In Coaching, Leadership by Jeff Czernicki

Metabolism — the process of converting molecules into energy for cellular use — provides a useful analogy for how we conduct our personal and professional lives. Just as cells break down molecules for energy now or build them up for energy later, we can channel our efforts into growth or decline.

In cellular biology, anabolism refers to the creation of complex molecules from simpler ones, while catabolism refers to the breaking down those complex molecules to release energy. Our bodies try to keep these two processes balanced, but we can choose the net effect of our emotional and mental metabolism according to which type of energy will serve us best in the moment. While neither anabolic nor catabolic energy is inherently good or bad and each has important uses, catabolic energy has cumulative effects that can be harmful to our personal and professional development when sustained or prolonged over a period of time.

Imagine two hypothetical coworkers, Joe and Nicki. Both are hardworking and kind, and at first it seems like either one would make a great team member. However, as you work with them you start noticing some differences. Joe tends to wait until the last minute to get things done and as a result always appears to be lurching from one crisis to the next. These actions leave Joe chronically stressed, which impacts his ability to plan, focus, and generate high-quality work. He is anxious about everything and tends to get defensive quickly. Over time, this affects his ability to connect and maintain relationships at the office.

Nicki, however, seems hard to distress. She plans and outlines her projects conscientiously, giving herself time to gather input, solicit feedback, and still get things in before the deadline. Her work is excellent, and it always seems to get better as she gains insight from previous projects. She is even-keeled, and everyone at the office appreciates her measured response to the unexpected. Her thoughts and actions help her maintain boundaries and as a result she can sustain a good rapport with her coworkers.

So what do these two hypothetical coworkers tell us about energy? Joe is using mostly catabolic energy at work, likely without even realizing it. Nicki preferences anabolic energy, and it is likely that she does realize it. Joe’s catabolic energy is helpful at times, like when you need those last fumes to get you over the finish line on a project. However, it is also a diminishing energy that saps our ability to use our intellect, regulate our emotions, and access our coping skills. Anabolic energy, on the other hand, augments our emotional and intellectual capacities, making them stronger over time. It requires intention and effort but pays off.

For both Joe and Nicki the type of energy used attracts more of the same. Thus Joe’s catabolic energy brings him into contact with other internal or external sources of stress; given enough time Joe is likely to find himself in fight-or-flight mode over even the smallest sources of distress. Similarly, Nicki’s anabolic energy brings her into contact with more sources of growth and empowerment.

So what are some ways we can start living with an anabolic mindset? As a coach, I address issues that potentially block that mindset by guiding self-exploration. I start with beliefs that might be hindering growth, examining when they come up and what their effect is, and then move into why these beliefs are there. So for Joe, it might start with exploring recurrent periods of catabolic energy and putting words to the thoughts and feelings that go along with them. With those experiences in mind, I help Joe figure out why those beliefs are there and how to overcome them and their catabolic effect. After that, we can begin building anabolic skills, like emotional intelligence.

If we want to get to living with high anabolic energy, we have to take care of over-reliance on catabolic energy. It is helpful at times, but when we live there, we get stuck in an endless stream of fight-or-flight reactions that diminishes our capacity to work, live, and grow. When we choose anabolic energy, we find the opportunity for growth in every situation and are no longer shackled to the fears and anxieties of our negative beliefs about ourselves. Facing those beliefs and coming out the other side will bring us balance, perspective, and fulfillment.