Photo: Diana Koenigsberg
"What you see as demonic is actually in some ways a very tender expression," says Lahey, "a protection of something you feel vulnerable about."
Kegan adds: "The behavior you're trying to extinguish or diminish, let's say, the way you're eating or overeating—you're only looking at it as bad." But, he says, it's just the tip of the iceberg. "And until you can get below the waterline, you can't see why this behavior is brilliant."
What lies underneath the surface is anxiety, which, Kegan and Lahey explain, they have come to appreciate as "the most important—and least understood—private emotion in public life." Most of us think of anxiety as panic attacks or stage fright, acute episodes brought on by a big presentation to the boss or some other high-stakes occasion. Or a condition specific to people who were traumatized as children or survived some harrowing event. But Kegan and Lahey see anxiety as our brain's background noise, revving up when we're confronted with something new, unfamiliar, or threatening, and operating most of the time at such a low volume that we don't even hear it. "We all have anxiety, just by virtue of being human," Lahey says.
We don't think of ourselves as continually fearful, Kegan says, because we've figured out how to manage this undercurrent of anxiety—whether it's our discomfort at meeting new people, our worry when talking to the boss, or our indecision in the jam aisle of the supermarket. "For instance, I may have a deep-running anxiety that you don't think well enough of me," says Kegan. "But I don't live my life every day like I'm walking on eggshells, because I'm very tuned in to what you want or need in order to continue to have a high opinion of me. I use my energy to make sure that I keep delivering what I believe it is that you want. As a result, I don't feel the anxiety because I'm handling it."
At this point in our session, Kegan and Lahey turn the discussion to column three to identify our own buried anxiety. They ask us: What would happen if we stopped the behavior that gets in the way of achieving the goals we've set for ourselves? The room goes quiet. That simple question triggers a litany of potential catastrophes—which turn out to be surprisingly personal.
As Kegan and Lahey explain in their book, this is the moment Peter the CEO realized that if he did delegate, he would lose the sense of himself as "the super problem solver, the one who knows best, the one who is in control—yesterday, today, and tomorrow." Peter's mind was in the grip of equal and opposite impulses, prompting him to describe himself as having "one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake." No wonder our attempts to change grind to a halt.
Kegan and Lahey give examples of other clients who resort to the same problem behavior, each of them in response to different obscured anxieties. One woman eats too much because she doesn't like the overtly sexual way men respond to her when she's thin. One man binges as a way of accepting the love of his big Italian-American family.
Kegan and Lahey are in awe of the ingenuity with which we—all of us—keep our lives under control, to make sure that our anxiety is kept at bay and our fears never come true. "And life could just go on that way," Kegan says, "except that the system, this anxiety management system you've built, charges rent. It's costing you something. And what does it cost you? It costs you your goal."
We Hear You!