Anxiety Goggles

Lance Fear, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are — Anonymous

A friend of mine recently went skiing. She’s not a brand new skier, but is still a self-described novice. She explained this as she shared a video her husband took of her coming down the mountain. As she explained it, she had felt at the time that she was flying down the blue/intermediate run at breakneck speed. Humorously, the video showed her moving at a much more … measured … pace. The point of her sharing the story was the hilarious gaping chasm of difference between her sense of dangerously speeding down the slope as she experienced it, and the much more pedestrian reality.

That difference is Anxiety and its distorting effect on how we view what’s happening to us in a nutshell.

Whether it is fearing the consequences of falling down the side of a mountain, or the insecurities of answering for a negative result to one’s boss, the anxiety we feel about the situation actively warps our perception of what is actually happening in the situation. We end up afraid when we should be excited, nervous when we should be calm. Think of it like an emotional version of the stroboscopic effect in photography/videography, which creates some real-looking but unrealistic images for our brain to process. Here are two mind-bending examples:

That is what anxiety does to your emotional picture.

Worse still: when we are surrounded by others who are all feeling the same anxieties, the distortion effect amplifies as we share our experience with others. Each person’s anxious state confirms the same for others. In this environment, a person who isn’t exhibiting the same symptoms of stress isn’t looked at as a person to follow — “She’s not worried. Let’s take a deep breath and calm down too.” — but as an anomaly — “She doesn’t act like she cares at all. What’s wrong with her?”

This is a recipe for overreaction and a shortening of focus. On the mountain, this means going slower than you really need to and laughing at yourself after. In business, it means reacting to the noise of short-term volatility instead of the longer-term signal (more on this in a later post). In social relationships (whether marital or political), it means shadow boxing against what we know the other really means instead of simply dealing with the face-value of things they are actually saying.

Having worn anxiety goggles like this a time or two in my life (yes, that’s me in the image at the top), there are two things I’ve found that help tremendously in social/professional environments:

SELF-AWARENESS – simply being aware of this phenomenon and the possibility that how you are seeing/experiencing the situation may not match up with the reality of the situation is a huge first step. This enables you to take the goggles off for second, step out from behind anxiety’s distorting effect, and consider the possibility of a different take on what’s in front of you than what your emotional vision is telling you.

SELF-WORTH – when you develop a healthy sense of who you are that is independent of what you do and the praising or criticizing judgments of others, anxiety loses an effective angle on you. No longer can anxiety kick your amygdala into high gear by screaming in your head “WHAT DOES THIS MONTH’S BAD PERFORMANCE SAY ABOUT YOU?!?!?!”

That last one is an important point to realize. The more we allow our sense of self-worth to be tied to the ups and downs of performance and other’s judgment of it, the more havoc anxiety can wreak — not just in our head, but also in our actual ability to perform. By believing that external judgments of our performance define our value, we actually make it harder for ourselves to perform at our potential in order to secure those praiseworthy judgments we seek, according to research at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (or “the M-word up north” as my Ohio-born-and-bred son now says).

college students who based their self-worth on external sources–including appearance, approval from others and even their academic performance–reported more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders. …

College students who based their self-worth on academic performance did not receive higher grades despite being highly motivated and studying more hours each week than students who did not rate academic performance as important to their self-esteem, Crocker found. Students who based their self-worth on academic outcomes also were more likely to report conflicts with professors and greater stress.

“They feel motivated to do well in academics, but having their self-worth on the line doesn’t help their performance,” Crocker says. She speculates that students who base their self-worth on academic performance might become anxious and distracted and threatened by feelings of failure, and, as such, their anxiety might then interfere with their memory.

Anxiety about external judgments doesn’t just work on individuals like this; it does the same thing to entire organizations. As Simon Sinek describes in his book, Leaders Eat Last:

In fact, the more financial analysts who cover a company, the less innovative the company. According to a 2013 study that appeared in the Journal of Financial Economics, companies covered by a larger number of analysts file fewer patents than companies covered by fewer analysts. And the patents those companies do generate tend to have lower impact. The evidence supports the idea that “analysts exert too much pressure on managers to meet short-term goals, impeding firms’ investment in long-term innovative projects.” Put simply, the more pressure the leaders of a public-company feel to meet the expectations of an outside constituency, the more likely they are to reduce their capacity for better products and services.

For leaders, whether of families, teams, or multi-national corporations, the takeaway is the same: if you want your kids, team members, or employees to maximize their performance through a clear view of what they are facing, then leading in a way that removes anxiety rather than creates/inflames/uses it is the only answer. Three suggestions:

  1. Don’t overreact to the noise of the moment — people are already inclined to do that. Be the example of calm focus on the bigger issues and longer term.
  2. Separate judgments of performance from valuations of people — whether in reaction to a child’s test score or a sales team’s monthly result, putting people on the emotional rollercoaster of “you’re great when your results are good / terrible when they are bad” adds the variable of psychological anxiety to the already complex problem of performance. Be the simplifier of problems, not the complicator.
  3. Don’t make your personal approval the goal — as social animals, people are wired to seek acceptance and avoid rejection. Don’t exacerbate this by allowing people to think pleasing you as the leader is the point of their job. Keep them focused on the accomplishment of the mission before them, and not on your own emotional state about them.