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Leadership and Anxiety

March 1, 2022

The Anxiety (the Fuel) that Drives Us

We turn our attention now to anxiety because of its unseen, yet powerful, influence on how we live. Anxiety, among other things, can be seen as an internal unseen fuel that drives us. The response to the perception of threat is anxiety. This threat might be nothing more than, I’ve got to get up this morning and go to work or I’ll lose my job and have no money. The more easily people are threatened, the more anxiety. Anxiety is automatic and most of it is out of awareness.

Anxiety emerges in those regions of our brain where reason is fuzzy at best. As a result, what creates the sense of threat that generates the anxiety more often than not is markedly unreasonable. We’ll explain more about this later.

Though usually thought of as negative, anxiety has a positive side. We need moderate amounts of it to get up in the morning and get things done.  Anxiety, of course, is part and parcel of the human condition; There is no escaping it. It is doubtful that anyone would want to live a totally anxiety-free life, or could live such a life for that matter.

Anxiety comes in many forms: it can be acute (short-term), as in a crisis, or it can be chronic, lasting many years or even generations. It can be very intense, when one is anticipating a very negative event (e.g. an approaching hurricane), or it can be a semi-conscious unsettledness (e.g. when in-laws are coming for dinner). Anxiety resides in individuals, but it also exists in relationships and organizations.

For our purposes, we’re going to focus on anxiety as it appears in relationships. People, of course, form themselves into groups – families, companies, or nations. The more a person’s focus and energy is bound in a relationship, the more a person’s functioning will be influenced by and dependent on that relationship. The more a person is absorbed into relationship, the less energy she will have to develop her distinct individuality (beginning with ID) and become well-defined as an individual.

There are actually two strong pressures that confront humans, the pressure to be a distinct individual, and the pressure to join in and conform to the demands or relationships. Both of these pressures are valuable and need to be kept in tension with one another, because the pressures are pulling in the opposite direction. Too much individuality, and the person becomes a hermit. Too much relationship, and the individual is absorbed into the collective losing her distinct individuality.

If a person grows up under strong pressure to adjust to the demands of others (the relationship pressure), her life becomes strongly governed by emotional processes rather than reasoning (I don’t care what I really want and believe. I must go along with what the group wants and demands). This process (emotion rules over reasoning) has the side affect of reducing the ability to be a well-defined individual, because clear self-definition demands clear thinking and reasoning, which leads to action that is aligned with my core beliefs, values, and ID. As personal definition decreases, togetherness needs are stronger and emotional reactivity becomes more intense. So the less well-defined person who is influenced more by emotion than reason can be much more easily swayed by the demands of the crowd and the tenor of the moment.

People differ in how easily they are influenced by what transpires in a relationship, and how they manage the pressure to conform in relationship (the more involved emotionally they are in the relationship, the more threat they experience in subtle shifts that inevitably occur in the relationship). The rule of thumb is the more emotionally dependent a person is in a relationship, the more easily that person is threatened by group pressure, the more anxiety she experiences, the more energy is invested in actions aimed at reducing the anxiety, all of which leads to group conformity. The more actions people feel compelled to take to reduce anxiety and avoid triggering anxiety, the less flexibility they have in that relationship (because conformity is contrary to flexibility).

Less mature (or less well-defined) individuals, handle themselves emotionally quite differently than those who are more mature and well-defined. Their relationships are susceptible to a great deal of mutual emotional stimulation, partly because there is a great deal of trading of selves involved (I have very little core authentic self, therefore I must borrow from what I see in you to complete my self, as you are doing the same with me). In time, however, borrowing and lending of selves becomes a source of stress (I don’t have a clear sense of myself, so I see what you’re like – how you think, what you value, how you act. I borrow those parts that appeal, whether or not these are congruent with who I truly am). Since trying to make a self out of a relationship cannot work (I end up with a number of misconnected incongruent parts I’ve borrowed from others), the attempt itself creates a certain amount of anxiety (I’m not authentic as a person. The self I display is merely a false self of borrowed parts). In order to manage that anxiety, people begin to rationalize the discrepancies and to posture themselves in recognizable ways, and certain relationship patterns form (discussed later).

Emotionally mature (well-defined) individuals seem able to absorb a large amount of stress or be around other excited individuals without themselves becoming emotionally excited, thus passing the anxiety on. Because I am well-defined, I have clear thinking which allows me to reason through what is unfolding in front of me, and therefore make clear decisions about my actions that are aligned with my core beliefs and values.

All of this said is not to rule out the centrality of relationship in favor of the individual (the error of the Western mind). Well-defined people enter easily into relationships, but those relationships don’t define who they are. They already have a strong sense of their ID, their beliefs, and their values. And the groups to which they tend to attach are invariably made up of equally well-defined people who reinforce their individuality.

An individual can stay connected to others without losing his or her identity (i.e. stay well-defined as a person), and without taking on the emotional anxiety of the group. Well-defined people, who lean more toward the pressure to be an individual and are thus more well-defined, are those who are not easily threatened by others and the pressure to conform in relationships. Well-defined people have enough confidence in their ability to deal with relationships so they neither avoid them nor become highly anxious in encountering them. In other words, their self definition is not compromised every time they enter a group. They remain well-defined, even when the group pressure to conform is intense.

Take a moment to think of people in the two categories:

o Those who are well-defined as individuals, who understand themselves, who are uncompromising on their values, who enter into relationships but are not easily influenced to change core values in the face of group pressure.

o Those who are poorly defined as individuals. Who have a poor understanding of themselves, who compromise core values in the face of group pressure.
Levels of anxiety vary with people over time, but the rule of thumb is the less well-defined a person is, the higher the average level of chronic anxiety. Poorly defined people are more relationship-dependent, a dependence that in the moment reduces anxiety, but in the long term actually spawns chronic anxiety.
Anxiety needs to be constrained (the higher the levels of anxiety, the less the person is able to function normally). There are numerous ways to confine it (the higher the levels of anxiety, the more pronounced these confining traits). Relationships are by far the most effective anxiety constrainer. When people become more anxious, the togetherness and conformity pressure increases –they must think and act alike. The more people respond based on anxiety, the less tolerant they are in the differences of one another (Your differences create more anxiety in me. Cut it out!). But people can also use drugs and alcohol to manage their anxiety. Over/under eating, sexual fantasies, or excessive moralizing also work. Indeed, an excessive concentration on nearly anything (golf, work, hobbies, etc.) can act as a constrainer of anxiety.

In organizations, as anxiety builds, actions are often taken to relieve the anxiety in the moment – giving in to the anxiety of others — rather than determining a long-term view. And, in the absence of a well-defined leader, this default to the expedient in the face of organizational anxiety compromises any chance of a clear, well-reasoned path forward,
Reduction of chronic anxiety is a by-product of increasing one’s basic self-definition. A successful effort to improve one’s level of definition and reduce anxiety strongly depends on a person’s developing more awareness of and control over her emotional reactivity. This is because a person’s automatic reactiveness to relationship systems is the major factor that undermines her emotional autonomy.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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