Powered by anxiety. How anxious achievers use their anxiety to fuel success.
Updated: Jul 15
Last night as I lay in bed, I felt an old friend join me. You may know this friend well - their name is rumination and they churn the stomach and twist the mind.
Despite best efforts I struggle to control this anxious grind. It becomes a low-level hum that sits in the background disrupting my peace, often lasting days at a time. It can be quite difficult to switch off the anxiety track once you're on a good bender!
I try all the tricks – writing lists, sitting with the feeling, asking around, ‘What’s wrong? What am I missing?’. I start mind ticking...
Could it be this? No, that’s doing great.
What about this? No, under control.
It must be this then…. No, everything is good!
After finding nothing astray I usually just accept my anxiety, even leaning into its torturous web.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion and feels like unease, worry and apprehension. It's usually forward focussed, a natural response triggered by perceived threats or stressors.
To feel anxiety is to feel a high emotional energy that is often a signal that something needs to be investigated or addressed. It can feel protective and also be motivating, but on the flip side easily spiral into an unhealthy and disproportionate response.
I’ve lived with my old friend anxiety for most of my life and I’m not alone. In 2019, anxiety disorders affected around 301 million people worldwide and a more recent World Health Organisation report cited the pandemic as leading to an increase in anxiety disorders by a further 26% globally. Yeah I'm not surprised!
In Australia it’s cited as being THE most prevalent mental health condition affecting 1 in 6 or 3.3 million Australians. If your workplace or team has at least 6 people, chances are you’ve got at least one person who has high levels of anxiety. If you’re reading this, maybe it’s you!
Living in an anxiety driven world, I see this reflected in my coaching practice. These are the leaders we rely on to keep our workplaces psychologically safe.
My sweet spot for coaching are the achievers - our motivated, hardworking, high performing and caring cohort that are arguably most prone to feeling the effects of anxiety. They are definitely the ones who burn out!
Are you one of these achievers? If so, anxiety has most likely played a part in your success to date. Like any emotion, anxiety can be a motivating driver. But beware the dark side that will kill relationships and hurt your health and wellbeing.
Let me explain how anxiety powers our achievers forward.
Anxiety as fuel
It’s interesting to consider that anxiety is not always detrimental, fuelling productivity and serving as a driving force for success. Our anxious achievers have an inner restlessness that compels them to excel.
But like anything if life, it’s about moderation. In too high a dose anxiously motivated behaviours can quickly become your downfall. For our leaders, this filters down affecting those you lead and negatively impacting your leadership effectiveness.
Here are 4 ways your anxious achiever tendencies show up - tick off what you can relate to!
1. Control – Ever find yourself micromanaging, fearing delegation, or seeking reams of detailed information to maintain your own need for certainty and control?
If so, you’re most likely great at planning, creating the detail needed, and setting clear objectives. You’re also likely to have contingency plans up your sleeve to account for the unexpected. This level of planning provides a sense of structure and minimises uncertainty – exactly what you need to tamper down those anxious feelings.
You may feel calm and in control, but for the people you lead it can feel rigid and lack adaptability, straining those relationships around you.
In coaching we look to find a balance between control and flexibility, recognising that some factors are beyond your control and learning to let go when necessary.
2. Overworking – Do you bury yourself in work and try to constantly keep busy?
Working can relieve anxiety, even if it's arising from your personal life. Overworking distracts you from those anxious feelings. It alleviates other forms of anxiety, such as fear of failure, not meeting expectations and another old friend, imposter syndrome.
Overworking can make you feel like you are demonstrating dedication, competence, and productivity and proving your worth. (That’s what you think is going on, but studies show our levels of productivity drop off a cliff past working 50 or so hours a week!)
Overworking is what makes so many of us achievers successful. We put in the hours and reap the rewards. But at what cost? This strategy is usually a distraction not a fix. The minute you turn off the work tap, your anxiety is still seething under the surface.
You’re also modelling behaviour as a leader that can create a negative culture across the whole of your workplace. It filters down, feeding on each person, becoming exhausting and toxic over time.
In coaching we look at the drivers of overwork and the need to always keep busy. We identify more sustainable strategies for managing anxiety, demonstrating your worth and alleviating fear of failure through actions such as self-care, boundary setting and redefining what success looks like for you.
3. Hypervigilance – Are you always ‘on’, scanning for threats, finding it hard to relax, maybe even having a bit of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)?
Anxious achievers often find themselves in a constant state of alertness and hyper-focus. You may find this is driven by fear of threats such as making mistakes, possibly analysing every detail of past situations or conversations to find where you went ‘wrong’ and correct the misstep.
You may also find yourself constantly seeking information from others, monitoring your emails, the news, any source of information that makes you feel connected and informed - ultimately in control. The fear behind this is being left behind or not fully informed.
Whilst hypervigilance might make you proactive in resolving issues, it’s also quite exhausting, leading to difficulty relaxing and enjoying your downtime.
For those you lead being hyper-alert and always ‘on’ can manifest as a need for constant monitoring and scrutiny. Relationships are strained when it starts to feel excessive and intrusive. It’s exhausting to those around you!
In coaching we focus on easing the tension in your mind so you can overcome any patterns of hypervigilance, learning what you can safely let go and proactively creating pathways for rest and relaxation.
4. Always being right – Do you find solace in certainty, knowing all the facts, even a bit of perfectionism creeping in?
Anxious achievers are prone to setting impossibly high standards for themselves and others, striving for that level of perfection which is never quite attainable. If you search deeply, the root cause can be an intrinsic need for validation and a fear of failure.
The upside is you are most likely highly organised, detail oriented and results driven. Always being right provides a level of certainty and control over outcomes that allay those anxious feelings.
The downside is your validation becomes tied to an impossible standard to keep. Perceived failures and missteps can hurt deeply and result in even more anxiety. It also hinders your growth as a leader when you are reluctant to let go of certain tasks, feel the need to scrutinise every aspect of the work going on around you, not able to delegate, or accept anything less than what you see as perfection.
For those you lead it can create an atmosphere of rigidity and undermine collaboration. They might stop giving you feedback altogether if they think you will be resistant to alternative viewpoints. Perfectionism can translate to unattainable targets and others feeling undervalued.
In coaching we focus on identifying these areas of self-imposed pressure, opening the possibilities of learning and a growth mindset rather than a need to be perfect and always right.
How do you act out your leadership anxiety?
It's ok if you recognise anxious achiever tendencies in yourself. I own it - I’ve demonstrated all these tendencies at some point of other in my career.
There are both good elements as well as bad around our anxiety driven behaviours. They can lead to rewarding success, promotions and praise. It’s only years later that you feel the effects of these behaviours – paying the heavy price of burnout, broken relationships, and even coping mechanisms such as addiction.
If the ends justify the means then this is a great result. If you consider the way you get there – the anxious behaviours that drive you – then it’s perhaps a different story.
Honestly assessing your own tendencies, although sometimes a little bit confronting, can ultimately help you soar. The goal becomes maintaining positive behaviours that lead to success whilst ironing out some of those rougher edges to create healthier, more sustainable ways of operating. This has a trickle-down effect to those you lead, creating more approachable leaders and thriving, less anxiety driven workplaces.
I’m not sure if my anxiety will ever fully disappear, but I’ve learnt over time to emotionally turn down the temperature and disengage from the anxious thoughts. I now do this with activities that are more healthy and sustainable rather than my previous go-to control or overwork response.
I’ve come to see my anxiety as not all bad. Like stress, a little bit of anxiety is good when it’s channelled for motivation. When I feel myself starting to ruminate, I interrogate my thoughts to find what is needed.
It tells me what is unresolved and might need my attention.
It’s often an early warning signal that change is needed, that I’m off course in some way.
It provides clarity when I can list out all my anxieties and make a plan that addresses them.
It helps me dodge imposter syndrome as it spells out the rubbish going on in my mind and allows me to insert new, more empowering beliefs instead.
Of course, there are also the times when it’s just lying – there’s nothing wrong at all and I’m just spiralling out of habit!
I love our anxious achievers – you are my people, with your hard-work, dedication, and motivation. I wouldn’t have you any other way, BUT there may be ways of better managing your mental, emotional, and physical health long-term. I’m here to help if you want to know how.
Sarah Vizer is the creator of Beyond Burnout.
As a Leadership and Mindset Coach she supports our top professionals unleash their talents, feeling and operating at their best.
She offers individual and team support for you and your organisation.
Find out more at www.sarahvizer.com