I was an overly ambitious little kid. I wanted to be the first one done with all my tests, and I wanted to have the highest score in the class. I was so concerned with succeeding that my parents didn't even need to give me a curfew — I was much more likely to be found studying than partying on a Friday night. It all seemed to be working out for me pretty well — that is, until I got to college and came face-to-face with my anxiety disorder for the first time.
I had all these dreams about what I wanted from my life, but I wasn't able to reach my goals like I'd planned because my anxiety was interfering with my everyday life. Every time I sat down to study for a test or got dressed for an internship interview, I would break down from the pressure of it all. I'd either have a full-blown anxiety attack that prevented me from leaving the house, or I'd show up covered in sweat with puffy eyes and bloody, chewed up fingers. I eventually sought treatment, which has helped over the years, but it can still be hard to get sh*t done when anxiety is looming over your shoulders.
Bustle spoke with Barrie Sueskind, MFT, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in helping clients overcome anxiety and realize their goals, who says this tension between anxiety and ambition is very normal for people living with a mental illness. "Anxiety leads people to doubt their abilities, making them afraid to try to achieve their goals because the fear of failure is so strong," Sueskind says. She teaches her clients, though, that no matter how crippling anxiety may feel at any given time, it doesn't have to crush your determination.
Here are six tips on how to be ambitious when you've got anxiety.
Don't Deny Your Anxiety
Sueskind tells Bustle that people who suffer from an anxiety disorder tend to "fear the increased responsibilities and expectations of success." Anytime you get close to achieving something, or even think about achieving something, you may feel like you're frozen, and out of control.
Keep in mind that resisting those anxious feelings is the very thing that makes anxiety worse. "Do not dismiss your anxiety as needless or silly," Sueskind suggests. Acknowledge your fears and allow yourself to feel nervous for a minute. Simply naming your anxiety, whether it's verbally or internally, is the first step to moving forward in a useful way.
I like to sit down in front of my notebook and write down every single anxious thought I have about my future, without any kind of structure or punctuation. Even if I never go back and read it, it feels good to just get it out through a pen.
Find A Therapist, Mentor, Or Friend You Can Confide In
It's of the utmost importance to have someone around that you can confide in, because if you keep your anxious thoughts to yourself, you just end up internally going in circles. If therapy is something you haven't tried before, give it a shot. Working with a professional can help you make sense of your anxiety, and figure out strategies that will make it possible for you to achieve your goals in a healthy way.
There are plenty of people in your everyday life who can also provide a vital source of encouragement. Connect with mentors and friends who lift you up when you're feeling doubtful about your abilities. "A strong support network can help foster belief in oneself, allowing people to accomplish things they never thought possible," Sueskind says.
I have one friend in particular who I message when I'm feeling doubtful that I'll succeed. Her response can be as simple as, "I hear you," but that can be enough. It's all I need to know that someone gets where I'm coming from, which helps me feel like I'm not completely alone and misunderstood.
Remind Yourself That Failure Is Totally Normal For Everyone — Including You
"People with anxiety often struggle to believe they will be able to achieve the things they so desperately want," Sueskind says. Furthermore, failure can be especially hard for anxious individuals to stomach because they're hyper-concerned with how their lack of success will appear from the outside. Rather than accepting failure as a possibility that's both normal and manageable, people with anxiety see it as a devastating end. It's hard to see the bigger picture.
Sueskind says she helps her clients "recognize how they have handled hardships and acknowledge their capacity to prevail in the face of challenges." Doing this allows them to see that they have actually failed in the past and come out of it just fine. Even if you don't succeed every single time in the future, knowing that you have what it takes to pull yourself up when sh*t hits the fan will give you the boost you need to move forward.
Look At All The Hardships Your Role Models Have Been Through
All the powerful, badass women you look up to have had their asses dragged through the mud before. Many times. Witnessing what your role models had to endure over the years will drive home the fact that it's impossible to get through life without experiencing some kind of failures along the way.
"I advise people to study someone who has accomplished something they admire," Sueskind says, "to learn about the setbacks they encountered on their way to success and how they ultimately achieved their goals." You'll feel motivated to keep trudging forward, and you'll realize that not even anxiety can hold you back from becoming the next Michelle Obama.
List Your Accomplishments & Strengths
When you're swimming in a pool of anxiety, it's extremely hard to recall redeeming qualities about yourself. Being anxious often goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem, and it's difficult to have faith in your goals when you're not feeling very confident in yourself.
Sueskind says individuals with anxiety "just need to reframe the story they tell themselves." Easier said than done, but it actually works if you commit to it. For example, I'll write down all my best qualities in my notebook, and then read them to myself as I stand in front of the mirror. It sounds utterly silly, but remembering my talents and strengths makes me feel more optimistic about my future.
Put Your Anxiety To Good Use (Yes, It's Possible)
"Anxiety, correctly harnessed, can be a powerful motivator," Sueskind insists. Don't buy into the belief that anxiety is only a negative influence in your life. Use your nervous energy to "put adequate time and energy into preparation" and "plan for a variety of outcomes," Sueskind suggests. If you're worried Plan A isn't going to work out, map out Plans B and C. There's nothing wrong with being ultra prepared.
In order to use my anxiety in a productive way, I had to change my thought patterns about my anxiety. Instead of telling myself that anxiety was evil, I tried to look at it as a tool. Then, instead of succumbing to the anxiety, I made myself the boss. It took practice, and it will never be easy, but I finally feel like there's room for both my anxiety and my ambition to coexist, even if they aren't the best of friends.