What, Me Worry?*

By T. Jesse Goff

Yeah, we know: Even paranoids have real enemies. But you’re probably just a guy who frets too much. We have cures for you.

We all recognize high-achieving Andy Anxious. A bundle of private insecurities despite his public success, Andy is sure that his five-year-old son despises him, that his wife loathes his bedroom technique, that his best friend from high school says nasty things about him behind his back, and – O, Misery – that everyone, from the waitress at his favorite restaurant to the minister of his church, is fixated on his thinning hair. Worse yet, Andy is convinced that his boss is plotting to fire him and that the woman in marketing he fantasizes about thinks he’s a pervert.

We recognize Andy because there’s a bit of him in all of us. Scads of surveys reveal Americans’ often-justified concerns about the nation’s future as a superpower, its economic health and moral climate. Despite a drop in the national murder rate, millions of Americans consider the country more violent than ever, partly because the nature of crime has changed. On a more individual level, growing numbers of men, faced with very real professional and personal insecurities forged by modern life, have become as destructively preoccupied with their appearance as many women. The list goes on.

Most people cope adequately, but others let reality-based fears get the better of them. For these folks, worry takes on a life of its own, even verging on paranoia – what Holley Hammett Smith, director of social services at West Hills Regional Medical Center near Los Angeles, describes as “an anxiety ignited by something that is, in the main, not real.” Like the idea that U.N. soldiers are stationed in the Michigan wood, poised to take over the country.

Such groundless fears and insecurities can take a severe toll, emotionally, mentally and professionally. When Martin Aseligman of the University of Pennsylvania followed 15,000 new salespeople at Metropolitan Life over several years, he discovered that super-optimists – the “What, me worry?” Alfred E. Newmans of the corporate world – went on to outsell the pessimists by 21 percent in their first year, 57 percent in their second.

No one’s suggesting you change your name to Pollyanna. But just about all of us could use a guide to help us figure out when we’re being rationally concerned and when we’re overreacting. Here it is.

On The Job

Fear: Concern over job security.

Is it rational? Yes – to a point. Smith, who is working on a book about resolving career anxieties, believes that there are legitimate career-related fears, provoked by the brutal downsizing and merger mania of large American corporations. “You cannot pretend away the major shifts in corporate structure, nor the consequences for your career,” Smith says. “And there is no sign of letup as companies outsource even core functions.”

A study by Matrixx Marketing claims that 44 percent of companies surveyed now rely on other companies (that is, they “out-source”) to handle some aspect of customer services; 5 percent out-source it all. Contracting out for such tasks was once unthinkable, at least among large companies. Computer Sciences Corporation reports a study of 63 percent of American and 72 percent of European companies now use other firms to maintain major functions of all types, or are considering it.

It’s not just workers who’ve been shown the door that feel the pain, either. “Many of today’s middle managers have blood on their hands,” Smith says. “If your current bosses have been through one or more downsizings, they have likely been asked to fire many people who once worked for them. They may be suffering themselves from guilt-based immobility or irascibility. “So, yes, you have good reason to proceed with caution in such an unstable environment,” Smith says. However, these conditions shouldn’t make you so anxious that you’re unable to function.

An antidote: Master your job early on, then work on developing and maintaining the sort of skills that will make you attractive to employers throughout your industry – just in case. “Realizing that you can do the job, do it well, and do it for a competitor – if that’s what it comes to – will do a great deal to reduce your feelings of paranoia,” Smith says.

Among Friends

Fear: That your friends don’t really like you that much.

Is it rational? Look to your daily planner for the answer. “We have so little time in America for friends anymore,” says Stephen Johnson, head of the Men’s Center of Los Angeles. “If you’re worried that your friends are talking behind your back, you might be right, because quite probably very few of them have seen your face n years. Most of us never see any friends socially outside the group we work with.”

As for the traditional neighbor-across-the-fence friendships, forget it. Who has the time? For that matter, who has the inclination? In today’s more mobile society, people seem less willing to establish deep roots in their neighborhood.

You spend most of the time doing the grind – business trips, crowded commutes, long hours – and try to spend quality time with your family as well. Says Johnson, “In the old days – the pre-jet, pre-computer, pre-world-economy days – you could hope for a desk job in a large corporation or your own small business where you could keep a lazy eye on performance and take catch-up calls from your high school buddy.”

An antidote: Even as computers streamline our lives so that we can take on more responsibility, they can enable harried friends to stay in touch via e-mail. Just be careful to check your company’s policy before playing post office on your company’s PC. (You’re far from paranoid to do so.)

“If your office objects to this kind of casual correspondence, open your own account and wire in from home,” Johnson says. “Your kids will thank you, and those fears that your friends have abandoned you – or are maligning your good name – will soon vaporize in cyberspace.”

Of course, your ultimate goal is to move from bonding via keyboard to the face-to-face variety. Electronic media are just a way to get you started – and to keep ties strong when time is too short for social visits.

At Home

Fear: That you’re not very necessary. Indeed, Smith says, many guys find themselves burdened by too many demands at home, but too few meaningful ones. A lot of men feel obsolete around the house because they can’t perform traditional hands-on tasks, she adds. “Maybe in the old days, your dad would be adding on a new bedroom or at least building a new chest of drawers in the garage. These days, you don’t have the right tools, probably never learned to use the tools you do have, and would never put a home-carpentry piece of furniture in you carefully-appointed apartment or house, anyway.”

According to Smith, who is married to the Episcopal rector of an inner-city parish, the guys who do help out around the house let themselves be relegated, in a typical two-wage-earner family, to being Mom’s assistant: “Mom does the cooking; Dad cleans up. Mom does the laundry; Dad folds. Mom meets with the teacher; Dad helps with the occasional long-division conundrum.”

An antidote: Smith recommends that men stake out some of these domestic duties as their exclusive province – and then learn to do them with panache and skill. “It might be taking charge of homework or even learning high cuisine in the kitchen,” she says. “Both husband and wife profit from finding some unassailable center of competence.” This guarantees them confidence that their family relies on both of them in some way.

Between Your Brain And Loins

Fear: That you’ll be made into mulch if you so much as look at Judy’s gams the wrong way next time she walks by you to the lunchroom. And, if you’re single or prone to marital infidelity, that you’ll go crazy if you didn’t at least try to win the favor of some attractive office mate.

Is it rational? Yes. The sexual culture inside the workplace has changed profoundly. Our randy Andy Anxious will need to exercise far greater caution in the future than he did with Melissa in promotions (that’s another story), not just in what he does at work but also in what he says. It’s easy to forget that we are only now entering the second generation of the sexually integrated workplace – a work-team economy based on the principle that there is no distinction between men and women.

“The etiquette and discipline of men and women working together is still evolving,” Johnson says. “Sexual tension cannot be willed away by the company ethics manual, and workplace anxiety about relationships between men and women is to be expected.” He points out that many a man in today’s workplace spends more time with the women at work than the woman he’s shacking up with. “We overlook how provocative that once was – and still is. And yet it’s easy to forget oneself, as someone like our Andy might do, and overreach. The explosion of sexual harassment lawsuits is an expression of that continuing confusion.”

Johnson counsels several successful entrepreneurs whose principal emotional problems involve love affairs that begin at work – and turned into nightmares. “The media and the courts focus on inappropriate conduct by men, predominantly male bosses,” Johnson says. “But I’m seeing a growing number of cases involving wealthy men who’ve clearly been targeted by predatory females in the workplace and taken advantage of. Far from paranoid, these men are subjected by these women to very real, well organized campaigns involving everything from public humiliation to setup pregnancies.”

An antidote: Johnson, who is writing a book on these controversial encounters titled Dangerous Women, counsels married professionals, men and women, to be particularly careful about their conduct at work – and attentive to their partners at home. “If you are forced to spend a great deal of time with your work partners, do not let what you are doing on any given evening be a mystery to your spouse or housemate,” Johnson says. “Treat them with the respect you would show your employer, with scheduled phone calls, reliable information about your whereabouts and phone numbers that can be used to contact you in an emergency.” And most of all, he recommends that you give your partner a chance to meet and spend social time with coworkers, especially the women.

In The Public Eye

Fear: That people are looking at you and studying your every fault.

Is it rational? To a small degree. But it happens. Dallas insurance salesman Myles Barchas was laughed at when he claimed he was being followed around town and harassed. An independent investigation by Fortune magazine later turned up evidence that it was true. Allstate Insurance, Fortune reported, had targeted Barchas for private-eye surveillance after he complained of unethical practices – and the company then shut down the computers he relied on to do business. Few of us need to be darting around corners to escape a private eye. “But a certain level of worry about what others think of us serves us all well,” says career-counselor Smith. “Doctors in my hospital could show up in yesterday’s gym shorts and the nurses in torn coveralls, but they realize that part of their authority in the hospital is communicated by the neatness and appropriateness of their dress. It’s when we become obsessed, particularly with appearance – crooked teeth, balding, signs of aging – that things get out of control,” she says.

An antidote: “If we spend most of our waking time at work, we need to cultivate true intimates who can monitor us and advise us on the trivial aspects of our public life and appearance,” Smith says. “Do we dress appropriately? Is this the right kind of haircut for the industry we’re in?” There is no substitute for the intimate frankness of a close friend, which takes us back to a point made earlier: If you just can’t seem to ask your buddy if your pate needs polishing because you’re too ashamed and disheartened by your follicular mutiny, You might gain from gaining some perspective.

“Ten years ago, there wasn’t much to fall back on for recurring anxiety problems, short of a very expensive set of sessions with a psychiatrist,” Johnson says. Today, psychiatrists are largely engaged in psycho-pharmacology – prescribing drug therapies – for people with reasonably serious mental problems. Clinical psychologists, who deal more with the behavioral aspects of emotional dysfunction, are a more common refuge for problems of this type. They can handle you one-on-one or, more economically, in groups.

Johnson has seen centers like his own crop up around the country to deal specifically with the anxieties and phobias unique to modern men. If you live in a large urban area and you’re willing to do a little research, you can find a group session targeted precisely at the kind of condition you would like to analyze and correct, he says. “Keep in mind that fear, properly faced and managed, can be the forge of greatness.”

Mark Twain was more blunt: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a complement to say it is brave; it is merely a loose application of the word.”