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anxious achiever


The Anxious Achiever

A Discussion with Dr. Susan Bernstein

Hey goal achievers, Kristin here. Recently, I was energized to talk with a special guest on my podcast, Dr. Susan Bernstein. I have the pleasure of connecting with Dr. Susan every week in a women’s group I’m a member of, Ellevate Network. I am so grateful for that community of like-minded women who want to achieve and live fulfilling lives. 

As I got to know Dr. Susan through my Ellevate squad and her work, I looked at her and said, “The woman you talk about, the ‘anxious achiever,’ is me!” I had to learn more, so I invited her to Elite Achievement to showcase her work, describe her background and tell us more about being an anxious achiever. 

Dr. Susan has supported high achievers who are anxious or tough on themselves, people like me, since 2001. She encourages these high achievers to dial down stress and pressure and dial up their powerful presence, career satisfaction, and authentic success. She spent over 25 years working in a corporate environment and has an MBA and a PhD in psychology. Dr. Susan has been featured in publications such as Fast Company, Thrive Global, and Psychology Today. And now she has been featured on the Elite Achievement Podcast!

I start by welcoming Dr. Susan and asking what it means to be your “sensational self?”

The Sensational Self: How We Form Ourselves Informs Our Mood

“Yeah, that’s a big piece of the message that I’m bringing to people is to be your sensational self,” starts Dr. Susan. “It’s a double entendre meaning that sensational has two different meanings, right? Sensational is both wow, amazing, fantastic. And sensational is also a play on sensation, which we feel in the body. So, I work with people to be their most sensational selves – the best version of themselves, their fullest potential selves. This is especially important in their work, which is a huge arena for us to show up and be our best selves. When people play in that arena and become the most sensational self that shows up in other areas of their lives, it shows up in their personal relationships and their health. I’m not just working with people’s minds; I’m helping them with their bodies and the sensations that we feel – our information sensations or communication from the body. So, for example, if you’re really angry, you’re probably going to get hot, you’re probably going to get sweaty, your face might turn red. But if you’re sad, you’re probably going to feel heavy, your stomach might feel full, and your shoulders might slump. Those are all communications, and how we form ourselves informs our mood. So, if you sit up straighter (you know, our mothers were right), we feel more powerful. Some people may know Amy Cuddy’s work. She is a psychologist, teaches at Harvard, and wrote a book called Presence. It’s about the power pose where we stand with our hands on our hips and look like Superwoman or Wonder Woman. Using that for two minutes can make us feel empowered. So, our bodies contain all this sensational wisdom for us. But most of us are trained out of it, and we can get trained out of it very early. Like when a child tells their mom they’re hungry, but she says they already ate. So, they say they’re really hungry, but she reiterates that they already ate, so they think, maybe, I’m not hungry. Or when the temperature looks like it’s cold outside, so a parent tells the child to put a sweater on, but they say they’re not cold. And it continues as the child runs their mouth. What happens is that you learn to distrust the information in your body. So, there are lots of ways that it unintentionally happens. We also, especially during the pandemic, learned to be neck up, right beside each other’s faces on the little Zoom rectangles. So, we don’t think a lot about our bodies. And I’m not talking about our body like, take your body and put it on the treadmill or on your bicycle. No, I’m talking about the felt, experience itself, moment to moment. It can be in our breath. It can be in our movement or our eye gaze. It can be in a gesture that we make and actually feeling and learning from that. Being able to make what I call sensational shifts, micro shifts, can change our perspective that can change our mind, that can change how we show up in the world, but most particularly, how we feel about ourselves.”

I’m someone who has a very active mind, and I spend a lot of time ‘future thinking.’ I’m always thinking, thinking, thinking. So I ask Dr. Susan how we can learn to slow down the mind to tune into the body and the sensations that the body is telling us.

Slow Down the Mind. Tune Into the Body. Be in the Present.

“I love that question,” says Dr. Susan. “Because the mind knows how to be three places. Our mind knows how to be in the past, reliving or ruminating. Asking, why did I do that? Or, we can be planning and anxious about the future. Asking, how is that going to work? And what if this doesn’t work? And am I going to go to that meeting or not go to that meeting? There is all that worry and dread about the future. But the place where we have the most power in our mind is the present. And if we want to get present, the easiest way I know to do that is to pay attention to the sensations in our body.”

Dr. Susan jumps into an example. “So, I’m sitting right now. I can pay attention to how it feels to make contact, in my case, with a chair. How is it to feel that pressure of my butt against the chair? Just noticing the experience is to live in my body. I’ll share with clients sometimes how it’s very different to look at your hand than to take one finger or your other hand and touch it. What if you do that with attention? What does it feel like for my one hand to touch the other hand? Where is each hand warm and cool? What’s the texture of my hand? By turning my hands over and over each other, what do I notice? What’s pleasurable about touching my hands together? What emotions come up when I do that? I’ll tell people when they’re taking a shower instead of just lathering on the soap mindlessly and just trying to get the heck out of there, do that slowly and savor the feeling of your own touch on yourself. That’s a great example of paying attention to sensation. At any moment, we can drop in and pay attention to our breath. We can pay attention to the tension in the body. And instead of making it something bad, just be like, oh, I just noticed something mentally. It’s data and communication back from the body. Most of us don’t know how to pay that much attention to it. It’s also how we know that if we pay attention to feeling hungry, it’s different than eating on a schedule. Like I have to eat because it’s 12 o’clock, so I better put some food in my mouth. Like that’s that feeling of hunger, it’s a certain grumble in my belly, a certain emptiness. Or I’m thirsty, and there’s a certain feeling at the back of your throat or in your mouth. That’s all sensation communicating with us. The more we do it, the more we take the time to pay attention to sensation, the less we’re able to do rumination. Why? Because the parts of the brain that do those two things, sensation and rumination, are dominant. So, if you find yourself ruminating, a bunch of anxious, overthinking thoughts, stop and put a hand on your heart, both your hands on your heart. Slow down and feel the rise and fall of your chest. Put a timer on and do that for a minute. Put your attention there. It’s an experiment you can try for yourself. But in general, maybe it takes two minutes, maybe it takes three, but it doesn’t take an hour of doing that, amazingly.”

As Dr. Susan was describing the feeling of her hand, I did the exercise along with her and instantly felt calmer, which is fascinating because, as I mentioned, my mind is constantly going! While I knew I wanted to talk about being an anxious achiever next, this exercise was a really helpful way to calm down and to slow down. 

As I was listening, I was also thinking about these super fast hours where it’s like, I gotta go, I gotta get to my next thing, get in, get out. That literally happened recently with our daughter. We had already had dinner, but she hadn’t eaten a ton, and so an hour later, she was asking for snacks. And I’m trying to figure out, is it just because snacks taste better than dinner? Which could be, but Dr. Susan has raised some really incredible points that I want to reflect on as a mama, listening to my natural instinct as well. My daughter had already eaten dinner, but I never thought that my responses could be teaching her to avoid paying attention to her body. 

“Yes,” Dr. Susan agrees. “You could just ask her, where do you feel the hunger? And if she’s like, it’s just here in my mouth, you know she just wants a ‘taste dance’ going on in her mouth. Then say okay, let’s save that taste dance. We can save it up so you can savor it even more when it comes. Letting herself notice her own hunger is helping her be aware of hunger. And that will be a gift to give her that pays off the rest of her life.”

I’m sure we could have an entire conversation around that and body image and all the ways that we unintentionally inflict so much of those mindsets and thoughts on our kids. But I’m curious to talk with Dr. Susan about being an anxious achiever. Because when I heard that she did this work, I was so intrigued. First of all, I had never heard the words ‘anxious achiever.’ And as she was describing this work, I’m like, oh Dr. Susan, that is me. I ask her to share how she defines an anxious achiever. 

The Anxious Achiever

“I want to say, Kristin, I feel you, and I’m an anxious achiever in recovery,” says Dr. Susan. “And that’s fine with me because it’s about noticing my own patterns. So, an anxious achiever is someone who achieves but underneath all their accolades, there is an underlying feeling of I’m somehow not enough. I’m not measuring up. I’m not good enough. So, it’s very related to imposter complex or imposter syndrome, which comes from overthinking and feeling insufficient. Some of that is cultural and for sure comes from some of the messages that we get. But an anxious achiever will constantly put in more effort to try to do more because they’re filling a deficit that probably got patterned in very early as a child, or somehow they took what was going on in their family to mean, I’m not enough. Although there are people who likely have it because of traumas with a capital T in their family, it’s not usually intentional. Usually, it’s things like benign neglect. A good example of that in my family was when I was a little kid, I loved telling stories and making up little plays. I remember a time when I was five or six and my parents had other adults over, and I’m like, can I do a little play? And they say, yeah sure. So, I take five minutes, and everybody claps at the end. Then I’m like, I want to do another, and they say, go to your room. Like that’s enough. I was too much, right? So sometimes it’s you’re too much or not enough or somehow not measuring up. And there’s a pattern that’s usually unconscious that tries to fill that. Usually, anxious achievers try to fill it with more effort, more work, pouring themselves into more. And it becomes really unfortunate, especially stepping into leadership, because the leader can’t do everything for everybody. The leader has to learn to delegate and pass the baton to somebody else. So, it can be very detrimental to leadership if this is a pattern that’s running somebody for the long term.”

Dr. Susan’s insights are helping me make so much sense around some of my own goals I’ve achieved or thoughts that I have. I remember back when I ran my very first marathon, 26.2 miles in Chicago. I finished the race, and it was a really hot day, unusually warm for Chicago. It was so warm that the race organizers stopped the race for people who weren’t at a certain point and started to bus them back to the start. For others who were past that point, they wanted you to walk and slow down. I finished that race and somehow felt like I didn’t do a good enough job. So, I signed up for another, and another, and another. 4:08 was my best marathon PR. I never broke the four-hour mark. And I still feel almost like an imposter. Like I was never really a marathon runner. Then I think about my own business and how my first year in business, I was able to launch quite successfully and generate over a quarter of a million dollars in revenue. And it doesn’t feel like it’s a big deal or like it’s enough. And that might mean that I definitely have some of these underlying anxious achiever patterns in my own life. So, I ask Dr. Susan, if someone identifies as an anxious achiever, what are some things we can do to feel more fulfilled in both our business and our lives?

anxious achiever

Are You an Anxious Achiever? Try Moving Towards Your Joy and Your Why

“It’s such a beautiful question,” Dr. Susan begins. “I’ll explain it in terms of moving away from and moving toward something. Anxious achievers are moving away from the pain. They don’t want to feel like they’re not enough, they’re insufficient, they’re not doing a good job. That’s not very inspiring to move away from that. So, instead, ask what are you moving towards? What is it that fills you and thrills you that you want to point things to? In other words, what’s the joy? Or another way to say that is, what’s the fire? What’s the fire within you that gives you positive energy? So, it might be, I want to feel so healthy in my body, as opposed to I got to get this number down below 4:08. I want to feel the exhilaration of crossing the finish line. I ask people constantly, what’s your fire? Another way to say that that people are pretty familiar with these days because of Simon Sinek, is to find your ‘why.’ You want your why, that fire, to be something that inspires you, that illuminates you, in a way that feels really good. What is it that you want to do in your business? Maybe it’s to touch so many people and have them fulfilling their goals instead of procrastinating. Like, I want to touch 100,000 people this year. Maybe it’s an even bigger number. What are they able to do that makes me so happy for them that gives me joy? But not out of a sense of obligation. Out of a sense of that feels so good. So that’s moving toward instead of moving away from I’ll be a failure.”

I’m working towards this. And I’m on a journey of growth and development this year. Because last year, it was all about that revenue number, and I had so much self-worth tied up in that revenue number, and like most anxious achievers, I planned my goals this year and raised the number. I’m like, I’m going after more! Let’s go and get it. Then I realized at the end of the first quarter, when I was conducting my quarterly review, I didn’t feel that fire. I didn’t feel that same level of connection. And I changed the goal. Dun dun dun. So, I know as a goal achievement coach, people are like, wow, she changed the goal. But I recognized that my most meaningful goal was truly launching the Elite Achievement Goal Setting Series that just concluded last month in June. So, I’m learning to lean more towards the joy and what fulfills me versus hitting a number. I wonder if we learn some of this in our corporate careers and if some of the ways that we work in corporate we start to bring into our own businesses.

Putting More ‘You’ Into Corporate

“Yes, absolutely,” confirms Dr. Susan. “There are things and patterns that I have to undo from my corporate experience. Corporations are cultures, right? Just like the way that countries have cultures and families have cultures. What we learn to do comes from them. On a personal level, I love to write; writing is fire for me. But I don’t love to write memos. I learned to write memos. And it took me a good five years after my corporate career to start to write in a flowery, more elaborate way where all the words weren’t impersonal or about function. I had to learn to write personally because I had been a management consultant, and I wasn’t writing about myself. I was writing corporate strategies. And CEOs do not want to hear about my personal journey when they want to learn how to expand their market.”

I’m curious what advice Dr. Susan has for someone in that corporate setting and feeling like they want to show up as more of their authentic self or listen to their own intuition. So, I ask her to share what advice would help them begin to do that. 

“I have a practice that I do with my clients that I’ll share,” Dr. Susan says. “You want to do this in a safe space and not in some big meeting with your CEO the first time you do it. I recommend at home first, or with a friend. Have your friend ask you the question, what is it you really want to say? Once you respond, they just listen and say thank you with no, oh my gosh, that’s amazing. Or that’s stupid, why would you say that? They are just letting you get to what you really want to give voice to in the world. So, I did this with a friend recently. She said, well, she blurted out, what we’re doing as a process here at work is really stupid. So, I said, thank you. I let her go again, and she said, you know, it’s just ludicrous. In her case, it had to do with coming back to the office during the pandemic time. I let her keep talking and blurting and blurting, and what she really got to was that it was unfair to demand this right now when people need time to adjust. She was able to take that blurb, and we worked together to send a message to her executive team and say, I know you’re asking us to do this. But there are some experiences of people that I think you’re not taking into account here. I haven’t heard yet what’s happened with that blurb, but her being able to say what she felt and show up fully is such an important thing for us to know as leaders. I think authentically finding your voice and knowing what you want to say is essential as a leader. I also think feeling like it’s okay for your personality to show up and that you’re not too much or not enough. It’s being okay with who you are right now and who you may have aspirations of being; I want to be more of this or less of that.”

Dr. Susan shared how it’s essential to have peace with where you are because it’s the foundation you jump from. She talks about honoring it, just like honoring yourself. She recommends a practice where you start with two hands on your chest, close your eyes and say, “I’m fine just the way I am.” It’s trusting and learning to do things your way. If you do something weird, instead of it being wrong or bad, it can be quirky. She says we all have quirks, and that’s what makes us interesting.

There have been times in my career where I have been given the ‘too much’ feedback. I can remember I’ve been told I’m too positive. I’m too ambitious. So, I think if you hear that over and over, it starts to create doubt and minimizes confidence. I ask Dr. Susan to share what she suggests for anyone that has been told they’re too much and need to start to grow confidence.

Eliminating the Toxic Twos to Grow Your Confidence

“That is a really good question,” says Dr. Susan. “And I think you have to be careful of the toxic twos. That it is toxic to keep hearing, you’re too much or you’re not enough. When somebody says you’re too much or you’re not enough, what they ought to add that they’re not adding is, I can’t handle how much you’re coming across this way. It’s about their own inability to receive the moment with you. It’s also toxic that they’re not using specificity. You have to get specific about things. You can’t just be like, I want to lose weight. Okay, that’s not specific. Or, I want to make more money. That’s not specific. It doesn’t help us to not have a vision. So, if somebody says you’re too much, you can say, so what is it you are looking for? Then we manage expectations because the person is conveying something that comes across negatively. What they’re not doing that you need is outlining the expectation. And why does that expectation matter? What if they’re expecting that, you know, you will never raise your voice in a meeting? Like, wow, do you mean you don’t want to hear me at all? You’re too much is often about intensity. So, what you need to do is adjust your perspective and understand how that lands for somebody. What is it underneath that they’re needing? Like, at this moment, you just barreled on through. Okay, what do you need? If you had slowed down, are there people who could get on board with you? Oh, that’s positive. So, you’ve got to ask them, what’s the good thing you’re looking for in this change in behavior that you’re asking? So, it’s asking the specificity of what does too much mean? What are you looking for? And what’s the upside that you’re trying to achieve? So that you also have more flexibility in how you show up, not just so you stop doing that thing.”

That’s really interesting because I like to believe that when leaders are giving feedback a lot of times, it’s genuinely coming from a good place. However, sometimes feedback shows up in ‘too much’ comments, and there’s not a lot of clarity, and you’re not sure where to move on from that. I know in my case, that leads to a lot of ruminating and a lot of self-doubt. And so, I really appreciate how Dr. Susan has offered some solutions. By getting that feedback and gaining control, we can explore what they are looking for and learn and grow from that moment.

“I would add to that, that when you get that kind of feedback like you’re too much or you’re not enough of something,” continues Dr. Susan. “Ask, what are you making that mean? What else are you making it mean about yourself, so that you stop. I encourage people to actually write it down. I’m making this mean that I’m a bad person. I’m making this mean that I’ll never achieve this thing. Whatever it is so that you can sit and look at that. And if it’s disturbing to you, then that might be something to say I need to talk to a friend or I need to talk to a therapist or a coach to work on my own interpretation, my own framework about what this is telling me that somehow may bring me down more than I need to be brought down. There are also managers who act in a way that’s toxic to others. Sometimes we’re taking the pressure of somebody who hasn’t done their own personal growth work. And, you know, that can be hard. If once in a while somebody says something off the cuff, leave it, but if it’s a repeating pattern that’s worth looking at ask, hey, what’s going on in this relationship?”

I ask Dr. Susan for some additional roadblocks that can hold leaders back from excelling in their leadership careers.

What Could Be Holding You Back as a Leader (and What You Can Do About It)

“One is leaders thinking that they need to do their work alone. Like, I’ve just got to get this. I’m the leader. So, I’m in charge and I can’t ask for advice. I mean, it’s one of the reasons I’m in Ellevate. I don’t think that I can have all the answers. That’s what I love about our group and other groups that I belong to, is having a way not to do it all alone. I’d say on the flip side of something, you know, more negative leaders who are anxious achievers need to be careful about not spreading the anxious contagion, right? Like I’m really, really nervous. Okay, let’s all get nervous together. It can sometimes show up as, can you hurry up and get that done? It can come across as angry. And people can be like, that person’s really hard to deal with when we’re under pressure. So, it’s learning to tame down your anxiety. We don’t want anxiety or anger being contagious. It’s great when we have contagious happiness, but anger and anxiety contagiously in an organization can really be detrimental.”

This conversation was hugely impactful for me thinking through some of the ways I’m leading as a parent, through some of the decisions I’m making in my own business and the goals that I’m setting for myself. And ultimately, recognizing how we can spend so much time in the future or in the past, over the present. Dr. Susan offered so many great ideas to become more present and more aware of the sensations in our bodies, and I ask her to share where people can go to learn more about her work. She suggests her website or LinkedIn, and mentions staying tuned for her new podcast launching soon. I ask for a preview. She shares that the name is likely going to be called Your Sensational Self. She’ll be sharing ideas on how to be sensational and practices like the one she described putting your hands on your heart. 

“I am just such a big fan of heart breathing techniques,” Dr. Susan shares. “What changed my life and changed me from being super anxious was learning in my PhD program of all places to pay attention to my body. Not only was it academic in the mind and body world, but it was also experiential, and I got to do things. We would try different breathing patterns and notice how we felt, or we would walk barefoot on grass and then gravel and then sand, and notice how our bodies responded, how our emotional bodies responded and how our minds responded. I’m so grateful for it because it changed my life.”

I close our conversation, knowing that many of us will be excited to support the launch of Dr. Susan’s podcast and incorporate some of her techniques. 

With that goal achievers, keep celebrating your weekly wins, learning from your lessons and identifying your priorities. So, you can consistently pursue progress in the direction of your goals.