“That’s just the way it is.” (And other lies we tell ourselves).

Blog | December 28, 2021

How do I think my fear is keeping the plane in the air?
How hidden anxiety gets in the way of your leadership.

“I can’t do that, because…”

“I have to do it this way, because…”

“That’s just the way it is.”

Do you ever catch yourself starting sentences like that?

Like when a merger and acquisition is happening, and people say, “Well, we can’t do or change anything, because we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months.” 

Or when someone is overworking a deliverable because they’re worried about what their boss will say. 

These are examples of anxiety in the driver’s seat, dressed in sheep’s clothing.

There’s an old joke I love, that I shared on LinkedIn not long ago:

“I’m so anxious about flying,” a client says to their therapist.

“What would happen if you were not anxious anymore?” the therapist asks.

“The plane would crash,” the client replies.

This joke resonates deeply with me, as someone recovering from crippling anxiety. Once upon a time, I truly felt that if I let go of the anxiety, everything would fall apart.  

As an Executive Coach, I see this same pattern show up among senior leaders—but in the sheep’s clothing of: 

“How can we make decisions when the acquisition of our company is going to change everything?” 

“I can’t screw up in my new promotion. It will ruin everything I’ve worked for.” 

“Am I making the right decision here?” 

The anxiety is pervasive, but disguised as perfectly concrete and logical justifications for indecision, immobility, or not taking necessary risks.

In other words, I have to do it this way, or everything will fall apart.

Longtime client Jim, newly promoted to VP of Customer Success, was building a team from scratch. He kept saying, “I want to think strategically. The company needs me to think strategically to build it.” 

“But there are all these day-to-day fires that I need to put out.” 

Uh-huh. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable excuse not to be strategic, right?

“We have to attend to all the tickets,” Jim continued.

I’m actually immediately skeptical whenever someone gives me an all-or-nothing statement like this or tells me, Oh, no, I can’t do it that way. Because of X, Y, and Z

It’s a red flag that there’s an unhelpful belief or pattern driving behavior. That someone is using their anxiety to avoid something. 

Through our work together, we saw how defaulting to operations was more comfortable for him. 

Partnering with stakeholders in a new way, however, where Jim has to show his expertise at the table versus just get things done, was much more uncomfortable. 

His anxiety around doing well in his new role was triggering his default behavior: getting stuff done, like the tickets—instead of his priority work as a leader, building the team.

Once Jim was aware that this anxiety was in the driver’s seat of the actions he was taking, we could begin to truly problem-solve.

“Do you have to attend to all the tickets?” I asked. “What if you do half the tickets a day?” 

It doesn’t mean ignore the anxiety. Jim did need to manage some expectations with stakeholders—he couldn’t get to all the tickets AND build a team. 

But once you identify what the anxiety is making excuses for, then you can figure out how to mitigate it. 

“Whose expectations do you have to manage?” 

“Could you remind them that they also want you to build out a team?”

We ironed out what he could say: “I’m only devoting two hours a day to fighting fires so that I can build the team out for you. Are you okay with that?”

If yes, great. Or no? “Okay, what if I did three hours…”

Once you identify the anxieties, the red flags, then you’re empowered to make a decision about the plan. What do we need to do differently to make me feel a little better? To have this not be a roadblock anymore? 

I invite you to notice any red flags or fears that are coming up for you. What is an all-or-nothing statement, an “I can’t because…” that you catch yourself saying often?

Ask yourself, “Is that really true?” 

And then, “What if it isn’t?” 

How do I think this anxiety is holding up the plane? How is being anxious keeping me from screwing up? 

Is it helping me make the right decision? 

Often simply asking the question will start to disrupt the unhelpful cyclical anxiety and start to allow you to step into actual problem-solving. 

This is exactly the kind of work we do with our clients. If you’re stuck in an “I can’t,” we can help shift it. Schedule a complimentary discovery call to learn more today.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant