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Dublin: 0 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019

Column: Anxiety often breeds perfectionism and success. But at what cost to the individual?

The fear of failure is a powerful motivator, but when does worrying become destructive?

Claire Micks

ANXIETY DRIVES YOU, until it runs you over.

My mother always described me as a ‘worrier’. A ‘but what if, mammy?’, kind of a child. I had a vivid imagination and a creative mind that allowed me to see a whole world of possibilities that others wouldn’t even have dreamt of. Together with a whole world of risks.

It made sure I studied for my maths tests. Made sure I kept on the good side of Santy. Made sure I didn’t hang upset down on the monkey bars, or steal jelly cubes from the Chivers packets. Made me into a good little girl who ticked all the boxes. Like it probably did so many of us. And it somehow felt as if it kept me safe, secure, successful. Anxiety kept me going … and going … and going …

She used to say that my father was only ever happy when he had something to worry about. A kind of pathological preoccupation with preparing for the worst. So it’s genetic I guess. And quintessentially Irish in so many ways. Part of our geneaology, this unfortunate predisposition to pessimism.

Fear of failure is a powerful motivator

Anxiety drives us to achieve. To cover all the bases. It fuels us along the long road to reaching our goals because fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It keeps us going and gives us that extra sixty seconds worth of distance run. And it is a good thing. In moderation.

But when does the fuel that keeps the tank running, proceed to burn us out? When does a force of good in our lives which allows us to fulfil our potential, become a force of evil which can destroy that same potential? And how do we recognise when the Rubicon has been crossed, and the balance of power has shifted into unchartered territory?

When you find that you can no longer turn the key in the ignition to stop the engine, that’s a good indicator. Or when you find the fuel’s still burning long after the destination has been reached, and down time is an achievement in itself, rather than a given, that would be another. When conversation around anything other than whatever’s on your mind becomes tricky, and any obstacles between where you are now and where you perceive you need to be are all you can focus on, that’s perhaps when you need to check yourself.

Some would call that drive. Determination. True grit. A pass to the winner’s enclosure. Most organisations would value that focus, welcome it, promote it, applaud it. So long as the anxiety is channelled in a direction that ‘gets things done’, what’s the harm? They gratefully capitalise on it. And why wouldn’t they? After all, that’s the kind of energy that makes the world go round.

But what happens when the focus has been so intense, for so long, that you start seeing double? When the overwhelming desire to get it right paralyses, rather than inspires? Hinders rather than enhances your potential?

Worry can be a destructive

When mistakes haunt us, instead of temporarily hindering, that’s a red flag. When problems become exaggerated in our own heads and perspective becomes something we struggle to find, that’s another. When tranquillity and calm become a foreign land and the ‘Off’ button becomes harder and harder to find. When motivated becomes manic, and measured becomes maxed out.

If necessity is the mother of all invention, worry, concern, doubt, whatever term you wish to put on it, could be said to be the lubricant that keeps the world turning. Anxiety often breeds hard work, perfectionism and ultimately success. But at what cost to the individual? In this world of recession and debt and unemployment, has our collective anxiety reached unsustainable levels? And if so, what can we do about it?

Recognising it is a start. Realising that worry can be a destructive, not a constructive force in our lives, and approaching it in that fashion is sensible. Being able to laugh at yourself and your shortcomings gives great perspective and starves anxiety of the oxygen it needs to thrive. Focusing on others rather than ‘me fein’ and getting out of ‘selfie’ mode also works wonders. Ceding control for a while. Loosening the reigns just a tad to make sure that you’re not gripping them that bit too tight, does no harm.

The illusion of control

Remembering all the things that you worried about previously that came to nothing. And all the times something unexpected knocked you over like a bolt from the blue. And perhaps most importantly, reminding yourself that we only ever get one shot at this, and worrying is no life at all. On the rare occasions that you can manage to be so infuriatingly philosophical, focusing on that one simple thought can help reset the gauge and get you back on track. Que sera, sera, and all that.

Most of us aren’t firemen or UN peacekeepers or brain surgeons. In reality it’s not actually life or death most of the time, and tomorrow’s another day, which will bring with it new challenges and opportunities. Regardless of what today threw at you.

Perhaps as a nation who have lived through one of the worst financial meltdowns in history, fearing the worst has become as much about survival as anything else, and is entirely understandable rather than anything abnormal. But that doesn’t make it good for us.

Anxiety drives you. So long as you remain in control. And are navigating your own course. Eight years into recession, it behoves us all to give ourselves the once over every now and again and make sure that we’re not entering overdrive. To take our foot off the pedal, take a breather and make sure that in this ever more demanding, manic world, that we still can.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer who does more than her fair share of worrying about matters which really aren’t that important. Despite that, she somehow manages to get her ramblings published on occasion.

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About the author:

Claire Micks

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