation, exercise, breathwork, journaling, scheduling in rest, and finding your passions. Through these positive lifestyle changes, you can learn to listen to and manage your anxiety to support your personal and professional goals.
For more information, visit The Anxious Achiever.