Summary: External forces keep us on our toes, ready to react. Here we discuss the hidden reasons for why we respond as we do.
Dear Dr. Sylvia,
I’ll cut right to the chase. Time is going by, and I am frustrated and worried.
I am a 47-year-old healthy male who is the CFO of a growing company. I love my career and can usually keep my cool.
However, lately, I have been short-tempered, stressed out, and while I won’t admit the following to those I work with or live with, I have also become a bundle of nerves.
Fear can limit the ability to seek positive solutions to problems.
The fear I feel is often overpowering. Sometimes I wonder if there will be enough food to eat or if we will all starve to death!
So, here I am, an anonymous reader of your newsletter, finally asking for help and clarity. I cannot see the invisible issues at hand.
Is everyone more on edge, or is extreme stress only for some?
In the woods
Dear In the woods,
We are all reinventing ourselves daily. Sadly, there is no rule book on responding to the fear and uncertainty in today’s workplace.
The challenge of doing more with less causes extreme stress.
For example, there is the exhaustion of having to do more with less. I assume this is causing you excessive stress. It makes most executives take a deep breath, sigh, and say, “I never wanted to keep up this pace of working 80 hours per week just to keep up.”
Therefore, wherever you look, there are signs of discord and concern. Just think of today’s images of retail shops and restaurants closing at an increasing rate. It’s disconcerting.
Of course, while many establishments have good products and services, another critical issue is finding willing employees.
Traveling to and from the office and road trips may become a thing of the past. And gas? That is until enough electric cars are available.
When the dream of thriving falls back to surviving, fear is robust.
In other words, what has happened to the American dream?
Since recently there has been talk of a recession, I am also starting to hear the “D-word.” The fear of a global Depression had now begun to crop up.
Above all, I don’t want to make this a “pity party.”
Further, I want to give some helpful tips on what you can do to release the extreme stress and “survive to be fit!”
Let’s start with a question.
Did you ever look in the mirror and recognize you have your father’s chin or grandmother’s blue eyes?
I know you are wondering what the heck this has to do with work and stress. Stay with me; it will be apparent in a few seconds.
Consider that much of our physical and mental abilities are part of our genetic inheritance.
What we think and do includes our genetic survival instincts.
Moreover, we also inherit many of our ancestors’ ways of behaving.
Thus, our decisions on what matters or not are less totally “ours” than they are a collection of threads from our family tapestry.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we know that our unconscious emotions occupy a different region of the brain than our conscious perceptions and can influence our preferences and actions.
The core trigger is usually stress.
Therefore, when the CEO demands to cut costs and constantly complains that money is tight, it may bring up an image of your single mom who could never make ends meet.
Perhaps if a colleague tries to take you new ideas and you feel discounted, you are thinking about your older brother, who would continuously “one-up” you whenever he could.
Reactions to upsetting situations happen in milliseconds.
In other words, as the internal anxiety gauge goes up, your ability to respond in a calm, neutral manner goes down.
In the same vein, I see more fear, anger, and defensiveness in my clients at work and at home.
That is to say, the current economy and violent responses to arguments keep all of us wondering if we will survive.
On the other hand, this is an excellent time to look at your specific responses and then examine what survival methods your ancestors are still at play in your present life.
We can learn from hearing each other’s life stories.
Therefore, I want to give you an example of what may be going on in your own life. Recently I was called in to coach the CEO of a prosperous company in a sector of the economy not directly in the line of fire with today’s supply chain concerns.
Interestingly, the company has good financials and a rocking good team spirit.
Then something happened that turned this likable CEO into an uptight autocrat watching every nickel.
As a result, his executive team was suffering. He kept his sentences short and would always ask, “Am I doing okay?” he even said it felt like being sent to the principal’s office when he talked with me.
Eventually, the crux of his angst came to light.
The mystery of stress is that, at first, it is invisible.
That is to say; the mystery was soon solved.
Here is what happened. Don called me one evening at home. This behavior was a rare occurrence. He was watching a mindless sitcom and decided to check the news. He was now on the verge of tears out of his usual way of responding.
As he told me, there was “breaking news” about the ongoing war in Ukraine. An image showed up with a little girl playing with a dollhouse when her mother grabbed her hand and said they had to leave. They had to leave immediately. There was the sound of bombs in the background.
As we sorted through his response to the news, his recent daily behavior at work made sense. Here’s the story:
When Don was eight years old, his father lost his job,
And the family lost their home. The house was in foreclosure.
They had to leave and leave quickly with whatever they could
stuff in a small truck.
The little boy waved as they left the family home for a motel
in another town till they could regroup.
Money was in short supply, and food was also in limited supply.
Every dollar, every dime, must be accounted for no matter what.
Life was bleak. His father became ill and died from a heart attack
when Don was ten.
Now, with the war in Ukraine showing images of devastation daily. Don began to wonder if he would survive the downturn in the economy.
The past is still alive in the present.
For instance, he connected the dots from past to present. Then he realized his overzealous need to “account for every penny” at work was from his remembered pattern from the past.
As a result of seeing the little girl with the dollhouse, he was back as the little boy leaving his home. A wretched memory sat in his deeper mind that was never released.
Therefore, once he observed and understood where his behavior originated, he was able to go on the life-affirming path of transforming his fear into strategies for success.
Once you understand how past patterns impact the present, you oversee finding solutions.
In conclusion, here is work for all of you reading this post today.
Think about, or research how your family coped with difficult times in the past. Talk about it with your coach; consider the shame or blame, or guilt as you look back.
If patterns become visible, they are workable.
I believe that an essential aspect of leadership education is learning about how to observe, understand, and then transform the outdated, often fear-based ingrained patterns that get in the way of living a positive and productive life.
Ultimately, it is time for leaders to be more self-aware.
It is no more prolonged survival of the fittest; it is a time for all of us to survive and be healthy.
Here’s to your success,
PS. You may want to consider reading my award-winning book “Don’t Bring It To Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success.” You will get lots of great exercises and insights into why you behave the way you do.