How Facing My Own Anxiety Helped Me to Better Understand My Job

In support of the upcoming ‘Calling out the men’ programme from Rising Vibe, my experience of people (particularly men) needing to express how they feel and the importance of softer skills in leadership, I decided to share the results of my experimentation.

I used the same techniques as we do with businesses to investigate a problem that’s been forcing disruption in my personal life for years: anxiety. Those who suffer from it know it’s not fun.

Real change requires defining the real problem but self-diagnosis is hard. So, as businesses do, I brought in some help — Sue from Thirdspace Coaching — to research the ‘customer’.

Sue pointed out two game-changing insights:

  1. I knew about system 1 (knee-jerk and unconscious) and system 2 (slow and conscious) thinking but I hadn’t connected that system 1 is mainly body-based. A person essentially has two brains (and they need to work as a team).
  2. Anxiety isn’t actually an emotion. It’s a reaction or symptom of the fight or flight mechanism. There’s generally a real emotional trigger: fear, shame, anger, behind it and it’s a learned response, a systematic error, often stemming from a person’s past.

After discussing the triggers for my recent bouts of anxiety we defined the real problem; trying to control things outside of my control. By thinking of every possible outcome of a decision, trying to control something I simply can’t put me into a state of ‘analysis paralysis’ and fearful to take any step. Businesses suffer from the same thing.

The fight and flight mechanism is vital when face-to-face with a lion so it’s not going anywhere. In business, and now I believe personally, the only way is to move forward is to understand how to embrace disruption and in turn, create a culture that supports it. Through this iterative process, I became more self-aware and I cemented five things that are needed to change a culture, for good:

A desire to ‘Puck things up’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is an agent of transformation. He’s on a secret mission to spread levity and speak truth to power. Saying what I really think (even if I don’t rationally understand why), in a respectful and fair way of course, then letting go and trusting things will be okay on the other side takes courage, continual practice and is harder than it sounds.

In business, there will always be frustrations. Creating structures to ensure people can say what they really think, in a constructive way, airs dirty laundry. Which, personally or in business, begins to stink if it isn’t. If true feelings aren’t expressed they come out in other ways. Practice levity. For a team to thrive they need to know there won’t be repercussions for expressing thoughts/feelings — it’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to fail. Trust is fragile, takes constant maintenance, and each person in the team is responsible for their part in it.

Honesty: Sometimes I feel anxious but I can’t put my finger on why. Saying ‘I’m feeling emotional’ is a new thing for me — a practice in itself. Yoga, meditation, free form writing and being part of a men’s group work well as avenues to ‘check-in’ and be honest with myself.

Honesty in any business is vital. It might take time for a real problem to surface and sometimes one might not immediately know what’s causing it. Agile retrospective meetings are a great way to ‘check-in’ and openly discuss issues in a safe space without the pressure of saying ‘We need to talk…’

Camaraderie: Being hard on yourself does not help with anxiety at all. Applying the saying ‘you can not be what you observe’ is useful here. E.g. if you’ve observed you’re angry, then technically you’ve shifted to being something else and can choose to act rather than react. Simply breaking the thought cycle helps. It creates space to sit with the feeling, observe what is going on and not judge, in turn, it allows time to better articulate feelings that come up.

Empathy for the different parts of a business plus leadership (head) and team (body) alignment is essential. Delivered in the right way, leaders openly praising people and counteracting negativity is the difference between ‘My job’s okay’ and ‘I love my job’. When team members have the sense that someone’s got their back, that they can communicate their problems and are listened to, they feel valued and emotionally secure. In turn, they’re more likely to share ideas and take action.

Self-reflection exercises. Done consistently and with care and intention, they can produce powerful insights and new understanding. When overly anxious, practices like yoga, meditation and, 5 Rhythms widen one’s ability to cope. It’s something like stretching a muscle to avoid injury in sports. Without stretching, muscles are far more likely to snap.

Highlighting the root cause for change helps with accepting it. Regular practice, using an agile, experimental approach, will enhance a team’s ability to cope and eventually change the culture.

Patience: My knee-jerk response is to get to a solution. In the past when I’ve felt overly anxious I moved/ran away from whatever was causing it and then exercised to calm my body. I’ve realized sometimes, time is the only solution and giving myself space for that and, as hard as it is, practicing ‘action through inaction or Wu Wei’ is vitally important.

When an idea comes up there’s always a temptation to rush ahead. Using the design thinking process and taking a methodical approach provides ongoing sense checks. It helps uncover ‘assumptions to success’. Testing these assumptions breaks down product development into a series of effective ‘go/no go’ points.

Through this journey, I’ve proved to myself self-awareness is a form of self-love. People, teams, and businesses all need it. True progress requires opening up to vulnerabilities. With mechanisms for open communication, self-reflective and structured practices to maintain balance, people (and teams) can learn to cope with, even thrive from, disruption.

On a personal level, I’ve managed to change my attitude towards anxiety. I still suffer at times but I use it as a radar now. It highlights areas for growth. By understanding what drives the uncomfortable feeling and having avenues for real communication both with myself and others, I am better equipped to deal with the physical discomfort of change. They’re called growing pains for a reason.

Business transformation is an ongoing, iterative process but with a desire to ‘Puck things up’, camaraderie, honesty, self-reflection and a bit of patience, lasting change will happen.

Adam Slawson: Founder of Plight Club. The first rule is: you DO talk about it.

Previously published on Medium.com.

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