Living in competition: Anxiety

Fight for Diversity: Erhobene Faust vor einem Hintergund mit stilisiertem Corona-Virus.
‘Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious’ — Institute for Precarious Consciousness.*

If you are like me, you are anxious. At least from time to time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with this weird feeling in my chest. A feeling that I simply cannot pin down to one particular reason. Sometimes anxiety comes during the day, from one minute to the next, like a shitty text message that gets you off guard. Boom! Now I am anxious and cannot stop worrying. The interesting thing is that most people do not know this about me. They think I am tough. That I am too level headed, too practical — and most importantly — that I have it too good to feel anxious. Anxious about what? It is all okay, isn’t it?

Why do I feel anxious?

So where does this debilitating feeling come from? Is it all just in my head? Or is it maybe much more complex than this? As a social scientist, I have learned that these personal, intimate anxieties are not only the result of what happens inside my skull but that they are, to a significant degree, responses to the social structures around me. As Johann Hari succinctly summarises: if you are controlled and have little autonomy at work (like life in most corporation), you are more likely to become depressed. If your society becomes increasingly unequal, you are more likely to become anxious about your status and how you are seen and judged by others. If you do not have job security, you are more likely to become anxious. Thus, anxiety does not emerge from us but from the world we inhabit. It is socially constructed and therefore part and parcel of a neoliberal culture. The psychic result of us living in constant competition.


Let me unpack this a bit. Neoliberalism, a system of thought that has steadily advanced since the 1970s, ‘instructs us to build a society around one core insight: that human beings are atomised individuals who approach life by rationally maximizing their own self-interest’ (Hari 2018). It applies the rules of the free market, i.e. unregulated competition, onto every aspect of your life. You don’t believe it? Think about how often you click on a link that promises you to become more productive? How often do you think of learning another language in your spare time, to go on a diet, to work out more, to network better, to push your career further, to make your love life more exciting? Your birthday is close? Have you done everything that you wanted? What about your peers? Are they having more fun, are they more successful, do they know better? Neoliberalism’s imperative to self improve and ‘Selbstoptimierung’ gets under the skin and incites us to live as atomised individuals, where competition necessarily pits us against our peers and the rest of the world. So if you want success, acceptance, and even survival, you have to play the game and work on yourself, constantly. You are never done. When one project finishes, the next one is already lined up. If not, you are doing something wrong. In a neoliberal climate, we keep doing but we are never done.

Overachiever culture

This ‘overachiever culture’ (that is only open for a privileged few of us — but that is another blog post) is disturbing and makes us anxious because it does away with what we need most: social cooperation, connection and solidarity. ‘We are necessarily interdependent beings, vulnerable and connected to one another, as our lives are supported and made possible by a number of infrastructures (e.g.schools, roads and bridges, communication) that bring us into relation with one another’ (Wilson, 2018: 5). And even though we know that our well-being is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest. This coaxes us into a way of life that doesn’t work for us, and it is causing us deep pain. We feel anxious because we feel lonely and unsafe, knowing that our lives are profoundly unstable and that our worth as a person is dependent on experiences that need to be quantifiable and measurable.

‘I feel anxious today’, I confess to my partner over breakfast. ‘I feel like my project will never work out’. ‘I know’, he says calmly. ‘That’s how it will be from now on. One day you think you have set up the best thing ever, next day you’ll think it won’t exist in three months. I felt like this yesterday.’ Between us, in the cozy private sphere around the kitchen table, today’s public secret is revealed: We know that everyone is anxious. And yet, we do not start a riot but continue to play the game. Managing anxiety individually. Like the perfect neoliberal subjects that we are.

This blog post was written for MATES Munich

Check out Anne’s GenderIQ, gender & diversity training and consulting.


Hari, Johann (2018) Is Neoliberalism Making Our Depression and Anxiety Crisis Worse? How capitalist culture is making us sick. InTheseTimes, , Accessed 19/11/2018

*Wilson, Julie A. (2018) Neoliberalism. New York & London: Routledge.

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