When I suggest to many executive and entrepreneurial sorts that stress is something they can manage, they begin to tell me how difficult that is for them.
“Ah, but, I run my own business,” they say. “I have to stay in the thick of things.” Or…
“My company’s culture is very cut and thrust. I always have to be plugged in or else people will think I’m not a team player.”
“The CEO works 24/7. He emails me at all hours and expects me to respond.”
“I have to attend all the meetings that get put in my diary because I need to be involved in lots of things. (Even if that means I’m starting work on other things in the evenings.)”
The Great Coping Mechanisms Myth
They often then ask me to give them some coping mechanisms to deal with the physical and mental stress they start to feel because they are so overwhelmed with everything they’re supposed to be doing.
Now, look, there’s a whole internet full of coping mechanism stuff out there. But I figured some time ago that, if I was going to do a great job as a coach, and not just play a game with you, I’d help you see how flawed coping mechanisms by themselves are at the end of the day.
Of course, there’s some value in teaching yourself mindfulness practices or in learning deep breathing techniques.
But, practice them from the wrong mental mindset and they’re not going to change much.
You see, a lot of the “dealing with stress” thinking that’s out there, takes as its starting point the premise that stress is an outside-in job. In other words, stress is something that “happens” to you as a result of things going on in your environment. More pressure from clients. The 2 am email from your boss. A downturn in the market.
And it’s not as if these things aren’t real. Of course, stuff happens to us. But our ability to stay healthy, resourceful and well in the face of stuff that goes on is as much, if not more, down to the stories we’re telling ourselves about them.
How Our Meaning-Making Minds Often Screw Things
Humans are meaning-makers. Our cognitive function is what sets us apart from other animals.
Unless we begin to practice non-judgement, we rarely see situations in a neutral light, but imbue them with story and meaning.
And often we engage with stressful situations, NOT from the place of seeing them as neutral, BUT from the stories we’re making up about them.
I recently had a client who kept their mobile by their bed, just in case their CEO, who traveled the world and worked 24/7, emailed or called. He’d sometimes be woken at 2 am with some urgent request or other and get onto it right away. He felt he had no choice – that was what his job demanded – but it was impacting his ability to turn up and get through the day.
When I helped him unpack the stories he was unconsciously telling himself, they went like this:
“If I don’t respond right away, the CEO will think poorly of me. (And if he thinks poorly of me, I will get a poor performance appraisal and may over time be fired.)”
I asked him first how okay it really was for him to set himself up as being so indispensable, and he said it wasn’t. It was great to be well thought of by others. But it wasn’t helping him feel good about himself.
I also challenged whether his assumption about the CEO was true. He didn’t know. He conceded that it may not be. That it may have been he himself who’d made that up, based on his own insecurities.
In time he stopped having his mobile on and allowed himself to sleep during the night. If there was an urgent email from the CEO or anyone else for that matter, he’d deal with them during the hours he was productively awake. In time, he began to see such email with more equanimity and feel less pressure to jump hoops to impress others.
Which helped him feel a lot more in control, and, paradoxically perhaps, to perform more at his best.
How to beat back the overwhelm
Often, a key starting point in helping yourself beat back the sense of pressure and overwhelm is to get curious about the stories you’re telling yourself about the situations in which you find yourself.
What are your assumptions?
What are you believing about yourself in them?
And then ask, “Is this true?”
This is the second post in a series of posts about stress and overwhelm and how high performers can tame them for their advantage. Next up, we’re going to be looking holistically at the challenge of overwhelm in our lives and how to move beyond it. To make sure you don’t miss it and more insightful posts, be sure to subscribe.
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