Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” Re-frame On & Approach to Anxiety
I was rereading (well, re-skimming) Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers recently. It is a reasonably good read – enjoyable, but not much that is new or particularly fresh to me. However, there is one concept that really caught my eye, and that is his re-frame on and approach to anxiety. The best I can, I am going to spell out my take on what he has to say on this topic (with a few twists and interpretations of own, of course.)
1. Anxiety Is Practicing Failure in Advance.
What a great proposition! Anxiety is needless and imaginary. It’s fear about fear. The difference between fear and anxiety: Anxiety is diffuse and focuses on possibilities in an unknown future, not a real and present threat. On the other hand, fear is a warning to help us avoid actual threats that confront us and should be paid respectful attention. Anxiety is an internal construct with no relation to the outside world. Fear is about staying alive and winning the right to play again tomorrow. Anxiety doesn’t protect you from danger; it prevents you from doing great things.
2. Two Ways to Deal with Anxiety
One approach is to seek reassurance. Get out of bed and check the light. This approach says that if you’re worried about something; indulge the worry by seeking proof that everything is going to be okay. The problem with reassurance is that it creates a cycle that never ends. You have an itch and you scratch it. The itch is a bother, the scratch feels good, and so you repeat it forever, until you are bleeding.
The second approach is to sit with the anxiety, don’t run from it. Acknowledge it, explore it, befriend it – move on. The idea of sitting with your anxiety appears to be ludicrous, at least at first. To sit with something so uncomfortable isn’t natural, but the anxiety is real. If you merely acknowledge it, but don’t flatter it with continued attention, an interesting thing happens. The anxiety can’t sustain itself forever, especially when the appointed time rolls round and you find you are actually not dead yet. The dreaded outcome most likely hasn’t happened; and if it has, the magnitude and detriment of it was not nearly what you expected. Reality is the best reassurance of all, and over time, the cycle is broken.
The reptile brain is responsible for the compulsion to scratch. It’s the interaction between our normal rational world and the intense fears that the primitive part of our mind lives with every day – a conflict between the reptile brain, which wants to strike out or to flee, and the rest of our brain, which desires achievement, connection, and grace.
The reptile is our friend – our survival mechanism, but it has very little intelligence and no self control, and when it takes the helm, neither do we. The best time to stop the spiral is the very first moment—recognize the cycle—this is your first and best chance. Embrace the itch from the start, but don’t scratch it. Then, because you sat with the anxiety and didn’t run from it or bargain with it, you now have the very best chance to surmount or capitalize on whatever may befall you as you open yourself to Emerging Reality.
3. The Impact of Anxiety in Social Interactions
For many people, scratching the itch and anxiety are related to community. It tends to involve interactions with other people. In challenging social interactions, our anxiety not only makes us miserable, but ruins the interaction. People sense and react to it. You are less likely to have a sustainable positive impact on them.
The alternative is to sit with the anxiety publicly. The more you want to give in to the inner voice of anxiety, the more resilient you become. Waiting isn’t easy, which is precisely why it is so effective when engaging with other people. The quiet strength it takes to withstand the urge to flee builds confidence in those around you (who are often succumbing to the anxiety and responding with a broad array of non-effective defense behaviors). The result within you is a wave of assurance; because finally, after watching you sit without panic, the reptile realizes you aren’t going to change your position. It quiets down. You are back in charge of yourself. You are free to be calm and generous and clear in your interaction; and consequently, the situation will usually turn out far better than you have hoped.
P.S.: Never let the reptile send an e-mail.
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