10 Signs

10 Signs of Someone You Can’t Work With

(And Probably Don’t Want to)

Dr. Edwin Friedman believed that our society manifests times of chronic anxiety (free floating anxiety which is not related to any one event) in a cyclical manner. He observed that every 30 years or so, the world gets chronically anxious. It culminates in some kind of crisis such as war or a major conflict and is thereby released temporarily, only to build again in another 30 years. He observed the last peak in the late ‘80s. Guess what? It’s baaaaaack!

Among the greatest challenges to leaders in any age is that of dealing with the chronically anxious. Nothing is so frustrating, so exhausting or so withering to the spirit than the opposition and sabotage that can come from these tireless and tiresome individuals. These are the people you can’t work with (and you shouldn’t even try).

The chronically anxious have an uncanny way of finding their way into the center of controversy and muddying the waters whenever they can. Because they are lacking in basic maturity, they are incapable of self-regulating. Like a cancer, they invade organizations and spread their disease throughout. They find their ways into school boards, government, pulpits, boardrooms and the media. They are “step up” transformers, skilled at making mountains out of every mole hill.  They don’t wear black hats. They look like you and me.  How is one to identify these individuals ahead of time so they can be dealt with decisively without wasting a lot of time or energy?

You won’t be able to identify these people by their appearances. They don’t wear name tags. You won’t be able to identify them by their values or beliefs. Their values may appear the same as your own. You won’t recognize them by their selfish and evil nature. They may look generous and compassionate. You won’t be able to tell by their religious or political affiliations or their professions. Short of being psychic, there is one and only one way to identify these individuals. You must see how they function. Here are 10 signs that identify the tell-tale functioning that characterizes someone who is chronically anxious. These signs can help you to recognize these individuals and avoid their traps before you get caught in them.

  1. Victim

We live in an age of victims. The competition is high among those competing for “the most victimized person” category in life. It is normal to feel like a victim at times; and sometimes we truly are. As the saying goes, “Sometimes you are the windshield in life. Sometimes you’re the bug.” Life involves both winning and losing. Chronically anxious people however do not identify with both. They see themselves consistently as victims amidst the disparities of life. In their eyes, they are never the windshield but always the bug. This is fed by an attitude of entitlement and a posture of helplessness. They do not recognize their own contributions or their personal responsibilities in uncomfortable and painful situations.

  1. Dependent

By using the word dependent, we don’t mean a term on your tax return. This kind of dependence is obsessive. It manifests itself as a consistent need to define oneself in terms of another. People functioning in dependency always need a hero, someone outside of themselves who has the answers. The flip side of hero worship is demonization. Highly dependent people have a consistent need to demonize others. They need an enemy. Often the one they demonize is someone they used to worship.

  1. Humorless (Overly Serious)

Chronically anxious people are deadly serious. They are impervious to efforts at humor or irony in demanding situations. They can never lighten up. Beware of the believers who never laugh!  They are dangerous

  1. Conspiratorial

Chronically anxious individuals thrive on conspiracy and secrecy. They are famous for letting you in on their secrets and then holding your loyalty out of a twisted and distorted obligation to respect their confidentiality. “Don’t tell so-and-so, but…” When you hear this kind of indirect communication, no matter how juicy the tid bit. Run! And don’t look back. The wrong they see around them must be analyzed as highly complex and the result of aligned forces for evil.

  1. Indirect Communication

Indirect communication is related to conspiratorial. Chronically anxious people are always working and manipulating from behind the scenes. They conceal their true agenda in public and consistently work to communicate indirectly through other people. They recruit others to be their spokespersons rather than owning their positions publicly with integrity.

  1. Group-think

It takes a lot of energy to be chronically anxious. And, there is strength in numbers. As Friedman said, “All protoplasm likes to glob.” Chronically anxious individuals are prone to group-think. They are compulsive recruiters to their cause in attempting to rally the troops. Words like “we” and “us” replaces “I” and “me.” Emotional fusion is the dominant force and a difference of opinion is framed as dissention or even treason. The herding instinct is perverted into a stampede mentality that discounts and opposes diversity. “If you are not for us, then you are against us.”

  1. Digital Thinking

Digital thinking is related to group-think. There is no analog, only black and white, good or evil. There is no grey. There is no mystery or moral ambiguity. Mystery may not stand for its own sake. This all or nothing mode of thinking encourages snap judgments and reactive decision making. Reflection and subtleties are framed as “waffling” or “fence sitting.”

  1. Linear Thinking

Chronically anxious individuals are highly reactive and incapable of thinking systemically. Their dominant mode of thinking is linear, cause and effect. This kind of thinking is ripe for blame placement and displacement, which reinforces their sense of victimization and entitlement. Instead of recognizing the co-causal nature of many aspects of life, chronically anxious individuals will tend to be stuck in “billiard ball” thinking.

  1. Invasive

Out of their need for fusion with others and their unwillingness to be alone, chronically anxious individuals are bent on converting others to their reality. This can take one of two forms. Either the anxious person tries to save other people, thereby bringing them into the fold, or they are bent on using other people “for the cause” which compels them. Either way, there is little or no respect for “otherness.” And there is open hostility for opposing thinking. Boundaries are blurred and others are seen as merely extensions of oneself. In this way, chronically anxious individuals are invasive.

  1. Impervious – untouched by reason or love

Perhaps the most tragic of all ways of functioning among the chronically anxious is that of being untouched not only by reason but by love. These individuals may believe they are compassionate. They may even appear compassionate. But by their very nature, they cannot be authentically compassionate. Their unwillingness to truly respect others blocks them from all efforts and appeals to their humanity.


It is possible to overstate any one of these signs in considering the individuals with which we are willing to work. It is true that many if not all of these signs can be manifest in each of us. We all get anxious at times and revert to many of these same ways of being. Cumulatively, however, these signs do allow for a fair evaluation and judgment as to how we as leaders are willing to spend our time and our energy. Determining whether a person is chronically anxious is a matter of degree and consistency. They tend to manifest their true nature under stress. These are people you don’t want working for you. They are people you don’t want to work for or with. As with a cancer, you cannot negotiate with them. The only means to deal with them is to wall them off in some way to slow them down or let them weaken (i.e. chemotherapy) until they run out of steam and move on to torture someone else or remove them completely from the group or organization (surgery).

It is our hope, in clarifying this challenge – faced by everyone who would dare attempt to lead – that this list will help you save time and energy by recognizing these individuals and dealing with them sooner. Leading is hard enough without being drained and frustrated by people who can’t self-regulate and are unable to change.

Peace and Courage,  Steve and Howard

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