Working hard, but never enough: How to tell if you're an "anxious achiever"

"The anxious achiever is never still, they're never done," explains Morra Aarons-Mele

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 16, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Woman showing a thumb up while on a computer (Getty Images/COROIMAGE)
Woman showing a thumb up while on a computer (Getty Images/COROIMAGE)

I felt like Morra Aarons-Mele was talking directly to me. "Are you ambitious and driven — but you also ruminate, stew, and have a hard time letting things go?" she writes in the introduction to her new book. "Do you sometimes feel you're in over your head and any day now others will discover you're faking it?"

Do I ever. I've been in the workforce for decades now, and those exact queasy fears are as real as they were the first day of kindergarten, when I was positive I would accidentally end up in the wrong room and get in trouble.

As Aarons-Mele explains in "The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower," anxiety is "the world's most common mental health ailment." And, as she articulates, it can sabotage us in our ambitions — or it can inspire us to be our troubleshooting, creative thinking, empathetic best selves in our careers. Aarons-Mele's book is a blueprint for understanding why we get so anxious at work, how to accurately assess what's really going on in our heads and at our desks — and then how to tackle those issues in a practical, self-compassionate way.

I talked to Aarons-Mele recently about why anxious people can make great workers, how to talk back to our fears — and why the entire culture of work needs to change to make room for our mental health. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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I do think it is an achiever thing to say "even my disorder is a superpower."

I actually don't think that anxiety is a superpower. I think that learning how to manage it, that's the superpower. Because it's hard. And it's a lot.

Everybody's anxious — and for good reason, by the way. You talk about this in the book. What's the difference between being anxious and just living on this planet in 2023?

I don't think there is a difference. I always joke, "if you're not anxious, you're not paying attention." Our brains are not wired for so much uncertainty; it just activates our threat response all the time. Especially when you add that to digital media, and the immediacy of everything, that response has been triggered all day long.

When we talk about anxiety, who did you write this book for? Is it for people who have a diagnosed disorder? Is it for those of us who are feeling pressured, but maybe don't have that therapeutic relationship? Who is an anxious achiever for you?

This book is for anybody who feels like anxiety is impacting their daily life. A lot of us have traveled with anxiety for decades. Some people are feeling it for the first time recently. But if you're noticing it, especially if it's showing up for you  in your work context, this book is helpful.

"The anxious achiever is never still, they're never done. They are always seeking, can I do better? Was I good enough? Am I a fraud?"

The anxious achiever is a special kind of person in my mind. I truly believe it's the sort of thing that people just kind of get, and they're like, "Oh my gosh, that's me." The anxious achiever is never still, they're never done. There's always more. They are always seeking, can I do better? Was I good enough? Am I a fraud? Am I worth it? Is everything going to explode? Am I going to go broke? Am I going to fail? Am I going to lose what's valuable to me?

When you get to the part in the book about overfunctioners and underfunctioners, I thought, I'm both because I can overfunction in one thing, and therefore not do other things.

That's the thing, though. We love to apply our anxiety to something that feels productive so we don't have to feel it in a place that feels harder. It becomes like our oxygen, then we can't separate it. We just operate from anxiety. What I want people in the book to say is, "Is this really what I want? Is this really working for me?"

You introduce this idea early on that was very reassuring: Here's why anxious people are good workers. Here's why we're good at what we do. Here's what makes us valuable in the world, and valuable in our workplaces. Tell me why it might actually be good to be the reasonably anxious person on your team or have an anxious person on your team.

Because anxious people want to please. They plan for the worst. They feel some internal drive.

The most interesting thing to me in all my hundreds of interviews, is people always go back to their childhood and this

"You're always pushing yourself forward. But it comes at a cost."

sense of, "I always felt like I had to get A's. I don't even know if it was my parents. It was just something I did." There was this sense that, "I am based on my achievement. And I have to keep chasing the achievement in order to be loved, to be worth it, to be the person I want to be." And that makes you productive. It makes you willing to do things that a boss can take advantage of. It also can make you amazingly successful. It can make you creative, it can make you even take risks, actually, because you're always pushing yourself forward. But it comes at a cost.

You also say it also can make you very empathetic.

I truly believe it can make you empathetic. Anyone who's in the midst of a mental illness knows that when you're in the middle of it — if you have an anxiety disorder, if you're depressed — you're all about you. But if you can do the work, unpack and understand and manage why this anxiety is showing up for you, you develop incredible empathy. You learn, well, I felt this way, I wonder what that person's feeling? Can I help them feel better? I think also you can become more compassionate too.

It's also I believe strategic, because you're also thinking, "That person needs this, aAnd I can be the one that problem solves."

I've been in client services most of my life, and the lengths I will go to make a client happy. That anxious achiever in me is like, this person has to be happy, otherwise, I'm not worth it. I've failed. Which I'm not saying is healthy. 

I appreciate that you put this in terms of childhood experiences, and how they are then carried through. And some people are just born more anxious.

I'm not Wendy Suzuki, I'm not a neuroscientist, but I think that the whole idea of trauma is really interesting. I'm wondering now if managers need to become trauma-informed. Because we are living in a world of that. I believe in ACEs [adverse childhood experiences]. They show up in how we manage people. They show up in how we build trust, or don't build trust. It shows up in even mundane ways, and so we've got to work on it.

As you've said, we have reasons to be anxious. When we're trying to get good at listening to ourselves. one of the first things that's hard to parse is, "How much of this is coming from within me, and my own interesting brain and my own interesting history?" And how much of this is, "Actually, I'm in a really scary workplace, or I have a really screwed up co-worker?"

I would add also, "How much of this is because I'm the only Black person on the team and I'm facing a lot of bias?" We work in systems that are imperfect and toxic and biased and racist and patriarchal. The anxiety isn't in our heads a lot of times. We are being made anxious because we are facing all those barriers. That's where honestly, therapy helps tremendously, and having a way to check in with something that's a little bit more objective. 

I've interviewed Minda Harts. She writes about racial trauma in the workplace. At some point, her trauma was so bad, her anxiety was so bad, she just said, "I can't fix this. I'm out. I'm done with this." She realized objectively, I don't want to be part of this anymore. At some level, sometimes you get objective facts and you're like, "This workplace is bad for me. This boss is bad for me." I can't tell you how many people message me, and they're just like, "I think my boss is hurting my mental health." And how do you build in a way to get outside of your own head and get some objective data advice to make an informed decision?

There's so much sneaky language around "self-care" — so that then you can be more productive and then you can be better at your job. This book is saying no, the answer is not to fix yourself, so that you can be more exploited. 

One of the things that I have always been passionate about and that I also love about the neurodiversity movement, is people saying, "We have to work differently, and that's okay. I need to be this kind of person at work and if I can't be that kind of person. That's not my fault." What I want people above all to understand about themselves is that  first of all, you cannot have self-care when you're anxious. You will sit at the massage table, and you will ruminate. We really have to go deep sometimes. Ultimately, it's really coming back to values. Values play plays such a role in all of this. I love Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, because it does come back to your values.

Taking care of yourself is time-consuming. If you are an anxious person,  spinning your wheels about "I'm going to lose my job if I'm not productive enough," the last thing you have time to do is take that step back and ask, "What's really going on? How do I critically assess?" That is hard. It's hard when you don't have a mental health issue, but it's especially hard when your disorder is exactly the thing  standing between you and that kind of work. What's the first step in that process of taking a beat to see what's really going on?

"Culture at work has to change. This has to come from the top."

Culture at work has to change. That's why I'm always banging on about leaders talking about their own mental health. This has to come from the top. Because if I'm trying to feed my family, put three kids through college, in an industry that's making job cuts, it's all I can do to just keep going. Advocating for myself asking for the time out, that's not my job. But when I'm in a culture where hopefully leadership has that compassion, has that empathy, it's, "I've been through this myself," or "I know that Sarah has been through it in the C suite; let's try to make time for this, let's value this." Companies are investing a ton of money in mental health. But are they investing it the right way?

One of my mentors is Cali Yost, and she has a theory of work-life fit. Not work-life balance. Work-life fit. If you want to work all the time, go for it. I don't want to judge people, and I don't want to give blanket recommendations. I want people to understand where they thrive, and how to protect their own mental health. Some people, and I am kind of one of them, love to work. That's part of it, too, to stop blaming yourself and stop comparing yourself to others. It's hard to do. But I also don't want people  to feel like they're prescribed wellness. Everyone has their own wellness.

I want to ask you how this particularly affects women. We're doing our jobs, we're taking care of our family in an environment of, "I have to seem hyper efficient, but I also have to be approachable." 

"Until we decouple emotions and women, we will never, ever win."

One of the things that I have purposely done, the minute I started my podcast, is to book lots and lots of men, consciously, and even to go further, white men in power. Because until we decouple emotions and women, we will never, ever win. And men suffer too. My own mission is also to get men to talk about this stuff. Women own emotionality right now, and it's not doing anyone any favors. Part of the reason why mental health is so stigmatized is because people think it's a weakness, it's vulnerability, it's emotional, and those are coded "female."

I really like that when you talk about things that you can do, the first thing you say is to get the treatment you need. You can't wait on that. You can't say "I'll get better mentally when I get my promotion, when I finish this project." Why do we have to figure that part out first? 

You have to invest in the treatment. What every therapist will tell you to do is you've got to take the goal away. You've got to decouple the goal from the living your life. That is my struggle, and I have empathy for everyone who is trying to do this. I am always about the goal, and I never let myself to sit. And, you know, it's that is probably the hardest thing, 

This is truly the work of a lifetime. People invest a lot of time in coaching, they invest a ton of time in working out and their eating, which is great. I'm for all of that. But if you don't look at what I call your vulnerable underbelly, it's never going to change.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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