Listen to your anxiety

People in my circles are emotionally literate. They share the general wisdom that we should listen to our bodies and lean into our emotions. We all get in our heads too much. Emotion is our heart’s attempt at telling us something. It’s important, and we should listen.

Not all emotions, though, seem to be treated equal. Sad or angry, we should accept. But if we’re feeling anxious, we should breathe, meditate, or take pills.

I’ve observed this difference with interest. What would happen if we treated anxiety not as a trick of our minds, to cure with better breathing techniques, but as a signal of something important, that our heart is trying to bring to consciousness?   

Over the past year or so, two similar situations prompted a peak of anxiety. On both occasions, I was invited to run a workshop at a digital conference. Organisers hyped up the marketing – it was going to be grandiose, mind-blowing, ground-breaking. It put pressure on me to do well, of course, and I didn’t mind that. But as a presenter, I had access to the backend, and could see what they weren’t doing.

Experience design was neglected. The team was focused on sleek marketing and putting bums on seats – or eyes on screens. Nobody seemed to think through the details of parallel engagement, break-out rooms, or managing different and unpredictable size groups. As a workshop facilitator, this is where my attention went. Online formats are demanding, and new. Smooth transitions between sessions, group size and matching, all those would be the make or break for participants. I knew that I was unlikely to match the promises made.

The first workshop was a minor bomb. Organisers suggested I design for 100 people. Six turned up. Five of them were friends and colleagues. Second one was a bigger bomb. People kept dropping in and out, cameras off. The technical support person let break-out rooms run for longer than I asked for. And to be frank, my content didn’t match the participants’ expectations or interest.

Looking back, I realise that both times, my anxiety was a clear signal that I should have anticipated disappointment – even pull out. I was placed in a position to keep the promises of shiny marketing, without the means to deliver. I was cast in the role, not of educating and exploring truth, but of keeping up appearances on behalf of someone else.  

I’ve been wondering since. What if anxiety was a fine-tuned antenna, signaling collective illusion? Lies create an image of the world distinct from what is true. When discourse is thus splitting representation from reality, we face a choice. Either we maintain the collective illusion, so we can stay connected with the people around. Or we stand up and insist that the emperor is naked, with the risk of finding ourselves ostracised and cast out.

Anxiety marks a fear about the future. Common wisdom says, ‘it’s not about the now, therefore it’s unreal’. Hence breathing and visualisation techniques. I propose a different diagnosis. Anxiety signals an impossible dilemma – a future-oriented double bind. A collective lie is spreading, and I have to choose between the group or the real. No matter what I decide, the future will be tough. It is wise to fear this future. And maybe, the collective call to chill out is nothing but peer-pressure to keep pretending.

Young people face this anxiety. This is precisely what Great Thunberg and the climate kids are shouting about. A refusal to maintain the collective lie that things will be fine. Old white men in boardrooms and corporate jobs face that same anxiety, but their choice to remain silent is too much a part of their identity to change now, unless everyone changes.

Whether we have a way forward is unsure. But maybe, just maybe, we should all start leaning into this pervasive anxiety. It will not solve our collective disconnection from the real, it will not solve climate issues right away, and it will certainly come with an amount of pain. But only by doing this can we collectively return to the real – and stand a chance of building something worthwhile together.