Leading with Anxiety. (True Story.)

I can’t recall when I first realized I “worried” more than the average person. While the consciousness came later, the signs were present early. My aunts tell stories of a very young Tara turning away from people who tried to say hello. “You were so serious!” they recall. My godparents remember finding me in my crib with a smile on my face when I was two, and calling out to my parents, “Come quick! She’s delirious!” My parents still shake their heads at how I frequently hid my face in my mother’s skirt, as if doing so might make me disappear. They thought I was shy. They didn’t know I actually wanted to disappear, just long enough for the approaching stranger to walk away.

At 41, I don’t hide the fact that I live with anxiety. I don’t broadcast it either. Most who interact with me would never know about the swarm of butterflies “on hum” in my stomach. While they’re almost always there, the anxious feelings are heightened by certain activities, like riding shotgun on the freeway. Flying in airplanes. Attending large social gatherings packed with people I don’t know. Ironically, these are all things I now do regularly.

I’m what experts call “high-functioning.” I have a vibrant family life as a proud wife and mother of six children. I enjoy a fulfilling career, working part-time as a corporate culture advisor for Hallmark Cards and traveling the country to speak to leaders about self-discovery, claiming their voice, culture transformation, and professional advancement. People often ask me how to conquer their fear of public speaking. It’s interesting – the only time my butterflies stop fluttering is when I’m presenting. Empowering others empowers me. We all have our safe spaces. Mine are home, and on stage…staring out into a crowd of hundreds. (The more, the better!)

I’ve followed the mental health debate with great interest over the last several years. We either highlight mental illness so debilitating it leads to bodily harm of self or others, or we advocate complete freedom from fear. Honestly, I can’t relate to either end of that spectrum.

There are many of us in the middle. We are the ones who get up every day, butterflies and all, and make the conscious choice to “do it afraid.” We master the art of self-talk for when we can’t avoid our triggers. We recognize we’re imperfect, but know we’re still valuable. And we usually don’t feel the need to talk about our anxiety, because we think we’ve figured out how to sufficiently cope with it, even as we consider its long-term effects on our well-being. Genetics being as they are, I’ve come to accept this as the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m not ashamed of it anymore. It is what it is.

I know I’m not alone. Sometimes I wonder if there are more people who feel the way I do than don’t; it’s just not a topic of discussion. Life can be stressful, and there never seems to be a shortage of things to worry about. When I speak about taking risks, it comes from a true place. Every time I’ve stepped out, I’ve done so against my own emotional gravity.

It’s important for me and others like me to remember that we live with anxiety, but we are not our anxiety. We are laughter, hope, courage, power, creativity, and faith. We are every good thing we’ve ever done or will do. We can do anything we’re brave enough to try.

As for me, I get help when I need it. I rest when I’m tired. I love on my family when only love will do. And I give as much positive energy to others as possible. Because not only do we get what we give…we are what we give.

So give love, grace, and encouragement.

You deserve it.

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Tara Jaye Frank

Tara Jaye Frank is VP of Multicultural Strategy for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank and Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.

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