A simmering conflict surfaces in a dynamic organization I recently joined. I thought everything was running smoothly and now I hear about tension, factions, blaming, secrets. I feel my gut lurch. It all sounds so familiar.
Too Much Anxiety
But the real panic sets in when I start stressing about my own response. I’m supposed to be a “non-anxious presence” in my own work, but now I feel like I could scream or run from the room. I feel a heaviness, a pit in stomach, fear. How can I lead groups and provide effective systems counseling if conflictual human relationships trigger anxiety in me?
In that moment, the churning stomach, the pounding heart, the racing thoughts feel like a judgement, but it’s what happens after the first five minutes that matters most.
I have two choices. We all have two choices.
1) Panic. I can be really good at panic. I’ve had practice. All I (or anyone else) need to do is to keep saying things to myself like, “Oh, my God, I’m a failure. Why did I think I am equipped to do this work?” I can pace the room, pound my fists, blame other people and call friends to share the awful truths I’m hearing.
I know these phrases and responses well. I could easily follow the path of panic. But I choose to set those thoughts aside and focus my attention and energy on choice #2. (Please note that if you are not able to set these kinds of thoughts and feelings aside you may benefit from talking to a mental health counselor and/or being assessed for a more serious anxiety issues than this article addresses.)
2) Put it in perspective. If I choose this path, I remind myself that anxiety is a part of being human. We can’t escape it. In fact we need it for survival. I remind myself that being completely non-anxious is not beneficial. Anxiety is energy. What matters is how I/we choose to direct and manage the energy.
I choose the second path and begin putting my anxiety in perspective. I start by pulling out the following tools to manage anxiety, and begin using them.
Reframe the Expectations: The term “non-anxious presence” has a way of triggering my fears. When I hear it, I think of all the ways I “should” be totally calm and relaxed when I’m not. The term is unrealistic.
I prefer real life phrases that take into account my humanity such as a being a “centering presence” or a “grounding presence”. The “ing” implies that I am striving to be grounded or centered, but I’m not always there. Sometimes I am in the process of re-grounding. Yes, I guide others in being emotionally and spiritually centered, but often those people are also in process. I am doing my job well if I can help others to take steps in that direction.
Unleash the creative juices. Anxiety stirs up or unleashes a lot of energy. I can use this energy to fuel creative thinking. Creativity thrives on the same energy as conflict. I have a choice about which way I direct this energy. For example, when I’m stressed out, I might not sleep well. If I view the dark, half-conscious hours of the middle of the night as a nutrient filled womb, rather than an oppressive void, all kinds of possibilities emerge. When I set aside the fears, I am able to write down all kinds of exciting ideas.
Discover the Inner Opportunities. Personal anxiety almost always grows from experiences and fears that are not directly linked to the present moment. When I use self-reflection to figure out where my fears come from, I find valuable nuggets. These gems of self-reflection allow me to learn more about myself and continue dealing with wounds and struggles from the past. In this process I heal myself. This healing frees up more internal energy for other purposes.
Examine and Realign: Anxiety generates specific responses in individuals. It brings on an additional set of characteristics and responses when it is present in groups. When individuals within a group manage their personal anxiety well, the group as a whole will not experience the symptoms of group anxiety.
This doesn’t mean anxiety is not present. It’s just that members of the group are managing their anxiety well. Instead we become a collective “centering presence” or “grounding presence”.
In groups, usually some individuals manage anxiety well and other do not. People influence each other within groups. The more people there are in an organization who act as “grounding presences” the better that organization will function as a whole. At the same time, more individuals within that group will be able to manage and direct their personal fears in productive ways.
Instead of getting worked up about your stress as a leader, know the signs of group anxiety and learn the tools to manage that anxiety. Take steps to manage your own anxiety. Assure yourself that you do not always have to feel calm and centered. Instead, know the tools to use when you feel stressed and be willing to use them.