4 Signs That Your Focus on Success Is Causing Anxiety

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4 Signs That Your Focus on Success Is Causing Anxiety

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

I treat many effective, successful people who are plagued by anxiety. In their efforts to do everything they can to excel, they are forever seeing what has to be fixed or what has yet to be done. As a first step toward reducing this kind of anxiety, it’s important to take the time to more fully understand it.

Some common behaviors and issues to consider are:

Constantly scanning for problems: People who are single-minded about performing well and succeeding are often vigilant about looking to prevent problems and seeing all the ways that they are not yet doing well enough. This can be true in all aspects of your life, leaving you to almost never feel good about yourself, your work, or your relationships.

Unprepared for when things go wrong: When people are accustomed to effectively avoiding or fixing problems, they often find themselves unprepared when they encounter problems that are beyond their control. This might mean having trouble accepting an illness or failing to get a job. Given that you cannot immediately make those things be different, remaining steadfast in your need to be problem-free will likely lead to anger or hopelessness. And these responses then become their own problems.

Instead, when you can accept what is beyond your control, you experience a sense of acceptance. You are free from the anger or despair that comes with railing against what you cannot change. You are also free to look at what you can control – whether that means being more open to ways to manage an illness or changing your approach to job hunting.

Unprepared for when things go right: Ironically, you might also be unable to enjoy your personal or professional successes. When your focus is sharply on avoiding any sense of inadequacy, you can’t fully absorb the joy that often accompanies success. If you feel it at all, you are likely to quickly return to scanning for problems. Again, letting go is the key – when you can ease up on the need to prove yourself, you are more likely to enjoy current successes.

Don’t notice or absorb the good stuff: To make matters worse, a focus on preventing problems does not allow for enjoying or savoring the positive moments in life. Rather than noticing the birds chirping, you grind away on how you will cope with problems at work. Instead of feeling the warmth of your partner’s hug, you are preoccupied with your to-do list for the day. The problem-solving doesn’t stop, and so you don’t have the “space” to enjoy even the simple pleasures of life – not to mention those bigger moments, such as a promotion at work or your wife surprising you with the vacation of your dreams.

Think about all of these things that come with your constant drive to do more and be better. Pause long enough from your race to succeed to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” If you have even the slightest doubt, you might want to explore an alternative. (No, I’m not talking about accepting failure.) You’ll be amazed to discover that there are ways to succeed and feel good about yourself.

The first and most important step is to recognize that your aggressive drive for success is not only not helpful, but a large part of the problem. I once read a story about a gremlin who loved pickles. But when he reached into the jar and grabbed tightly onto one, he became panicked – and then angry – when he couldn’t pull his hand out. If he were able to calm himself down, it might have occurred to him to, first, let go of the pickle; then simply turn the jar upside down. So if striving for a goal has you in an angry panic, take a lesson from the gremlin – let it go!


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