anxiety is a superpower

Debunking the Notion That Anxiety Is a Superpower

Originally published on January 2, 2023

“Anxiety Is a Superpower”: Truth or Baseless, Catchy Headline?

There seems to be a tendency these days to romanticize some of the difficulties we endure — anxiety and depression included.

I’m not sure when or how it started, but I’d wager that social media and search engine optimization (SEO) are to blame; content creators want to stand out, and the more captivating or shocking their headlines are, the more clicks and algorithm-based attention they’ll garner.

Marketing aside, however, I don’t believe this trend is all that beneficial for the average sufferer. Take, for example, the now-popular notion that “anxiety is a superpower.” I mean, that’s a cute idea and all, but is it accurate or useful? I’d say no.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of optimism, especially when it comes to challenging and heavy subjects. And, let’s be honest: we all need a bit of it on this arduous journey we call life; without a dash of positivity amid our tribulations, we wouldn’t have the motivation to search for ways past them.

But I also think there’s a big difference between optimism, in the general sense, and the notion that anxiety is a superpower. In fact, I’d argue the former is an essential ingredient for personal growth, while the latter is primarily a delusion.

I talked about something similar in a blog on toxic positivity nearly eighteen months ago. In that article, I suggested that unflinching sanguinity in the face of hardship isn’t far off from denial — and that’s no good since we all know you can’t solve a problem you aren’t willing to admit you have. Thus, the more we repudiate or dress up our mental health struggles, the more likely they are to persist.

In my mind, this is the same pitfall we encounter with the phrase “anxiety is a superpower.” That’s because, although that tagline starts by acknowledging and naming our problem, the very next thing it does is reframe and glamorize that issue, leading us right back toward nonacceptance.

And that means this catchy motto simply won’t cut it for us; to actually get past some of our mental monsters, we’ll need a revised version of it — one that acknowledges the negative yet doesn’t prevent the positive from coming through and saving the day in true superhero fashion.

What Is This Phrase Really Trying To Express?

So, we’ve talked about how this social-media-friendly saying can lead us astray in the psychological department. But what we haven’t yet discussed is what it actually gets right. We’ll need to do that in order to reconstruct it. Otherwise, we’ll be starting entirely from scratch here.

Now, as fun as it is to criticize the notion that anxiety is a superpower, I have to admit, there’s definitely a thread of accuracy in it. That accuracy boils down to the following: anxiety is a feeling not too dissimilar to fear — one that warns us of potential danger and helps us evade it.

Yet while both emotions serve as phenomenal survival tools, they also hold us back at times, as not everything our bodies nudge us away from is inherently or purely harmful. Take, for example, asking out that guy or gal you’ve had your eye on for quite some time.

Sure, he or she might turn you down, and that would be disappointing and painful. At the same time, however, he or she could accept your invitation, sparking some serious joy in you and bringing you one step closer to that elusive relationship you’ve been seeking.

Thus, when folks state that anxiety is a superpower, what they’re getting at is that latter point; it’s a compass that directs us toward life-changing and meaningful events and possibilities.

On its face, that idea isn’t totally wrong. But it does have one serious shortcoming. That is, it overlooks the other part of the anxiety experience: the pain fear brings us and the frustration we’ll face from time to time if we listen to it and let it guide us.

(Not to mention, it also puts us sufferers on the defensive and makes us feel like those promoting such an assertion aren’t listening and don’t understand our troubles).

Rewriting This Tagline for Accuracy’s Sake

As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, one of the tough things about today’s online landscape is that, to stand out as a creator, you have to capture people’s attention quickly. In fact, search engines and algorithms all but require it now as they look for titles and descriptions packed with keywords, emphatic language, and impossible-to-live-up-to promises.

Though these SEO-derived standards may sound innocuous, there’s a hidden, significant downside to them — one that extends far past whether someone discovers or clicks on our articles or social media posts. Specifically, it’s the fact that not all of the content on the internet that adheres to such rules delivers on its attention-grabbing guarantees. For when you think about it, it’s all but impossible to produce a video that actually “cures your anxiety in just thirty seconds.”

Tangents aside, what I’m getting at here is that the kind of wisdom we need in our lives — the kind that works — can rarely be reduced to a clean, short, and seductive headline. And that’s a shame because it essentially means that articles featuring such knowledge will often be just out of the reach of the SEO gods. Despite that being the case, however, you still made it to this post one way or another, so let’s use this opportunity to provide some of said logic.

To do that and tie together everything we’ve talked about in this post, I’d like to offer a new take on the misleading, though probably well-intentioned, “anxiety is a superpower” line. It’s this: anxiety is a painful yet often necessary teacher that, assuming we’re willing to listen to it, can usher us to some rather desirable places. We just have to be courageous and push through our troublesome feelings to get there.

It’s certainly not a concise, sexy, or SEO-friendly takeaway, but it’s one that, in my opinion, is a lot more truthful than its original version. Moreover, and most importantly, it’s a message that I think many people can actually relate to — and that means it’s more likely to sink in and influence us in the long run.

Thanks for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Resources

My first book, “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety”

A previous post on managing holiday depression

An old post on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2023

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