Learning, Careers and Social Artistry
On "Being the Best"

The Anxiety Wars


When I was a junior in college, we were hit by a severe outbreak of salmonella, a result of undercooked eggs in some stuffing. It was so bad, people were literally collapsing in the quad. The walls of the infirmary were lined with retching students and the National Guard had to be called in to help with the situation. 

In the aftermath, a weird sort of competitiveness set in among those who had been unfortunate enough to contract the disease. People tried to one-up each other over who had lost the most weight or had the most wrenching story of illness. It was weird and always stuck with me as a bizarre kind of commentary on my fellow students and the culture of competition that existed at a college known for its pre-med and pre-law programs. Who competes over misery?

I've seen a similar kind of competition in the work world--who is most stressed and over-worked? We see exhaustion, depletion and anxiety as a strange badge of honor. On some level it seems to communicate our worthiness.  We complain about being overworked, but at the same time, there's a competitive edge to our complaints. "I have it worse than you do," we seem to be saying, as though this is somehow the measure of our lives. We secretly judge those who seem to be less stressed, as though they are not working as hard as we are and therefore are less worthy. 

I no longer want to be part of the anxiety wars. I don't want to feel somehow inadequate if I'm not putting in 12+ hour days and working from a state of depletion and worry.  I don't want to judge the worth of my fellow human beings based on whether or not they seem to be "working hard enough," which in our culture has come to mean working to the point of exhaustion.  I don't want to compete anymore on misery.

I want to start a new competition, one that focuses on how energized and creative we feel. I want to support a culture that says there's something wrong with our lives if we are constantly living with a low-grade (or higher grade) anxiety. A culture that doesn't value depletion, but asks what we can do to re-fill people's wells.  

I want out of the Anxiety Wars. Who wants to come with me?



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Michelle

I belong to a mini group of women (there are five of us) here in my city who are high energy, funny and crazy. Well they have to be that if belong however I digress.

I'm in anytime. Just let me know how you want to start it. Hey we can do Skype

Hi Michele,
What a smart post, rich with great observations and questions. I see this kind of behavior often. Many people (clients too) I know wear this "I am more stressed than you or anyone else" thing - like a badge of honor. And the accompanying affect usually seems to be a sense of resignation. This is just the way it is.....of course in some cases it's very advanced, nearly addictive.
Eckhart Tolle calls it "our background unhappiness." It's that sense that something is always wrong or not working or not right yet.
I'm also realizing just how deep competition is in this culture. I wonder if its related to some of what we now know from neuroscience - that the brain is constantly trolling the environment for signs of threat or pleasure...maybe in some way, this satisfies both?
Great post,
PS love the term competing on misery

Thanks Mireille and Louise--Mireille, we definitely need to do a Skype call on this and the social artistry stuff. I will email you.

And Louise, thanks for your great comments. Tolle's observation is so accurate and I think that maybe there is something to the neuroscience of this, although at this point it feels very maladaptive. The competitive culture doesn't help, either. It's so deeply ingrained, though, that I'm not sure we always observe what we're doing. I know I often don't realize until after an interaction that I actually feel guilty for trying to have less anxiety and overwork in my life. That's pretty bizarre!

Dear Michele,

Hi. My name is David from Minnesota. I am an English Teacher by trade, but for the past four years have been a delivery driver for a large pizza chain. Like you, I decided for my "New Year", I would start making my own dreams come true. I used to work late hours and holiday without question, but I've realized that the "System" is created by people. In my case, they don't value family time, because we are open seven days a week, everyday of the year. Holiday pay, which used to be time-and-a-half has been taken away. It's all about money. I am all about people. I am starting up a business I believe in that reflects my values and priorities.

There is an old saying:

"Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat."

I'm creating my own life. I have suffered from the anxiety and tension of a job that is just not healthy. It creates too much tension and anxiety in my life and I am getting off the ride.

Thanks for the great article.

The comments to this entry are closed.