Anxiety is a common experience for many people, including high achievers. Despite their success and accomplishments, high achievers can still struggle with anxiety and the pressure that comes with it.
Here are some of the anxious thoughts that may fill their mind:
- Worrying about worst-case scenarios
- Thinking every little thing could go wrong
- Harboring over past mistakes
- Comparing themselves with others
- Focusing on negative feedback
- Unable to accept compliments or praise
Psychologists say that even the most successful people suffer from thought traps, also known as cognitive distortion, or thinking errors, that fuel their anxiety. These traps are thought patterns that arrive automatically and prevent one from seeing clearly, communicating effectively, and making good decisions. Thought traps can lead to the high achiever turning to harmful coping mechanisms, such as overworking themselves, substance use, avoidance, and passive-aggressive behavior.
On the one hand, anxiety can be beneficial to high achievers. It helps fuel their drive to continue to work hard and achieve more. They go the extra mile and ensure every task is done to the utmost potential. They are the prized employees of an organization. Yet, if they dismiss their anxiety, those prized employees can become miserable and ruin their careers.
The 11 Thought Traps
It is important to understand that anxiety is a natural stress response. Below is an overview of 11 thought traps from Morra Aarons-Mele, creator and host the of award winning Anxious Achiever Podcast, author, and founder of Woman Online. Check out her original article the Harvard Business Review.
1. All-or-nothing thinking: Go big or go home. It’s all black or white. You make one slip-up, and now the whole thing is a failure. Instead of seeing something as good or bad, black or white, try switching that language to good and bad. My presentation had good and bad moments, rather than my presentation was bad. Learn to see the shades of grey rather than concentrating on perfection vs. failure.
2. Labeling: Labeling takes that all-or-nothing thought process a step further. Instead of saying, ‘I made a mistake,’ you become overcritical of yourself. Instead of acknowledging that normal people make a mistake, you negatively label yourself all the names in the book: loser, failure, incapable, inadequate. If you find yourself making a mistake and instantly thinking, ‘I suck,’ take a moment and answer why you think you suck. Is it because you made one mistake? Now, think of why you don’t suck, and list all your skills and accomplishments. You will likely find that one list outweighs the other.
3. Jump to conclusions: Your mind automatically concludes that others think negatively about you. ‘She didn’t like my presentation,’ or ‘he never smiles back at me in the hallway, he must hate me.’ Or you go for predicting the future and think why even attempt that task if I know I’ll do it badly, ‘why try.’ These reactions can lead to lower self-esteem, lower productivity, bad relationships, and poor decision-making. If you find yourself jumping to conclusions, remember while you have a lot of superpowers, you cannot read anyone’s mind, and you cannot tell the future.
4. Catastrophizing: The worst possible case scenario comes from one event. You and your partner have an argument = you think it’s the end of the relationship. If you have an area marked as needing improvement on your annual review = you will get fired. These overwhelming feelings are not facts. Try to realign your thinking. Focus on what you can do in the moment rather than a disastrous outcome. Talk to someone when these thoughts intrude.
5. Filtering: Think of a single drop of red food dye in a bowl of icing. One small ingredient or detail. As you stir that icing or dwell on that small detail, it turns the entire bowl of icing red. This is filtering. You have your annual employee review, and your boss praises you but states one area you can improve. Instead of accepting their praise, you obsess over their one critique. Keep a record of every accomplishment or praise you receive. If you find yourself overwhelmed or doubtful, look at your records of accomplishment and praise and remind yourself that you are doing good work.
6. Discounting the positive: It is just good luck. Right place, right time. Like not being able to take praise, this level of humility can create an issue when someone thinks doing something well one time was just a chance occurrence, so they pass up on future opportunities like it. Not everyone can be great at everything, but if you are successful at something once, don’t discount that success and gate keep your potential.
7. “Should” statements: I should be making more money. I should be doing more in my career. I should be able to read my boss’s mind and know exactly what they want. It can be great to have goals and high expectations of yourself but be careful making these statements and being frustrated with where you are or what you think you should be doing. If there are things that you can be doing to fulfill your self-expectations, then work on that, but don’t damage your mood or motivation in the process.
8. Social comparison: Comparing yourself to others at work is a dangerous slope. Healthy competition is great, but unhealthy competition can harm performance and increase anxiety. Instead of harping on ‘Matt makes more sales than I do,’ don’t focus on comparing how many sales you each made this month. Try asking, ‘Is there something they are doing that has been successful for them?’ Ask that question and test it out for yourself. If it works, great. If not, communicate and be curious to find other ways to improve.
9. Personalization and blaming: With personalization, you hold yourself responsible for things out of your control. Psychologists believe personalization results from giving ourselves the illusion of control and avoiding conflict. If one area of your work is struggling, you conclude that as evidence of being a terrible employee. Blaming directs the responsibility onto others. ‘Our numbers were down this month, so my team is at fault for not working as hard as I do.’ The responsibility or fault can be several reasons. Instead of personalizing or blaming, strategize with others in your organization to devise a solution.
10. Ruminating: The fixation on obsessive, repetitive thoughts about negative things from the past, problems happening right now, or the expectation of an issue in the future. These obsessive thoughts can lock you into a negative mindset and make you avoid action altogether. One way to help alleviate ruminating is by jotting down your negative thoughts. From there, you can analyze if they’re irrational and move on.
11. Emotional reasoning: Confusing your feelings for your reality. ‘I feel overwhelmed at work, so I must not be capable of doing my job.’ Feelings are a product of your thoughts and your beliefs. Yes, you might be overwhelmed, but being overwhelmed should not equate to believing you cannot do your job. You need to step out of that headspace and talk to someone. If you talked to your coworkers about it, they’d likely agree that your feelings of being incapable are false.
Whether you would characterize yourself as a high achiever or not, I’m sure one of these 11 anxious thought traps has entered your mind at some point. Of course, it is important to want to be the best version of yourself, to set expectations, and to have goals. Still, it’s equally important to understand that perfection is unattainable. Your anxiety can be beneficial, but don’t let it break you. Try to practice self-compassion, see the light in the situation, try meditation to quiet your mind, and say no when necessary. Aim for excellence and focus on progress rather than perfection.
Even the most productive and accomplished employees within an organization may be struggling with anxiety. As the only company that does physical + mental health assessments, Axiom Medical can help organizations manage employee mental health. Your partners to help build more resilient workforces. Contact us today to find out more!
Charli Pedersen works for Axiom Medical as their Content Marketing Specialist. She has her bachelor’s degree in English, Professional and Technical Writing and previous experience with creating content for businesses and non-profit organizations.