One of my favorite cartoons about anxiety is the Gary Larsen cartoon showing Tarzan preparing to meet Jane. It’s a 6-panel cartoon and the first 4 panels show Tarzan practicing in front of a mirror. He strikes various poses and rehearses his opening line:
“Hello Jane, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, my name is Tarzan.” “Hi Jane, I’m Tarzan, your date for the evening.” “Tarzan here, you must be Jane.”
In the fifth panel, we see Tarzan swinging through the jungle. In the last panel, he is face-to-face with Jane and blurts: “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”
Anxiety trumps skill
Tarzan has the skills – we’ve just seen him practicing them. Yet, in the moment, he can’t access them. What’s up? Anxiety. It’s not possible to lose a skill you have. It is possible to lose access to it through inattention, or through grinching up. These are two sides of the same coin:
Anxiety. Just a little bit of it can leave us as tongue-tied as Tarzan. A moment of inattention, a frisson of tension, and Tarzan loses the benefit of all his careful preparation.
It happens to all of us. I was talking to a guitar-playing friend the other day, someone who – when relaxed – can play song after song from his considerable repertoire with an infectious ease. It’s as though they are baked into his bones. He was telling me about buying a guitar from another guitarist whose playing he admired so much he felt a little intimidated. “He handed me the guitar and said ‘Here you go – play as long as you like.’ and my brain froze. I couldn’t think of a thing to play.” Anxiety trumps skill and years of experience.
On the other side of the coin, there’s me and bowling. I’ve been bowling maybe 20 times in my life, most of that with a group of developmentally disabled women who bowled by pushing a ball down a ramp. We went bowling every other week for the 4 months I worked with them. They loved going with me because I always lost, usually by about 20 points. They’d dance around and give each other high fives after I took a turn. The other day, I went bowling with some friends and had to force myself to focus enough so I wasn’t putting the kids in the next lane at risk. I had no idea a bowling ball could bounce like that, right out of the gutter.
Finding our balance
I think there’s a sweet spot: a place between not caring enough and over-caring, between accepting responsibility for my part and taking responsibility for what can’t be controlled. Over time, I’ve noticed that I sometimes avoid the over-caring by deciding to not care at all. Or pretending not to care. Or, I back away from being over-responsible by closing down: missing deadlines, not showing up. Either is a dangerous trend, and both are due to anxiety. When we are anxious, we over-prepare. Problem is, the tension we feel causes to practice the tension and anxiety we feel rather than the skill we need. That’s when it’s time to step away from the powerpoint and take a walk. Finding the balance between what’s up to us and what is beyond us is a work in progress. Nowhere is this more evident than in managing a group of people any one of which can be caught in a cycle of under-functioning or over-functioning due to anxiety. Either pole can be come a lifestyle if the underlying anxiety isn’t addressed.
Our anxious response
Training is often our response when someone doesn’t show a skill we want them to. We send people to training, they learn the skill, then they come back to work. Nothing changes. Why? Anxiety is often to blame: Theirs for not using a skill they have, and ours for thinking training will solve the problem. Let’s face it: Sometimes training is what we do when we want the problem to go away. It’s a kind of interpersonal Hail Mary play. Here’s the acid test: If you put a gun to their head, could they do it? If yes, they have the skill. That’s not what’s getting in their way. It may be anxiety that’s stopping them. Maybe they care too little, Maybe they care too much. Either way, it’s worth exploring.
I wonder – what would it be like if we could see the world this way? What if we could see the person who snaps at us, or treats us badly as anxious rather than mean or incompetent. What if we could see them as caring deeply about something and because of that trapped passion, being unable to perform in this moment? What if we could see it as situational – a bad moment, even a lifetime of bad moments – rather than personality or character-based? How would we respond if we could see through the acts we all adopt to the people within, wanting to do their baes and sometimes succeeding and other times failing. What if people say us that way? True or not, wouldn’t it be a more helpful pov?