I’d just gotten off a phone call with my business partner Jessica, and fresh off a major hormonal drop, and an anxiety wrought, emotional text exchange with my partner which left me feeling like he hated me and that the world was ending. It was then I’d learned from a CycleBar rider, that it was Mental Illness Awareness Week. I started reflecting on the many aspects of myself I used to loathe and hide; those perceived flaws I work constantly at accepting. I definitely have my moments, but overall I have a very different perspective on those “flaws” than I did earlier on in my life and career. I’m not here to pretend there isn’t a dark or scary side of mental illness, or that my experience is the same as the others that suffer. But what’s been crucial for me, is realizing it’s served a purpose, and that in many ways it’s helped me blossom.
I’ve struggled with crippling anxiety and bouts of depression since my teen years, and it came to a head in my mid 20’s. It was only through several years of treatment from my amazing therapist in NYC, and the support of friends, family and mentors, that I was able to survive (and eventually thrive after) a very dark period. And, if you’re wondering what “dark”, and “crippling” anxiety is, it’s:
- Debilitating panic attacks that leave you thinking you’re going into cardiac arrest and worried you’re dying.
- Paralyzing fear of being around others so bad, that you’re unable to get to work, voice lessons, the gym — every place and activity you love most.
- Emotional pain and breakdowns so severe, you ask yourself each time sincerely if you can live through them.
- Spending most of your day in the bathroom or in bed with stress related, stomach pain.
- Locking yourself in your apartment in the most vibrant city in the world — the place you’ve wanted to live all your life, utterly afraid and unable to socialize (even as the extrovert and performing artist you are) with those you care about most.
But you don’t have to be 1 in the 4 people in the US, or part of the 62% of women that suffers from mental illness to ruminate over your weaknesses. In my coaching work with clients, there’s a lot of beating oneself up in spite of tremendous accomplishments. That said, I am the statistic. So in honor of this week, if you’re suffering, I’m hoping to I can share something that makes you feel less alone. If you’re not one of the many, I hope this helps you look at yourself, your loved ones and employees in a new light.
Below, there’s an exercise you can use to reframe your “flaws. But before we get to that, here are a few reasons why my anxiety has been an asset throughout my life — and particularly my career, as well as some reasons why anxious people are some of the most empathetic, strongest, competent and successful leaders. When my mental health came to a head, I was barely paying my rent. I was processing past trauma, I went through a divorce AND the sudden death of my brother when I had my first panic attacks. In spite of all this, my career skyrocketed. It took several years, but I emerged healthy and happy.
1. You read a room at warp speed
When you have anxiety, you’re on high alert, trying to ensure control and survival, which makes you ultra sensitive to your surroundings and the people in them. You have spidey senses that give you crucial insights on subtle people dynamics and reactions, that layered on top of context, enable you to take critical actions. I’m reading facial expressions, body language, tone and various real time dynamics while evaluating their personal experiences. All of this happens in maybe 10 seconds and continues in real time.
2. You thrive in extremely stressful situations
You maintain composure and focus. This sounds counterintuitive, but under stress, people with anxiety are experts at presenting a cool, calm demeanor for fear others will discover their illness — and they do it often because it happens ALL the time. Using CBT techniques creates an internal calming response, which enables you to effectively manage the stress. During intense emergencies where millions of orders and dollars were on the line, I was able to clearly assess what was happening while keeping teams calm and focused on addressing the issues swiftly.
3. You’re deeply compassionate with others
I never thought I’d suffer in the ways I’d suffered, and I never imagined my effect on those around me. These painful experiences and that heightened sensitivity I mentioned above, makes you very aware that everyone has their own issues, unique stories and feelings worth hearing and understanding. Plus, when you have anxiety, getting out of your own head and focusing on others is paradise. You’re a great listener and can see if people are in need, how you may help, and treat them with tenderness. In turn, people trust and follow you into the trenches when you need them most.
4. Execution is your superpower
When you have anxiety, a strategic vision presented immediately yields a hundred step or multi year plan of execution which at first is overwhelming. However, shortly after you’re compelled to come up with the plan to make it all happen flawlessly because you’re also a perfectionist. You see all the steps, timelines, dependencies, potential risks and rewards, and make it your personal mission to get it done well.
5. You take feedback seriously
Just like with perfectionism, anxiety and the fear it produces aren’t always positive. But it can be a driver for growth, learning, experimentation and improvement. People with anxiety are constantly self-scanning for flaws, and over-analyzing, but it’s because we’re striving to be better, and do better. We are problem finders and solvers, and “seeking and destroying” them provides a great deal of relief and control — so as much as it may sting to get critical feedback from others at first, we’re hungry for it, and we take it to heart, processing it slowly and incorporating it over time, making our products, performance, services — and ourselves, better.
I got to all these myself these through an exercise. I also use it with clients, and they’ll do it themselves or with team members:
- Jot down 3–5 of your “edges”, areas of development or qualities you don’t love about yourself (or what you or others have coined as your “weaknesses”.)
- Reframe them in a positive light. (for example above execution as a superpower was “way over-involved in all the details”. Take your time with this step. Enlist someone to help you reframe it if you’re stuck.
- Pick one of them to focus on.
- Jot down 1–2 reasons why it’s an asset with a supporting example. How does it help you/help others? How has it positively affected your experiences? It can be personal or professional.
There are so many gifts and untapped resources in yourself and those around you. Get to know yourself and others in a new light. Celebrate your flaws and understand your differences. You’ll emerge stronger as diverse, nimble and authentic employees — and human beings.