Here’s the thing I hate to admit because it makes me sound dramatic: Most days, I wake up with my heart racing. I might want to go back to sleep, but my brain’s already humming: It’s 8 a.m. and you’re only just waking up? Some people, better-than-you people, have been up for hours. They’ve worked out, cleaned their house, read the news, and finished half their work. You went to bed at 3 a.m., and now here we are.
So every morning, I wake up knowing there’s only one course of action: Do. Something. Anything. But do it soon. And fast.
This way of operating is a response to the anxiety I’ve struggled with for years—maybe since I was 8 or 10. My brain has found a way to motivate me, even when I’m at my lowest, by using guilt, shame, and comparison to other people. Some days it feels more automatic than breathing. And after years of exhaustively running through life and succeeding, my anxiety made me think it was my friend.
I’m trying to dismantle that.
What it’s like “white-knuckling” through life
Basically, my entire adult life has been run by my high-functioning anxiety. It’s not an official diagnosis—more of how my body responds to the crippling doubt and paralysis that comes with anxiety. It’s an adrenaline-fueled, fight-or-flight response your body uses to look and feel productive (You get so much done! You’re a master of lists and multi-tasking! You’re a problem-solving queen!), but is driven by fear—of failure, inadequacy, unrealistic expectations, and even your own potential.
And it’s not just a me thing. Debra Kissen, PhD and co-chair of the public education committee for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says that lots of people have “extremely high levels of anxiety…but they’re white-knuckling their way through it.”
Think of it as that “everything is fine” meme—you know, where the dog is sitting at a table, drinking coffee, while its house burns down around it? Only you’re saying that while rushing around the room, half-blind, trying to put out the fires burning all around you.
Think of high-functioning anxiety as that “everything is fine” meme. Only you’re saying that while rushing around the room, half-blind, trying to put out the fires burning all around you.
There are a lot of perceived positives that can come out of living with high-functioning anxiety. You see and know what the world wants and expects (because you’re always thinking about what people want): someone smart, outgoing, quick-witted, proactive, detail-oriented, orderly, helpful, passionate, and loyal. So you are that, all the time, no exception. You feel like an octopus dropped into a Sarah Jessica Parker movie: “I don’t know how she does it!” they exclaim. Neither do you! You are proud, but also exhausted. Is this what it’ll take, all the time?
But there are negatives, and they’ll take you out. You’re a people pleaser, yes, but also a never-present, vigilantly over-thinking, constant-validation-needer. You’re probably someone who can’t say no and who people find hard to read—when your mind is racing, it can seem like your attention is always halfway to another place. Maybe you’re an insomniac (like me) because the constant whirl of worries around your brain keeps you up at night. And you might even face moments of extreme procrastination, because you don’t know how to make a decision when the right, fair choice isn’t immediately clear. (But, of course, your brain will find plenty—more than plenty—of other things to do instead of the thing you’re supposed to be doing.)
Anxiety seemingly gave me an edge…but I was proven wrong
I used to think that my anxiety was really good for my career. And it was, for a while. When I was the managing editor at a popular website, I believed my anxiety made me a better, more compassionate manager and multi-tasker. Because I was constantly questioning myself and anticipating potential hindrances to other people’s productivity, I could often foresee and solve problems before they were even a hypothetical glimmer in someone else’s eye. I told myself that being low-key, secretly anxious all the time was just a side effect of this “compassionate gift.”
And then I created my own web series.
Getting the show greenlit was one of those dreams that was at once exactly what I wanted and also so much bigger than I anticipated. I wanted my show—a space for women and non-binary folks who unabashedly love geeky, nerdy things—to be all things to all people: smart without feeling like a lecture, intersectional to ensure it wasn’t just a group of white feminists, inclusive enough of men to quell the worries of the powers-that-be…while also still fun and frivolous enough to keep people coming back for more.
Anxiety will ooze into every crevice of your being, claiming unreasonable expectations are easily achievable…if only you weren’t so, well, you.
I didn’t want to get it wrong—The nuance of the discussions must be perfect! The fun must be unproblematic!—but as pre-production dragged on for years, my mind went into overdrive trying to preemptively overcome an ever-growing laundry list of issues my anxiety-ridden brain kept dreaming up.
I confronted that worry by taking on more work around the show’s creation. Certainly, I could brainstorm with the design team, and hire a production staff, and write the scripts, and come up with 20 new segment alternatives, and ideate the ones approved for air, and research them, and book the guests, and the panelists, and host the show…all while still doing my other full-time job. Everyone else who is successful can do all this themselves! I told myself. Just a little extra work here, another few minutes there, and and and…
But the anxiety that had always been my friend, pushing me to do it all and do it better than anyone else, made me spiral out of control. Because there’s always going to be a way we can improve ourselves, our creations, and our ideas. And as the company grew and systems changed, coworkers told me I was doing too much and overstepping boundaries. So I started hyper-analyzing my every move, feeling, rationale, and thought. I was plagued with self-doubt: Was I getting too big for my britches? Was I doing a disservice to the community I loved? Was I not good enough, capable enough, for this huge opportunity? I was growing increasingly unhappy and feeling defeated, for reasons related to the show and not.
All of this converged in bombastic fashion when they took the show away. Not wholly because of how I was managing the show—there were several factors outside of my control that also brought this on—but this story is about me taking ownership for how my anxiety played a role. And in the end, the thing I loved so obsessively and worked so very hard on to make? It didn’t matter that I single-handedly pitched it and made it into something people wanted. It would now belong to someone else. I was crushed.
My anxiety is a liar—and I’m learning how to tune it out
This was the first major disaster of my career, and it isn’t necessarily surprising looking back at my own part in how it all played out. I’ve always been this way: worried, anxious, trying to please. And whenever my dreams feel nearly in reach, I tend to fumble and crumble. But it wasn’t until I lost the show that I realized I had to wrench myself away from my usual patterns and behaviors. I had to try, no matter how weird and foreign and wrong it felt, to do and feel the exact opposite of what my anxiety was telling me. If I wanted this life, I had to anchor myself to a reality conducive to my own success in the face of failure.
It’s something that I’ve been working on ever since. Some days are better than others. When my anxiety tells me that I’m lazy trash, I try to explain to my brain that I’m doing my best. When my heart starts to race, I take a few deep, calming breaths. I’m trying to meditate regularly. And every time my brain tries to tell me that I’m only worth anything to society when I’m doing everything to death…I remind myself that is not true. It is not easy, it doesn’t always work, but I keep trying anyway. The alternative, as I’ve learned through living it, isn’t anything good.
Because anxiety is a liar, and that’s the honest truth. It tells you that you’re stupid and untalented. That you’re a monster with terrible intentions. And no, you can’t outsmart it by trying to prove it wrong. That’s the lie of high-functioning anxiety: It will crush you into submission with your own sense of self. It will ooze into every crevice of your being, claiming unreasonable expectations are easily achievable…if only you weren’t so, well, you.
It takes tremendous work that never really ends—and a lot of trial and error to figure out what works for you to circumnavigate it. But you’ve got to, because you’re more than the lies your anxiety tells you. You’re better than that liar that lives in your head.
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