Is It Anxiety or Ambition? – 3 Ways to Tell


Is it anxiety or ambition that's driving you to succeed?

At first glance, that might seem like a strange question. After all, anxiety can be a stressful mental health condition whereas ambition is the strong drive and desire to succeed. What could they possibly have in common?

More than you might think.

Anxiety can actually drive you to succeed. You don’t want to fail, you want to be great (maybe even perfect), therefore you work extra hard to get things just right. As a result, you might even become astoundingly successful in your professional life. So this anxiety is actually helping you, right?

Eh…not so fast. Anxiety comes with a lot of toxic stress. Yes, it might push you, but it pushes you in a bad way.

It masquerades as ambition. Inside you may be terrified that if you resolve your anxiety, you might not be able to meet your goals but, that’s just a lie that anxiety is telling you.

Don't listen to it! You can overcome anxiety and still let your ambition drive you.

Defining Anxiety or Ambition

Before we dig into the three core differences between anxiety and ambition, let’s define what we are talking about.

Anxiety is a defense structure that actually helps keep us safe. It was designed for things like knowing that you should probably start running if there is a hungry lion chasing you. Anxiety that is highly ramped up even when there is no actual lion, however, is uncomfortable. It makes you worry about details that no one else will ever notice. It is stressful, and it often makes you physically ill. Yes, it can drive you to do awesome things, but it will eat away at you (the lion on the inside?) as it does.

In contrast, ambition is exciting, energizing, and makes you feel good. You want to kick ass, take names, make your mark on the world, and realize your dreams. Ambition can have moments of excited fear, like butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation, but it isn’t typically marked by the terror, worry, and dread of anxiety.

So, what is it in your case? Anxiety or ambition?

Here's how you can tell.

1. Recognizing Physical Symptoms

One of the best ways to figure out if you’re dealing with anxiety or ambition is to tune in to your own body. Both ambition and anxiety can drive you to stay in your head and ignore your body. So, go on a leisurely mind-clearing walk or lay in savasana, and figure out what’s really happening inside.

As you get in touch with your body, you might recognize these signs of anxiety:

  • Overall muscle aches

  • Grinding teeth and tensing jaw

  • Nausea, lightheadedness, and dizziness

  • Racing heart and rapid pulse

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the throat or chest

In other words, anxiety doesn’t feel good in your body. It’s stress. And your body is responding physically to that stress.

In contrast, ambition doesn’t cause you those types of physical symptoms.

Yes, you might get elevated stress symptoms when you’re under a particular deadline, presenting a really important paper, or otherwise facing something challenging as a result of your ambitious work. However, the feeling is temporary, linked to the specific situation, and is usually mingled with feelings of excitement, energy, and joy.

2. Setting and Meeting Goals

If you’re ambitious, then chances are that you have learned to set and meet goals.

Here’s what that might look like:

  • Brainstorm ideas, then weigh all of the options

  • Choose the option that makes the most sense right now

  • Break that big idea down into small, measurable goals

  • Invest time, energy, and money wisely into making those goals happen

  • Let the excitement and momentum of your activity lead you forward

  • Take a moment to celebrate after achieving each small goal

If you have anxiety, then you also probably set goals. Sometimes you might achieve them.

However, it looks a lot more like this:

  • Try to consider each and every option including how others will judge it

  • Have trouble deciding on one path because too many things can go wrong

  • Eventually, pick a choice, often the one that will upset other people the least

  • Feel like you took too long to make a choice and now it’s too late to meet the goal

  • Obsess over making the wrong choice

  • Take a nap because you’re overwhelmed, plus you’re not sleeping at night

  • Waste time, energy, and money on things that superficially forward your vague goal

  • Even if you meet the goal, you can’t relax because you’re too worried about the next step

3. Dealing with Failure

Examining your relationship to failure is also a key way to figure out if you’re dealing with anxiety or ambition. Anxiety is obsessed with failure.

If you have anxiety, then you...

  • ...constantly try to avoid failure.

  • ...feel like you’re always failing anyway.

  • ...tell yourself, “if it’s not perfect, I failed.”

  • ...assume that if you do succeed, it was luck. You’ll fail next time.

  • ...can’t stop thinking about your perceived failures from the past.

In contrast, ambition has an entirely different relationship with failure.

If you’re ambitious without toxic anxiety, you believe that failure is just a part of the creative process. You have enough self-worth and confidence in your abilities that you know you can meet your goals despite setbacks. Of course, you might need a minute to regroup after a big failure. However, you look at it as a learning tool, not a statement about your worth.


You can actually reach your ambitious goals better if you aren’t hindered by anxiety and stress. If you would like to know how, contact me today and find out how I can help.