Never enough: Working openly with anxiety

Open organizations reward initiative. For leaders with anxiety, that may fuel some exhausting patterns.
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161 readers like this
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Editor's note: This article is part of a series on working with mental health conditions. It details the author's personal experiences and is not meant to convey professional medical advice or guidance.

Something in a recent podcast interview with food writer Melissa Clark caught my ear. Asked if she was a "productive person,'' Clark replied by saying: "I am an anxious person. I have a lot of anxiety, and my way of coping with it is to be very, very busy […]. That's how I deal with the world. I [pause] do."

Clark's point resonated with me, because I live with multiple mental health conditions that have a fundamental impact on how I approach my work. And I believe they've played a role in the career success I've experienced.

I have generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Both of these conditions have had serious impacts on my life. Some of those impacts have been disruptive. At the same time, some have contributed positively to my success and my development as a leader in a growing organization.

I've spent most of my career in an organization built on openness and transparency, and yet I have rarely spoken about my mental health and how it might impact my work. In sharing these stories now, I hope to help reduce the stigma of mental health at work and connect with others who may be experiencing similar or related situations. Given the prevalence of mental illness globally, chances are good that if you don't experience a mental health condition first hand, then you're likely working on a daily basis with someone who does.

Learning about how mental illness manifests at work may help you navigate relationships with others as well as your own challenges. As a leader in an open organization, I feel compelled to share my experiences in the hope that they are useful to others. Working openly has specific implications for me—and, I suspect, for others with similar mental health conditions—which I'll detail in this series.

How it started

My anxiety and OCD started shortly after I graduated from college and was living in New York City (though I could probably trace their histories further, this was the moment when they became apparent). The wave of confidence I rode during the dot com boom was crushed in the bubble-bursting crash in March of 2001. The memory of coming into work, being called into an all hands meeting (the first we'd ever had at my small company), and being told that as of today there was no money to make payroll, is etched into my mind.

My girlfriend and I had just moved into a $2100-per-month apartment. Fear of not being able to pay the rent, or being otherwise swallowed up by the city, resulted in a general sense of unease and nervousness in my gut, combined with very real symptoms of OCD.

For example, while walking to work at a temp job I took after my company folded, I would wonder if I had remembered to lock the apartment door. I would retrace the steps of my morning routine in my mind, trying to find that moment when I turned the key. If I couldn't specifically remember, the sense of unease and worry in my gut would build to the point that I couldn't think about anything else. Frequently, I would turn around, rush back home, and double check that the door was locked. When I did so, I would have to do something memorable, like repeat a phrase out loud, so that I could mark the moment in my memory. Then, back on the way to work, I would again wonder if I had locked the door, and I could say "Yes, and when you did it, you said out loud 'It's Tuesday morning and I'm locking the door!'"

I've spent most of my career in an organization built on openness and transparency, and yet I have rarely spoken about my mental health and how it might impact my work.

So, how does this translate to an advantage at work?

One of the primary factors contributing to success at my company is an ability to take initiative. Much work needs to be done, and we're in an environment of continual growth and change—which means it's not always clear what needs to be done or who should be doing it. That creates the opportunity for people to observe a need then step up to fill it. This is true in many open organizations, where everyone, regardless of job title or level, is encouraged to step forward.

Living with anxiety, I continually feel like I need to be doing something, or worry that I'm not doing enough. This motivates me to seek opportunities for contributing. In other words, the anxiety makes me proactive. Being "proactive" or a "self starter" is something you'll find in the "qualifications" section of many job postings!

I'm very fortunate to have built my career at a successful company, where continual growth creates financial incentives. One of my largest anxieties is about money—the fear of not having enough of it. Being in a leadership role at a quickly growing, profitable company exponentially multiplies what I call the anxiety performance loop (see Figure 1). A high quarterly bonus or other financial reward for a job well done is an invitation to do more, to raise the bar higher, to double down on the behaviors that seem to provide positive outcomes at work. Quarter after quarter after quarter.

Figure 1: The "anxiety performance loop"

You can observe in all this a virtuous cycle: Opportunities I find at work satisfy my mental needs, and as a result I experience success and rewards. And this, on the face of it, is true.

So, what's the problem?

The anxiety-driven performance loop presents two challenges: it never ends, and it is based on a negative emotional state (fear and worry).

Perhaps the best phrase to illustrate this would be "What have you done for me lately?" In my mental landscape, this is what everyone is thinking about me all the time. No matter what I achieve, no matter what reward or recognition I receive, I imagine that within minutes the person acknowledging my achievement is thinking, "Now, why are you still sitting there? Get out and go do some more!"

People are not, of course, really thinking this. But my mind can locate enough truth in it to justify a quick return to the fear of not doing enough, which restarts the cycle.

The anxiety-driven performance loop presents two challenges: it never ends, and it is based on a negative emotional state (fear and worry).

We live in a world of short attention spans, high expectations, and significant competitive pressures. All of these are real challenges that fuel the idea that after each accomplishment we need to raise the bar higher and keep going. Having anxiety causes me to internalize these pressures, which triggers the "looping" effect.

The result is that both my company and my career benefit. Mentally, though, I get exhausted.

I have developed a few coping mechanisms to help me maintain balance:

  • Meditation. After I was first diagnosed with my conditions almost 20 years ago, I saw a therapist. After a round of sessions, the therapist referred me to a meditation center, which opened up a new world of thought for me. I've recently been working to reinvigorate my daily practice.
  • Exercise. I'm a bit compulsive about exercise. I make time every single day for at least one hour of exercise (for me it's walking, cross country skiing, or running).
  • Self awareness, reality checks, and reminders. Anxiety and OCD can lead to a distorted view of reality. I may overstate stakes, read too much into other people's motivations, or imagine consequences that are just not realistic. Reminding myself of the true worst case scenario (which usually isn't that bad), realizing that other people have more important things to worry about than me, or reminding myself that this is "just a job" can all help bring me back to a realistic perspective. I also have a few other people who can help with this.

So far I've focused primarily on the performance-enhancing aspects of anxiety. In future articles, I'll discuss some of its performance-reducing aspects, as well as the impact my condition has on my colleagues.

Read the series

What to read next
Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.

25 Comments

Sam, thank you for your courage to be so vulnerable in your article. While I don't personally struggle in this way, I have several close family members who do. This actually has just helped me gain more awareness into how they are experiencing their worlds...and I thank you for it. This was a gift for me today and I know your insights will help countless folks!! <3

To echo Jen, thanks for sharing your struggles, I identify with all the things, Sam. Me too. Same. Yes to all of the coping mechanisms! For self awareness + anxiety – Something that has helped me is the ability to connect my anxieties to their origins (e.g. "When I was a kid this happened and that's probably why I feel X"). Understanding where the anxieties comes from helps me reality check.

Well said. Over the last year, I've drawn a clear line between lots of in-the-moment anxieties back to childhood/high school. It's amazing - and sad - how early traumas haunt us into adulthood, and stay silent until they pop out at the worst possible times. That said, knowing that's where they come from helps the healing process. It's a horribly slow process, but better than the alternative.

In reply to by Laura Hilliger

"After a round of sessions, the therapist referred me to a mediation center".
Since I don't know what a mediation center is, I'm wondering if you mean meditation center? If I'm wrong, maybe you could explain what a mediation center is...

Thanks Sam, for the raw honesty in this post. As someone who has given up leadership roles because of the stress and anxiety, it is comforting to see I'm not alone in having that affect my job.

I feel seen.

I haven't been diagnosed with OCD, but the anxiety performance loop hits very close to home for me. I think mine stems more from codependency, which a therapist and I have definitely discussed -- a tendency to need external validation, mixed with paralyzing fear of disappointing people I care about. It's such a joy. ;-)

Thanks for sharing, Sam!

Sam, this is an important subject and issue you are bravely presenting. As you know, I trained sales people globally for a couple of decades, and I know that if a sales person was under too much stress, he probably could not sell very well, as he couldn't pick up on the customer's concerns. Also, I knew I could not teach him either, as he wasn't thinking clearly. On the opposite side, with no stress whatsoever, like a person who was born with a great of wealth, he may have no motivation to put in the minimum of effort. We all have stress in one form or another. Our ability to control and manage that stress to not only be productive but happy as well, is where we should put our attention.

Sam - I'm floored. (In the best way.) As a fellow techie/runner living with GAD, I've never explored the connection between anxiety and the need to always "do" something. I so relate to it - I'm an achievement-oriented person who defines myself by outputs. And while I'm proud of myself, I'd be dishonest if I said this isn't due at least in part to my anxiety about being "enough" - whatever that means.

When a man of your status at work is so open with his struggles, he frees those around him to share and confront their own. More leaders need to set this positive example. I look forward to reading the rest of your series, and best wishes in the meantime.

Sam, I had no idea. I'm in admiration of your effort to apply logic and analysis to the issue and wrestle it to the ground. I'm also in admiration of your success while learning to cope with it and finding elements of it that you can use to further your successful journey.

Like other responders, I can identify with some of the feelings and behaviors you describe -- although I think in my case they were a behavioral reaction to past professional events that I never wanted to repeat -- ever! However, that behavior still had a massive effect on some of the major events of my life.

So therein lies my question: how does one make the determination that it's purely behavioral reaction versus a health issue that requires a different approach?

I have learned much from you in the workplace and now I'm learning more in the professional-personal crossover space. I'm looking forward to reading more about your journey in future posts. Thanks!

Thanks Derek - I appreciate your feedback! In terms of the question, I don't think I'm in a position to answer except for sharing my own experience. For me, the two are connected (behavioral reaction vs. mental illness) and I don't think I could separate them. I'm also not sure if it makes a difference; either way, I want to work on strategies for moving forward.

In reply to by dereklc

Hi Sam
It takes a lot of courage to admit one has anxiety and OCD. It is very heartening to read your personal experience. I struggle with performance anxiety everyday....the fear of failure...the fear of not performing up to par...sometimes it is overwhelming.. I now feel it is ok to say I dont know everything.

Thank you, Amrita, for sharing your story. None of us know everything - that is probably the one thing I'm sure of :)

In reply to by Amrita S (not verified)

"Anxiety and OCD can lead to a distorted view of reality." Aint that the truth! I live with this mental health combo, too & everything you've written resonates with me.

In work & out of work (especially over the past 3+ years) fear and worry are part of the daily American diet.

Giving yourself reality checks, exercising, going on news sabbaticals: these are all things that can help. But compassion and gratitude are also important. I hope you'll consider writing about how compassion & gratitude fit into corporate culture sometime. Thanks for the great read, Sam.

Thank you, Laura, for your perspective. Compassion and gratitude are indeed so important - thank you for the reminder. I haven't written on that topic directly yet but will think about it!

In reply to by Laura Marsh (not verified)

I feel like I'm cheating when I take pictures of my hand locking the door or that the car is really locked. I don't go back to memory as I might not trust it anyhow, but can check my picture. Yes, it is locked and the photo is from this morning. However, those days when I think I can skip the photo ...

That is a great idea, Jimmy! This part of my OCD has not been as prevalent for me as it used to be, probably because I work from home most days. Thinking back to 2001, none of the tech existed that is so helpful today. Even something as simple as taking a picture on your phone was unheard of!

In reply to by Jimmy Sjölund

Thank you for sharing your story, Sam. I can change the geography and a couple of company details and this is MY story. It's actually a relief to know that I'm not the only person that deals with this on a daily basis!

good post. Thanks for the information.

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