A conversation with Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever
With her new book “The Anxious Achiever” and podcast of the same name, Lexington resident Morra Aarons-Mele aims to help you turn your stress into a source of strength.
A self-described “extremely anxious overachiever,” Aarons-Mele founded the award-winning social impact agency Women Online and created its database of female influencers, the Mission List. Prior to that, she founded the digital public affairs team at Edelman and served as the Internet Marketing Director for the Democratic National Committee. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2020 Iris Awards and holds degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School and Brown University. Aarons-Mele’s first book, Hiding in the Bathroom: How To Get Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), was an Amazon bestseller. She has also written for the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Slate, InStyle, O, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the Guardian. (Full disclosure, the author is also married to the Observer’s founder, Nicco Mele, with whom she has three children).
During a recent interview, Aarons-Mele steered away from commenting on her own successes, preferring to focus on the central theme of her book — “turning your biggest fears into your leadership superpower.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Because you’re a self-acknowledged “anxious achiever,” I have to ask: do you get anxious in interviews or public speaking engagements?
I don’t get anxious in interviews. It’s funny. And public speaking — I love it. I think that everybody has their own particular vulnerable spots. They’re different for all of us. In fact, anxiety before you speak can be a great tool.
Anxiety has obviously been around forever. Some would say it’s just part of “the human condition.” Do you think anxiety is over diagnosed these days?
I feel like that’s above my pay grade because I’m not a doctor. I will say, I think people have always been anxious. But increasingly we have better mental health literacy. In the past 30 or maybe 40 years, psychology has entered the popular culture, so we have more words to express it. Whenever we’re going through times of really transformative, scary change, people are probably more anxious. And we’re definitely in one of those now.
What is the difference between the anxiety you talk about on the podcast and describe in the book, and what we might have traditionally called “performance anxiety?”
Performance anxiety is just a piece of what I talk about. Anxiety at work hits us on many different levels — around what we think of as our ability to show up and do good work, the stories we tell ourselves about whether we’re good enough, whether we are going to work hard enough and whether we’re worthy. It can also tap into our individual fears. Do we have anxiety about money? Does it feel scarce to us? Do we have anxiety about making our mark in the world? Again, it’s a very personal thing and so no one’s anxiety is going to look like another person.
Many people act out anxiety, too, you know, like a lot of the bad behaviors, toxic management, micromanagement, controlling behavior, bosses who don’t delegate, perfectionistic bosses, people who are afraid to be wrong. All of that stems from anxiety. I think that what’s good about what’s happening now is that leaders are encouraged to look within and look at their habits and patterns instead of being given free rein to just be.
Since the workplace is ultimately all about achievement, how do people keep from simply getting more anxious the more they achieve and thinking, oh my God, I’ve raised the bar, now I’ve got to keep raising it?
That’s the trap that a lot of anxious achievers get caught in, including myself! We never stop because the goal posts keep getting higher. We’ve been conditioned to achieve out of a sense of self-worth or out of a sense of that if we just keep going, things are going to be okay, and we won’t face loss. It’s a real challenge that I talk about a lot in the book. We need to stop and take stock and proceed more mindfully rather than just push, push, push. Frankly, most of us push and then we burn out or we have a crisis, and we can’t function anymore.
Where does that change start?
I would say at four levels. First, the societal level. All this stuff is very intersectional and it’s overlaid with issues around bias and racism and patriarchy that make us anxious. Those are macro issues that we all need to work on together. Then at the corporate level, the CEO and other leaders have to be aware of how they can make work more mentally healthy in practice. The surgeon general laid out a framework last fall that gave organizations guidelines about how to create more mentally healthy workplace practices. It’s really good stuff and it’s pretty basic, like pay people fairly, treat people equitably, honor people’s agency, respect life/work boundaries, and so on.
At the individual level, people can do their own work, like figuring out what sets them off, where their sensitive areas are, how they react when they’re anxious and how they want to show up. But the really magic piece — and this is where I think a lot of the tension is right now — is at the team level, where managers are increasingly being asked to be responsible for safeguarding the mental health of their team but aren’t really being given the time and space and training to be able to do that.
Given the continued pressure in corporate America for financial performance and accountability to the market and shareholders, are you optimistic that things can change?
I’m a pessimist by nature. And certainly, the environment that we’ve chosen to work in is a recipe for anxiety and constant stress. Still, I believe that’s where society and the C-suite and boards have to make some decisions. I feel really bad for employees. People are fried, or as my friend Daisy said, “people aren’t burnt out, they’re burnt crispy!”
I think that having a great team is the most important thing for most of us. Going it alone is really hard. I have always been at my happiness when I feel like I have a team in harmony. Remote work makes that difficult. It’s doable, but it’s really hard. People who can manage a hybrid or remote team that feels like a team, those are amazing managers. Those are the people that you should work for.
So I’m a pessimist at heart, but I also believe in joy. I’m really good at feeling joy – and I have faith and love.
The book is obviously written for an adult audience, but could a a teenager pick it up and get something out of it?
Oh yeah, for sure.
The book is really a toolkit for people who know that they’re anxious, are trying to manage it, are trying to learn how to work with it constructively. We go through different scenarios and ways that your anxiety may show up and sort of trap you, whether that’s being stuck in perfectionism or trying to control things or feeling social anxiety or having trouble getting feedback. I try to offer insight on where your anxiety might have come from, the role of your childhood might have played, but mostly how to manage it. The magic is in how we react.
Whenever I talk to MBA students, I feel a special kinship. But also, law students and lawyers really love this book — any profession where external validation is a big piece of it and performing to certain guidelines and metrics and milestones is a big piece of it. I think people understand the anxious achiever mentality and they want help.
It seems especially resonant right now for graduates. The Charles Hotel actually bought a copy for every room for Harvard graduation. Isn’t that great?