How one high achiever has learned to dance along the knife-edge

Omar Prestwich, from Unsplash

I remember the first time I stumbled across a description of high functioning anxiety and the overwhelming, life-changing sense of validation I felt. I was on a plane, flying from Melbourne to New Zealand, and I had picked up a copy of Sarah Wilson’s “First We Make The Beast Beautiful.” I read that particular page with tears falling down my face. Finally, someone had put my exact experience into words.

With this particularly defining moment in mind, I’ve often toyed with the idea that I too, would write about my experience of anxiety, — in particular, high functioning anxiety, in the hope that someone else might find some resolution, hope, or sense of validation.

And so — Here we are.

My experience of anxiety

In 2017, after a particularly bad bout of burnout, I sat in my doctor’s office and heard the words ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’. Tears streaming down my face, I felt relieved to know there was an explanation.

For as long as I can remember, this has been my experience. For me, anxiety manifests as over checking (locks, ovens, doors), hypervigilance (particularly making sure that other people are ‘alright’), and obsessively worry about past events or imaginary future events (that often never even happen). I play out worst case scenarios — I’m convinced that my husband being late means he’s been in a horrible accident, that I’ve left the door open and my dog will get out and be hit by a car, and that every siren is going to rescue someone I love. I overplan, I am always in control of a situation, I get my greatest sense of self worth when I achieve. I tap my fingers, trace the outlines of my fingers with my thumb nail and pick my nails. I’ve wondered recently if these might be bordering on compulsive behaviours.

This is my experience of anxiety.

(Sound familiar?)

Wait… Isn’t this ‘normal?’

For the first 28 years of my life, I thought that this was normal human functioning.

Despite having two degrees in psychology, I missed the signs in myself.

How did I miss these?

Because where others might shrink away, I throw myself into life. Many other forms of anxiety result in the individual avoiding particular situations that elicit or exacerbate their anxiety. While it’s not diagnosable, I believe there’s an anxiety varient — high functioning anxiety.

The Double Edged Sword of Anxiety and Ambition

Looking at my life, and if you observed me going about my days, you probably wouldn’t recognize this anxiety unless you knew what to look for.

Driven, determined, organised, ambitious, high achieving, the one ‘under control’ in pressure situations. Proactive, helpful, loyal, excellent at reading others… Sometimes otherwise known as ‘Type A.’

Being the high achieving one means that I flourished in my Master’s degree, earning First Class Honours. Being the ambitious one means that I threw myself into entrepreneurship. Being able to read others makes me an excellent coach. Being the proactive one means I’m always the prepared friend at festivals, the one booking dinner reservations, the one figuring out how to split the bill. Being the driven one means I’m always driving my education forward — investing in professional development and becoming ‘the best I can be.’ Being the organised one means that I’m the best travel buddy — I always know where I’m going and am incredibly self sufficient.

Of course, these behaviours have shaped my life — I can attribute so much of my success to this way of being.

But it has also cost me so much.

Because underneath the surface is this constant unease. This constant feeling of needing to control everything around me, so that I feel okay. If I’m prepared, I can handle anything. If others are taken care of, I can relax. If I’m achieving, then I’ll be rewarded with praise and love. I control everything that I can control…

We can only hold so much pressure. At some point, it gets to be too much, and we tip, fall, off the edge.

When so many of our anxious traits serve us, but can also be our downfall, how do we move forward?

How do we manage this tenuous dance along the knife edge of anxiety and ambition?

I’ve invested a lot of time, money and energy over the last few years learning to find harmony between these two. I’ve tried talk therapies, medication, meditation, mindfulness, herbal remedies, diet changes, and coaching.

While I can’t make recommendations for you — I can share what has helped me. Please ensure you seek professional support for yourself.

1. Understanding the history and payoffs of the behaviors that persist.

I’ve taken time to reflect and understanding the environment I grew up in, and how this reinforced the behaviours I see in myself, today. It’s important to understand that we learn behaviours that work for us, on some level. As children, our only job is to learn how to survive — so any behaviours that led to us receiving more love, care, attention, food, water or shelter — were probably reinforced.

Let me be clear — I grew up in a household with two loving, caring, attentive parents. I never wanted for anything. I never experienced any abuse or neglect.

But, through all of the adults around me, I learned that achievement, being prepared, being the good girl — was what earned me more love and attention. I learned that being happy was favourable, and that taking care of others was the right thing to do. These were the behaviours that were reinforced in me over time.

Because these behaviours still result in social approval now, these behaviours continue to be reinforced.

Understanding this dynamic between environment and behaviour has helped me gain greater self awareness in the moment where I might have once automatically engaged in these behaviours.

2. Learning self-soothing skills to reduce the physiological effects of anxiety

When I’m anxious, I’m in my head. When I become aware of this, I know to acknowledge how I’m feeling and allow myself to be in that feeling. Research shows that attempts to avoid, reduce or fight anxiety (both emotions and thoughts) only results in an increase of that experience. We perpetuate the experience, which can cause greater distress. My first step is just to say aloud “I’m noticing the feeling of anxiety. I’m noticing the thought that ….”

While I do this, I’m gently bringing myself back to the present moment, coming back into my body rather than being in my head (finding the balance of presence whilst not avoiding my thoughts is a tricky skill). I’m switching off my sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) by switching on my parasympathetic nervous system — by taking long, slow, deep breaths into my belly.

3. Developing behavioural flexibility and choosing replacement behaviours in the moment.

Once I’ve calmed myself through mindful breathing, it’s easier to choose a behaviour that will help me long term. When you’re aware of what you’re doing and the payoff you’re seeking, it can be easier to choose new ways of responding. I can choose imperfect action over perfectionism, I can choose small steps over procrastination, I can choose self care over pushing through exhaustion. I can find ways to reinforce these behaviours which are aligned with my goals and values. Some of these behaviours might be self-reinforcing simply through how they feel as I do them. Throughout it all, I’m reminding myself that I’m loved, I’m worthy, I’m safe.

It’s through these choices that I can still be the ambitious me, the determined me, the high achieving me, BUT, I can be her without falling off the knife edge into the world of overthinking, overdoing, overcompensating anxiety.

It’s through these choices that I find my balance again, dancing carefully along the double-edged sword of ambition and anxiety.

I would love to know your thoughts, read your responses, and know how this impacted you. Feel free to connect with me and send me a message on Instagram.