How do you make progress with those day-to-day anxieties that hold you back in life and at work? I’m thinking of those fears that seem irrational when you try to explain them to others but which can exert a great hold over you. Most of us have some niggling worries, but some people have more than their fair share to contend with, usually as a result of their upbringing.
Take Will, for example, a Finance Director in a large corporation. Outwardly he is very successful – smart, articulate and always on top of his subject. Inwardly, Will is incredibly anxious; he worries about everything and does way more work than is necessary just to be absolutely certain that he hasn’t missed anything. Meetings with his boss make him so anxious he has sleepless nights in anticipation of them. A bit of unpicking during coaching revealed that Will’s father was a top American lawyer and not what you’d call a touchy-feely parent. Dinner time was an opportunity for robust debate. If Will did well he was lavished with praise, if he did badly he was torn to shreds. Will quickly learned that preparation was key and there was no such thing as too much of it.
Still living in Dad’s shadow
Will chose a different profession and eventually moved continent to get out of his father’s orbit, but he still felt his influence. He played out exactly the same dynamic with his boss, even though his boss was nothing like his father. He was just a man in authority. Will could trace the link back perfectly because it didn’t happen when he had a female boss – his mother had been a much softer and more supportive presence.
This insight was useful but only the beginning; now he had to do something. This is where the tiny steps of incredible bravery come in. I set Will a challenge – for his next meeting with his boss, he should think about the amount of preparation he would normally do, halve it, then halve it again and then go to the meeting having done just that much. For those of you who busk your way through meetings, this might sound like nothing. How hard can it be? For Will it was his own private Everest. It was difficult and anxiety-provoking, but he did it and survived. That made it a little bit easier to do it next time and so on.
Choose your anxiety
Many people think they’ll make progress once they’ve conquered their anxieties, but actually it doesn’t work like that. When facing these kinds of issues, we rarely get the choice of whether to be anxious or not, we just get to choose which anxiety we deal with. Let’s take another example to illustrate this.
Jim is an IT specialist, a real expert in his field. As well as doing his own work, Jim is often called on to solve technical problems for other people. Colleagues know that they can rely on him to do a brilliant job, they just can’t guarantee when he’ll do it. Jim knows this causes frustration for people. From the outside, it seems blindingly obvious that Jim should ask people when they need the work completed by and then try to manage these competing demands. From Jim’s perspective, however, this is very scary. What if someone says they need it before he thinks he can get it done? There may be a confrontation or he might have to get into a negotiation about deadlines. He might have to let one person down to satisfy someone else’s higher priority work.
Nothing in Jim’s background has equipped him to deal with this. He’s a rather shy introvert who prefers to keep his interactions brief and get back to his code. Various aspects of his upbringing and schooling have left him wary of confrontation and taught him that it’s safer to keep your head down. So from Jim’s point of view, it makes sense to agree to look at a problem ‘as soon as he can’, without giving any indication of when that might be. If he hasn’t promised, he can’t let you down, right? But that doesn’t mean he isn’t anxious. He dodges the immediate anxiety of having to negotiate a deadline, but instead faces a constant, low level gnawing anxiety that at any moment, someone might come along and demand to know when a piece of work is going to be finished.
Tiny steps to help you grow
You could say that by swapping a short-term spike in anxiety for a long-term, lower level of anxiety, he’s chosen a child-like fear (‘Is someone going to shout at me?’) over an adult one (‘Can I stand up for myself?’). Jim is still mulling this one over, but if he can master himself to tackle the adult anxiety rather than simply cope with the child-like one, it would be a huge step in his personal development. A huge step by taking a seemingly tiny step.
These steps can seem so tiny that the people involved can be horribly judgemental of themselves for seeing them as such hurdles. As Will said to me, “I’m 45 years old. I should be over this. I need to get a life”. But you don’t undo your formative years simply by wishing them away. And it is precisely by taking these tiny steps that you grow and get a life: your life, as you want it.
If you’re facing your own personal hurdles at work and would like some support to identify and take your tiny steps, do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dragos Daniel Iliescu