Can you tell when you’re anxious? It’s hard for me…

anxiety2Can you tell when you’re feeling anxious? Simple as it may sound, this can be tricky. Many times our anxiety hums and buzzes just below the surface. It is not strong enough to cause panic, but it exists, a backpack we carry without knowing we’re carrying it. How do we recognize this sneaky feeling of anxiety? How do we know it’s not adrenalin?

Gretchen Rubin writes about how she identified her jitters before the release of her new book, “Better Than Before.” 

I don’t feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious — because I recognized my “tell.”

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

A “tell” to tell if you’re anxious – what a wonderful idea! As we race to meet the expectations that the world has of us, and our own expectations of ourselves, we often lose touch with our emotions, or don’t sit in silence enough to sense them. So a signal would give a clue into what’s going on inside us.

These tells can be very different for each of us. The tells can also vary based on whether we’re feeling “good anxiety” (like in Gretchen’s case above) or “bad anxiety.”

Here’s how Harriet Learner describes her own tells in her wonderful book, “The Dance of Fear.”

When anxiety hits, I underfunction in the realm of practical, “real-world” skills (say, following written instructions or getting Ben to the hospital). I may have difficulty accessing more than a thin slice of my competence in terms of noticing and doing what needs to be done. On the emotional/relational scene, my tendency under stress is to overfunction, which may take the form (if I don’t curb it) of judgmentalness, a preoccupation with what someone else is doing wrong, and unsolicited advice giving.

Knowing our “tells” can help us recognize that something is wrong. That we need to slow down and listen to ourselves, to be one with our thoughts and feeling. I once saw a video in which the wonderful Danielle LaPorte spoke about how her chest would tighten on reaching the entrance of the company she’d started once she’d brought in some people to manage it. Before long, they had taken over the company – Danielle had missed the important information her body was trying to give her.

Our tells may be as different as each of us. For some, it may be going on and on and on, for others, going quiet. For some, it may be strong feelings of anxiety, for others, it may be deadening those feelings and operating as a machine, with a head but no heart. For some, anxiety may involve attacking others, for others, attacking themselves.

Spend some time thinking about YOUR tells. And when you know what they are, pay attention when they appear in your life, and think about what they’re trying to tell you.

If you liked this, do share with those who you think might find this useful. Sharing=Caring.

I’d love to hear about what your tells are, and what you do once you’ve identified that you’re anxious.

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Hoops are NOT for jumping through

Hoops are NOT for jumping through!

Sculpture by Elissa Farrow-Savos
Sculpture by Elissa Farrow-Savos

I read a wonderful post yesterday (see: In Others’ Words “Sorry, not sorry”) about how women are conditioned into being over-apologizers, ready to say sorry early just to end the conflict, or sorry for taking up too much space on the subway, or sorry to turn down a request. As Laura points out:

…moving through the world apologizing for taking up too much space is NOT LITTLE.  When you do that, you are conceding that you don’t have the right to stand up for yourself, or allot your time the way you want, or occupy the space you require.

If you’re a sorry over-user, you’re also likely a frequent “Yes-er.”

Being “nice” – something women are conditioned to be from the moment they are born – usually involves saying “Yes” to everyone else’s needs before their own. While generosity and looking out for others is a wonderful virtue, women (and especially Indian women) are taught to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

But how does this behavior work out for us? Not so well, it turns out, if you are last on your list.

Adam Grant’s wonderful book Give and Take tells us that “givers” come in two flavors. “Otherish givers” have a high regard for others’ interests AND their own interests. “Selfless givers” have a high regard for others’ interests but not their own interests. Adam found that “otherish” givers emerge at the top of their fields while “selfless” givers emerge at the bottom, burnt out from too much giving, and possibly resentful.

One thing we need to remember is that people expect us to take care of our own interest, so they may be unaware that our “yes” is coming at a high personal cost.  You may be giving a bit of yourself away when you say “yes,” but the person at the other end may not realize the cost, or if they knew the cost, they might be ok with hearing a “no.”

Also the more often we say “yes,” the more often expected / less remarkable it becomes. As the wise Gretchen Rubin says about shared work:

When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn.

By default, I try to jump through hoops that people put before me. As I try to become more judicious about when to say “no” and when to say “yes,” a memory from playing a video game as a kid comes to mind. We’re in a circus in which a majestic lion must jump through hoops on fire, that come to him in ones and twos and threes, faster and faster. I try to think of myself as the lion. But instead of jumping through the crazy hoops, I side-step them and saunter on. And I think,  why would a majestic lion jump through hoops? And I repeat to myself, “Hoops are NOT for jumping through…”

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Are You Listening Too Much of the Time?

communicationAs I wrote a while back, I’ve been working on my communication skills through Ramit Sethi’s “How to Talk to Anybody,” video training course. Although communication skills are so vital, it’s amazing that they’re never really “taught” at school.

With writers, a common problem is that we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves through the written word, with its backspace button that gives us comfort that we’re expressing exactly what we want to, as well as distance which helps us say what we want, without fear of how people may react. But we’re less comfortable expressing ourselves verbally. So, more often than not, we may spend more time observing and absorbing and assimilating – i.e., listening – than we do talking. The upside is that people often choose to talk to us, confide in us, and ask us for input. The downside is that we may not be heard because we’ve spent so much time listening.

As a natural listener, and (hopefully) an empathetic one, I’ve never had trouble listening to people. But Ramit Sethi’s course opened my eyes to a big issue in my communication: the fact that I was spending much more time listening that I was talking.

What happens in such a dynamic? Well, people end up leaving the conversation understanding very little about you! As I look back at years and years of conversations, I’m amazed at how I did not see the impact of this dynamic. I often asked lots of questions and listened carefully to what people had to say, so I knew a lot about them, and hence felt closer to them, than they knew about me or felt about me.

And yet, being known and being valued for our unique strengths, stories, and talents – apart from the fact that we’re good listeners! – is something that we all want.

Ramit’s solution? For every two questions you ask, make a statement.

And so I’ve started consciously to focus more on self-disclosure; to listen, but also to talk. And slowly but surely I can see the difference its making. Not only do I understand people around me, they’re beginning to understand me.

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“I Don’t Know” Are Wise and Wonderful Words

One of my heroes, Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” and the co-founder of the Quiet Revolution recently shared this piece of wisdom from Cass Sunstein’s new book on overcoming groupthink, “Wiser”:

When people lack confidence, they tend to be tentative and, therefore, moderate, knowing that their own views may be wrong. The great American judge Learned Hand once said that ‘the spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’ Tentative people respect the spirit of liberty. But as people gain confidence, they usually become more extreme in their beliefs. The reason is that a significant moderating factor — their own uncertainty about whether they are right — has been eliminated.

Yet, expressing this spirit which “is not too sure that is is right,” which acknowledges that problems are complex and things are connected and messy in ways that take time and depth to unravel is often looked down upon, especially in domains such as business or politics.

Though questions and doubts are the raw ingredients from which insights, solutions, and ultimately, value emerges, “I don’t know” are still difficult words for people to speak in business.

As Stephen Levitt, coauthor of “Think Like a Freak,” a manual which teaches the  approach Levitt and Stephen Dubner used to write the bestselling Freaknomics says:

It’s absolutely been my experience in business that nobody ever wants to admit that they don’t know the answer to questions, even when it’s patently obvious that they can’t know the answers because of the (limited) information they have. Businesspeople, especially in front of their bosses, have an almost unlimited ability to sit back and mint answers they don’t know. To me, that’s exactly the opposite of the “Freakonomics” approach.

Although projecting certainty can provide the air of knowing the answers, it does not ensure that that those answers are correct. But the incentives of the business world, and other domains such as politics, seem to call for this all-knowing stance, instead of one of curiosity, of uncertainty, of a desire for true knowledge. Here’s how Dubner explains it:

I understand the way the incentives work. I understand that reputation works. Nobody wants to be the ignoramus or the dummy. If I’m a politician and someone says, “Governor Blah Blah, Senator Blah Blah, we just had this terrible mass shooting at a school. If you could do anything — if all options were available to you — what would you do to prevent that in the future?”

The way the world works is, [the politician will respond], “I’m gonna tell you. I’m gonna do these three things, and that’s what will do it.” [But if you follow up with the question:] “Do you have any evidence? Is there any empirical reason to think that that actually would work?” Often, I hate to say it, [the answer is] no. You see that in certain realms — politics and in business where the incentives are different. There’s a big incentive to get it right in business, but there’s also a lot of, for lack of a more sophisticated term, peer pressure to be the gal or guy who knows, who has the plan.

And while the peer pressure and personal value is a force in the present, the outcome of the solution proposed so emphatically can only be seen in the distant future, by when the decision makers have likely moved on to different things, unlikely to be judged on their “plan.”

Faced with this reality, only the few who genuinely care about finding the right answer, about helping the cause, not just helping their own careers, risk saying “I don’t know.”

Yet, over the long-term, businesses do want decision makers to take decisions that are in the long-term interest of the business, not just themselves. So, it might make sense for companies to build an atmosphere which values thoughtful enquiry, not bravado, which respects healthy confidence and judgment, but questions a surety which comes too easy and slick.

Of course, most routine questions don’t require a deep investigation. But every once in a while questions and puzzles come up which are better answered by saying “I don’t know,” and then trying to find the answers.

How do you feel about saying or hearing “I don’t know?” What strategies can make it easier to say or hear these words?

Magic Words

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How Extroverts Could Unknowingly Harm Their Introverted Colleagues

I recently came across the lemonprovocatively titled article, “How Introverts Secretly Hold Back Their Extroverted Colleagues.” My first reaction to the title was skepticism. I should probably clarify here that I am an introvert per MBTI, an ambivert per Daniel Pink’s assessment, and a social introvert per the STAR method. Skeptical, yet curious, I read on:

Introverted employees may have it out for their more outgoing peers, according to researchers at Oregon State University, the University of Florida, and University of Notre Dame. Not only are introverts more likely to rate extroverted colleagues as worse performers at work, they’re less likely to give them credit.

Introverts, especially those living in more extroverted cultures, may find this allegation hard to believe. In her revolutionary book “Quiet“, Susan Cain talks about the challenges introverts face living under the “Extrovert Ideal,” and the biases they face from the extroverts around them. But this article suggests the opposite.

Here’s one of the studies the article quotes:

…178 students were each assigned to a four- or five-person project team for the semester, then asked to complete questionnaires about their team members midway through the term. Additionally, they were asked to share thoughts on how they got along as a team, as well as their own personalities.

To the researchers’ surprise, introverted team members rated other introverts higher than extroverts, while the extroverts didn’t seem to be influenced by the personalities of their teammates at all.

What might be the reason behind this apparent bias? Do introverts really “have it out for their more outgoing peers?”

Well, this could be one of the contributing factors. For introverts who’re quiet-shamed under the Extrovert Ideal, some might indeed feel resentful enough to lose their sense of fairness and rate extroverts poorly. But is this really true for most of the people, most of the time? I don’t think so.

I don’t have access to this particular study, but I do have a hunch about why this might have happened. The answer lies in the lemon experiment.

The lemon experiment shows that introverts salivate more than extroverts when tasting lemon juice. This sensitivity to stimuli occurs not just when tasting lemon juice, but also in every other sphere of life, including social interactions. Since introverts are more easily stimulated, they prefer working in a calm and peaceful environment, i.e., they are looking to lower their  level of stimulation. On the other hand, extroverts don’t do as well in the same calm and peaceful environment which they might find dull, i.e., they are looking to increase their level of stimulation.

The acclaimed psychologist and professor, Brian Little demonstrates this concept of optimal stimulation in his charming Ted Talk: Confessions of a Passionate Introvert. (Time: 3:14 – 7:22)

So, in light of this new understanding of extroverts and introverts, let’s re-examine the study we discussed above.

When working on the project together, it’s possible that the working style and work environment preferences for introverts and extroverts differed. And since the work environment is often geared for the Extrovert Ideal (think open plan offices and group brainstorming), it’s likely that introverts in the group find themselves working in a situation that is not conducive for them to do their best (i.e., in which they are over stimulated). Since the work environment and methods work well for extroverts, they may be unaware of how these practices don’t work for introverts. Since they find these interactions energizing and stimulating,  they struggle to understand that the same interactions may be draining for introverts. So, an extrovert may judge introverts “objectively” on their performance, without considering that the introvert is working in a inhospitable environment, if you will. Introverts on the other hand are very conscious of the effect that their extroverted colleagues and extroverted working methods have on them and their introverted peers. So, the lower rating they may give extroverts is likely to be because of the negative externality of highly extroverted behavior on the more introverted folks.

One of the  researchers of the study concludes:

The issue might be that extroverts just need to hit a “dimmer switch” when interacting with their taciturn peers.

While this is no doubt good, sensible advice, what is really important is educating extroverts of the effect they can have on introverts and their need to be more mindful of the needs of people different from them.

It would also be helpful to learn more about the wonderful, rich, and complex tapestry that is the introverted mind, instead of labeling them taciturn or using diminutive terms like “that introvert.” Like the wise Susan Cain says, just like feminism is not anti-men, the power of introverts is not against extroverts. Just like women need their voice heard to overcome oppression, so do introverts need their voice heard and their needs met to blossom and grow.

How can YOU make the world a better place for the introverts in your life? If you’re an introvert, what have you done to share your needs at college, work, or at home? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you think this piece could help an introvert or an extrovert you know, don’t hesitate to share this with them.

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If you would like to grow the power of introverts, join the Quiet Revolution.

Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

churchill-lifegivingIn his wise and wonderful book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about the upsides and downsides of being a generous person, or in Adam’s words, a giver. Givers naturally enjoy giving their ideas, help, and support freely and this helps them build goodwill which drives their success. But sometimes, givers can care too much for other people’s interests to the extent that they hurt themselves.

Adam recounts the story of Sameer, a new MBA graduate and giver, who found it hard to negotiate the terms of his offer with a prospective employer. Sameer says:

I felt awkward. I like my boss and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Sameer had always found negotiations difficult and had the reputation of being a pushover, caring too much about other people’s interests and sacrificing his own. But this time, Sameer negotiated increases in his total compensation to the tune of $70,000. How did he do it?  It turns out that Sameer adopted the role of an advocate for his family when negotiating, instead of negotiating for himself. He says:

As a giver, I feel guilty about pushing too much, but the minute I start thinking ‘I’m hurting my family, who’s depending on me for this,’ I don’t feel guilty about pushing for that side.

Adam says this strategy works because Sameer is doing what givers do naturally: advocating for other people’s interests. Intentionally advocating for his family, whose interests are aligned to his own, helped Sameer be more assertive in the negotiation, while being fair to his boss and company.

Since givers are deeply concerned about the well-being and interests of others, sometimes even more than their own, serving the interests of others is a strong driving force, even more than “what’s in it for me?”

I was blown away by Adam’s insight and struck by the power that thinking about others has for givers. While we saw how thinking about others helps givers protect their own interests in negotiations, I wondered if this strategy could be used in other situations. If so, what might these other situations be?

Here are two situations that I identified where other-interest can help givers: to aid their self-development and to further causes dear to them.

I’ve been working on my communication skills using Ramit Sethi’s How to Talk to Anybody course. Early on in the course, Ramit makes the point that having good communication skills is a service to other people. So, when you go and approach someone at a party or a networking dinner, you’re doing them a favor, because they’re probably as hesitant as you in making the first step. When you smile and make small talk with a barista, you’re brightening their otherwise mundane day. And this thinking about others can be a surprisingly strong motivator. When thinking about improving their communication skills for themselves, givers might be constrained by real factors  (e.g., an introvert may find small talk draining) and mental models (e.g., “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”) But when givers think about how their communication skills serve others, they may find themselves more motivated to develop themselves.

Similarly, an introvert may need to act in a more extroverted manner sometimes, says Susan Cain. But pretend extroversion can be hard and draining for introverts. Introverts are more willing to act in a more extroverted way to further a cause they care about. Thinking about how their furthering their cause helps others helps introverted-givers marshal resources to act more extroverted (for some time only: conditions apply!). Susan gives the example of Brian Little, the acclaimed, introverted professor and giver who has a very extroverted persona in the classroom. Little constantly monitors the audience and adjusts his speech accordingly, peppering anecdotes or facts depending on the response of the audience. Here’s what Susan says:

(Little)views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms rather than “grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.” 

Little thinks about othershis studentsand self-monitors to further his causeeducating studentsthat he cares about deeply.

So, used in healthy way, their innate generosity can help givers help others AND help themselves.

What are some other ways that givers can use their inherent concern for other people to make positive changes in their life as well as the lives of others? Would love to hear your comments below!

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On a lighter note 🙂
Thinking of others