It’s better to be a grounding presence than a non-anxious presence.
For decades, systems sages have taught the worthy goal of facing the stresses and uncertainties of family, congregational and organizational life by managing one’s personal anxiety. The problem arises when we promote the concept with an overused catch phrase that makes my stomach churn and my teeth grind, “Be a non-anxious presence”.
When I hear that term I envision a cloistered guru sitting in meditation who has few responsibilities and little contact with the hectic schedules and unexpected happenings of today’s world. The term “non-anxious presence” makes it infinitely clear to me that I am not totally calm and relaxed and I’m not likely to ever get there.
In the spirit of managing my own anxiety and encouraging others to do the same I introduce the concept of being a “grounding presence”. This term takes into account our humanity and the fact that life is a moving journey. The “ing” focuses us on becoming.
At my best I am striving to be grounded and centered, but I’m not always there. Often I am in the process of re-grounding. For example I might reduce anxiety by noticing where I feel tension in my body, taking some deep breaths, and connecting to a higher power.
I guide others in being emotionally and spiritually centered, but frequently those people are also in process. I am successful when I help people to take steps in the direction of managing their personal anxiety.
Managing anxiety is not the same as having no anxiety. Even the originator of the phrase non-anxious presence, Edwin Friedman, qualified the phrase in Generation to Generation with the adjective, “relatively” because anxiety is a part of the human condition that can’t be completely avoided.
However people repeat the shortened version over and over until the fuller concept of a “less anxious” presence gets lost.
There are benefits to anxiety. When people are completely non-anxious they lack drive, motivation and direction, or they lack contact with other human beings. Anxiety is energy. That energy can change the world in positive ways when we direct it in healthy ways.
The expectations we set for ourselves as leaders matter. Let go of the phrase “non-anxious presence”. It is unrealistic. Strive to be a grounding presence, and remember the positive power of anxiety when you learn to manage it in yourself and in the systems you lead.