If you’re feeling stressed out about work or a relationship (or the state of the world in general), it may not just be the work or the relationship that is contributing to your experience of stress. In fact, your stress response is likely intensified by your habitual reaction in those particular circumstances. When you can learn how to recognize your own habitual reactions, you may discover a more objective, actionable and stress-reducing way of looking at yourself and others.
A colleague brought this perspective to light as we shared a coffee and catch-up before the holidays – one of many engagements I booked for December. Even though I typically find it to be the busiest, most stressful and overall exhausting time of year, I nonetheless jammed my calendar full of meetings just before the holidays began. More on that less-than-wise decision later.
My colleague and I had a lovely conversation about all manner of things, from our coaching practices to our learning opportunities and a look at the year that was. He spoke about a friend of his whose career he had been asked to provide some guidance around. He thought his friend could benefit from learning how to “manage the stress of who you are,” in order to take on an upcoming business challenge and succeed.
His words took me by delightful surprise, as I hadn’t considered my own self as a source of stress before. Typically, I attribute stress to situations, whether it be a bump in my career path or a communication challenge in a professional or personal relationship. I’ve externalized stress as something that happens to me as a result of challenging circumstances, not something that my own reaction to those circumstances can make much worse.
His words took me by delightful surprise, as I hadn’t considered my own self as a source of stress before.
An example immediately sprang to mind: my anxiety. Some of us are “blessed” with a little more anxiety than others, and in my case it surfaces when my schedule feels too full, or if I have to be “on” and extroverted for an extended period of time. My chest muscles tighten, my breath shortens, and worst of all, my anxious thoughts wake me early in the morning and deprive me of much-needed sleep for several days or weeks, depending on the timeline of the situation.
Over time, I’ve developed lots of ways of dealing with my anxiety, including journaling, talking it out, meditation, etc. The one thing I’ve never considered is that this part of me that reacts anxiously actually causes me more stress. I worry about worrying; if I look ahead at my schedule and it feels too demanding, I actually begin to fret about the toll my anxiety will take on me as the busy days approach, and the potential sleeplessness. Up until that moment with my colleague, I’d had no awareness about this extra layer of fretting, sandwiched as it was into the whole overwhelming mess.
Who needs to be aware of more worrying, you might be thinking. In fact, my colleague’s words struck me with an enormous sense of relief. There was something very accepting about the idea of “managing the stress of who you are” and recognizing that you yourself may be causing some of your own stress, and not just your circumstances. As I reflected on it further, I thought of a number of other benefits to thinking about yourself in this way. Here are a few:
- Personal objectivity – The idea of recognizing your own habits or traits that increase your stress enhances your personal objectivity. It encourages you to take a further step back from yourself and associate cause and effect with less judgment than you might if you’re less aware. In effect, you begin to realize that there’s another you – an observing self – that is separate from your stress-increasing habits and traits. Your observer may even develop a sense of humour about those knee-jerk reactions of yours that tend to make things much worse in the moment.
- New perspectives, ideas and choices – Objectivity is accompanied by new perspective and perspective is key to new ideas and better choices. When you are able to see your situation from a bigger, more inclusive picture that recognizes your own involvement in your experience of stress, you will have more to work with in terms of coming up with better ways to address this situation and your response to it. This may be as simple as saying to yourself, “oh yeah, every time my schedule gets too full, I freak out about how I’m going to manage it. Maybe other people don’t but this is how I am and how I react under these conditions. Perhaps I can treat this more seriously next time and make a concerted effort to hold space in my schedule.”
- Less intensity and more confidence – As a result of this broader, more considerate perspective, chances are that the intensity of the stress you are experiencing will lessen, as I found once I was able to name myself as a contributor to my scheduling stress. It tends to feel less big and overwhelming when you can see it more clearly and as you take new steps to “manage the stress of who you are,” your confidence in yourself as a capable problem-solver is restored. After all, you can’t solve a problem when you don’t understand it fully.
Before I met with my colleague, I had already been thinking about what led to my over-scheduling December with catch-ups and visits, despite knowing how busy it can get and how tiring I can feel at that time of year. Some space had opened up in my coaching calendar and no matter how many years I’ve been self-employed, I still tend to go into reactive mode when the books aren’t absolutely full. My tendency to react in that situation, and do things that cause greater stress like overbook my schedule with networking appointments, is a source of stress itself – and it’s all mine to own! I feel better now that I can see the situation more clearly, along with my role in it, and I am much more likely to remember this experience and make different choices as my coaching practice ebbs and flows.
If you’ve ever been overly stressed, I invite you to consider those aspects of yourself that are directly contributing to your stress experience. Is it your own emotional reaction to certain situations (e.g. anxiety) that is actually increasing your stress, and not just the anxiety-inducing situation itself? Avoid judging yourself if you can, and notice any resistance that arises in the form of rationalizing or denial.
Managing the stress of who you are may be the best thing you can focus on this year, to increase personal objectivity, stimulate new perspective and choices, and actually reduce the intensity of your stress in a given situation. With that better managed, just imagine how much energy you’ll have left to influence others and create better results overall.