Nope, you don’t need to be an always-on extrovert to get to the top. Take it from entrepreneur Morra Aarons-Mele, a self-described "hermit by nature." These are the anxiety-quieting strategies that have helped her build her business.
“Network your way to the top.”
“Always say yes.”
“Never eat lunch alone.”
“Get out there!”
If you’re an overachiever like me, you’ve definitely heard this advice. And, if you’re ambitious, you also probably believe that to be successful, you have to be out there 24/7, tirelessly pressing the flesh, doing deals, tweeting, and keynoting conferences. That there’s a successful “type”—the intense, sleepless mover and shaker, the person who “leans in” and musters endless amounts of grit. And if you don’t fit that type, well, you’re out of luck.
I call bullshit.
Much of what we think we must do to succeed is unnecessary and even counterproductive. I’ve interviewed over one hundred successful entrepreneurs and executives, and I can tell you that most of them aren’t the always-on, outgoing superstars we would assume. One new media CEO whose viral videos have garnered over a hundred million views told me that she experiences major anxiety being in a room where she doesn’t know anyone. “I go straight into awkward middle schooler mode,” she confessed. The founder of a biotech firm who just received Series A financing confessed that she hides in the bathroom at conferences, “usually because I am crying.” A former Wall Street banker who now runs a successful tech start-up has to “take beta-blockers for public speaking.”
And then there’s me. I’m a hermit by nature, an extreme introvert, more comfortable at home, with my kids, my cats, and my kitchen than out there selling to a room. I’ll admit it: facilitating meetings and giving speeches intimidate and exhaust me. When I fly to meet a potential client or to give a talk, I take so much anxiety-fighting Xanax that I’m barely conscious. I manage my social media feeds very tightly, doing just enough to keep me in the game. And yet I own and run a successful business in which I am the primary sales driver.
“Hiding in the bathroom” has become my shorthand for hacking and faking my way to appearing like a typical successful businessperson. Given my natural inclinations, I would hide almost all the time. I would rarely choose to leave my house. But as extensive as my online network is, I could not sustain a business that way. So I’ve learned to get out there, building in strategies and tricks that allay my anxieties and introversion.
The fact is, your anxiety is part of you, and it can be a valuable piece. But that doesn’t mean you should let it take over. Ignoring anxiety can hurt you, and succumbing to it can quash your dreams. You need an excellent scaffolding to support your ambition.
These are some of the tactics that have worked for me.
Structure is an anxious person’s best friend. I make a schedule with all the details of the day. (I will shower. I will call the dentist. I will write six e-mails. I will jog for fifteen minutes.) Even when I’m on top of the world, I keep them up. They help me feel in control, and prevent me from going global.
Build your team
I’ve chosen to give up some income because I know that support is crucial to my functioning. My life changed when I decided to hire a full-time assistant, who handles my schedule and even structures “break time,” which frees me up to concentrate on our P&L, especially when what Winston Churchill, major depressive, called “the black dog” hits.
But you don’t need to hire help. Colleagues, mentors, e-mail lists, and Facebook groups—any support structure—give you a safe space outside your job that you can use for advice, opinions, grousing, networking, and celebrating. When I feel less alone at work, I feel less anxious. And when I don’t trust my own opinion or work, I have colleagues whose opinion I really value and who cover my weaknesses.
Save the environment
If your environment is out of control, you will feel out of control. Left to my own devices, I would putter around all day and clean the house. Since this is not productive—and more than a little obsessive—I allot myself thirty minutes every morning and evening to clean up, usually while I’m on a routine work call. And, if your anxiety makes you leave your house a disaster, try giving a deep clean to one room a week.
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Building in self-care—exercise, massage, alone time—is not selfish. It’s a key part of managing your anxiety. Even a ten-minute walk or a cup of coffee with a friend can calm your nerves. There’s a great quote from activist and attorney April Reign: “Everyone is finite”—meaning you won’t have anything to give if you never take care of yourself. I wish it was tattooed on my hand.
Embrace pep talks
You can give these to yourself, or you can reach out to a trusted confidant. The key is to find what motivates you to reach past your anxiety.
My poor husband is my official pep talker. He is really good at it. He knows my most ridiculous and minute fears, and he knows the drill. I blub to him, and he simply listens. He asks me important questions when I’m hiding in a bathroom, waiting to run for the exit and next flight home. He’ll ask me if I have important client work and can’t leave. When I give pep talks to myself, it’s most often when I am sitting on a plane, ready for takeoff. I remind myself that my children need money just as much as they need me around. This is not a choice; it’s not fun. I’m doing what I need to do.
Pep talks are important, because they keep you in the game when it matters. For instance, when I attended the White House Summit on the State of Women, it was one of the most important days of my life. I cheered and teared up as I watched heroes and role models from President Obama to Cecile Richards take the stage. But my palms were sweating with panic. There could be bombings, or shootings. My children were three thousand miles away. In between Joe Biden and Oprah, I tried to rebook my flight home.
But I called my husband for a pep talk, and went through my day and my goals. Hearing the words out of my own mouth made me feel more in control, more empowered. I told him to tell me to stay. And I stayed.
Label your anxiety
Sometimes, simply noting what’s making you anxious and acknowledging it can help you calm down. For example, my psychiatrist Dr. Carol Birnbaum taught me to observe my anxiety: I’m feeling flooded with anxiety because I’m separated from my kids and I can’t see them. Then I remind myself, You’re just like all these other mothers in the world. They’re anxious, too.
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Worrying takes you out of whatever you’re doing at the time—not a great plan at work. So build in reassurances. Away from your kids? Get your babysitter to send you pictures. Meeting going on without you? Ask your colleague to shoot you an e-mail. It’s much harder to obsess about what’s going wrong when you know what’s going on.
You’re not alone
Besides us garden-variety anxiety experts, there are a ton of people suffering small-to large-scale anxiety at any given time. People are afraid of bugs, mice, spiders, water, death, sharks, clowns, hospitals, blood, elevators. People in their twenties are panicking because they’re trying to figure it all out. People in their middle age are having midlife crises. People in their eighties are wondering why they wasted so much time worrying.
The point is, if you’re panicking on the runway, you’re only human. A bunch of other people on the plane are panicked about something, too.
Send a substitute
If all else fails, remember that everyone on your team is a brand ambassador, and every single appearance doesn’t need to be made by you. You probably have a colleague who loves being in the press or pressing the flesh. Shift your thinking from “I need to be out there” to a sense of distributed leadership. Send that person out there and bask in the glow!
This piece is adapted from the book Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home). Copyright ©2017 by Morra Aarons-Mele. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Morra Aarons-Mele is the founder of the award-winning social impact agency Women Online, and the creator of the influencer network The Mission List.