Life as a scholar is demanding. When you fulfill one demand, another pops up. Or more likely, you’ll actively pursue greater and greater challenges. This creates stress and leads many to seek tools or skills for coping with their resulting anxiety about failing to meet an endless array of deadlines and expectations.

Yet when it comes to anxiety, “skills” can only help so much. With enhanced coping skills, most highly driven individuals will simply pursue further demands to exhaust their newly increased capacity, the way that extra lanes on a highway become congested shortly after they’re constructed. In the battle against anxiety, it’s not greater knowledge or skills, but rather a change in attitude that’s key for helping a stressed scholar live a more peaceful existence.

It’s hard to change our attitudes, or ways of thinking and feeling towards something. We usually developed our attitudes for good reason, and even when they lead to panic attacks and keep us up at night, we’re hesitant to let them go. What good reason is there to develop an anxious attitude? The answer is that anxiety is often an extreme form of responsibility.

Responsible people take their obligations seriously, think before acting, try to avoid mistakes, and are mindful that the quality of their work impacts their reputations. Irresponsible people, by contrast, don’t care about those things and go around with no concerns for the consequences of their actions. Clearly, it’s better to be responsible.

If we plotted a distribution of responsibility levels in the population (see graph), our typical scholar would be on the upper end of the curve. (Juvenile delinquents would occupy the lower fringe.) Yet at the very edge, around two standard deviations above the mean, too much of this desirable trait becomes pernicious. Effort to avoid mistakes becomes a paralyzing fear of failure. Thinking before acting becomes constant rumination. And concern for one’s reputation becomes fear of conflict or disagreement of any kind.

If any of those descriptors fit you, then you could benefit by scaling back your responsibility levels – not extremely, but just a little bit, moving perhaps from the 99th to the 95th percentile. That may not sound like a big ask, if you judge your attitude against the population. However, you aren’t the population. You’re an individual, and individuals only have their own experience for reference. When you’ve spent your whole life cultivating a highly responsible attitude (see the smaller curve within the graph), downshifting a few percentile points relative to the population constitutes a huge change internally. Moving away from anxiety can feel like a move towards delinquency, and I recommend leaning into that, despite the temporary discomfort.

This means submitting a paper even though you know it’s not perfect (it’s going to be picked apart anyway), and ignoring someone else’s crisis because you’d rather not deal with it right now. It means unapologetically doing something fun and “unproductive” despite your full plate.

If you suffer from “Hyper-Responsibility Disorder,” the hardest part of the attitude-adjustment process is tolerating the feeling that you’re being irresponsible. Go ahead and do it anyway. Sure, you might work a bit less, but without the stress of meeting every possible expectation, you’ll be more efficient and relaxed when you do work. Plus, you’ll enjoy your leisure time more, and you’ll be less inclined to worry about things. So take a deep breath, and step back from the edge of anxiety. You’ll still be highly responsible, just not abnormally so.

More Resources

Staying Mentally Well in Academia is a Balancing Act

Emotional Connecting While Social Distancing

Feeling Powerless in the Age of COVID (Part 1)

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1 Comment

Very nicely written, and although I don’t disagree, it’s hard! We’ve been trained our whole lives to keep pushing to the right on that diagram. Stopping or moving left goes against the grain.

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