Paula Davis-Laack J.D., M.A.P.P.
One of the biggest things that influences how you respond to stress and how resilient you become as a result is your perception of the stressor. In order to activate resilience while under stress and pressure, you need to see an event accurately and flexibly. In my work helping people prevent burnout and build stress resilience, three themes consistently surface as barriers to being able to accurately perceive stress and therefore influence success, happiness and resilience: (1) the “I’m too busy” narrative, (2) perfectionism, and (3) having a “stress harms” mindset.
1) The “I’m too busy” narrative
When you ask people how they’re doing, what’s the response you’re most likely to get? These days, it’s some version of, “I’m sooo busy!” Busy has become our badge of honor, particularly at work. The more you bill or sell and the more clients you have, the more you are valued, seen as important, and worthy. For many years, my worth was tied to my title—who was I if I wasn’t a lawyer? I had to wrestle with that question when I left my law practice and started a new business doing something completely different, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. My busyness covered up a whole lot of stuff in my life that I didn’t want to face.
There are two problems associated with the “I’m too busy” narrative. The first is that saying “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time” can have unintended consequences. When your mom calls and asks you to join her for a cup of coffee, and you say, “I’m too busy,” what she hears is, “I’m not a priority.” Eventually, your friends stop calling, your kids stop asking, and your boss invites the next person on her list.
Second, you may not be accurate about your busyness. If you anchor your perception of busyness to the day you rushed out of the house, got to work late, put in a few extra hours on a project, missed your kid’s bedtime and wolfed down dinner at 9:30pm, that’s a busy day, but it’s also one snapshot in time. You need to look at the totality of how you spent your time over the course of a week or a month. Most people fail to remember the lunch with a friend, the trip to the park with the kids or the 30 minutes you spent reading a favorite book. If you’re still certain you’re short on time, download a time log and literally track your time, which will either confirm or disprove your narrative.
People have such strong opinions about perfectionism. I understand the strong feelings associated with this topic—I’m a recovering perfectionist who often struggles to keep some of my perfectionistic tendencies at bay. Psychologists define perfectionism as “a multidimensional personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of your own or other peoples’ behavior.”
Not surprisingly, studies reveal a link between some types of perfectionism and burnout. Perfectionistic strivings, the aspect of perfectionism that is associated with setting high personal performance standards and striving for excellence, is much less likely to drive burnout than perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic concerns involve being overly concerned about making a mistake, having a fear of negative social evaluation, and having a strong negative reaction to imperfection.
Perfectionists also tend to think in a very rigid way, have a strong fear of failing (therefore play it safe and don’t take good risks), tend to have a black and white, all or nothing thinking style, get defensive when criticized, and easily find fault with themselves and others. This blend of traits can negatively impact how you work, your relationships, your home life, and your recreation (do your perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself?)
3) A “Stress Harms” Mindset
Most of the headlines about stress tend to focus on the negative impact stress can have in our lives, and it’s true—too much stress can be harmful to your health. I know firsthand, having experienced burnout at the end of my law practice. Yet the gloom and doom headlines about stress don’t tell the whole story. A 2012 study surveyed almost 29,000 adults and asked them two questions:
How much stress did you experience in the last year?
Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?
Eight years later, the researchers checked to see whether stress impacted rates of mortality for these participants. What they found was that the participants with high levels of stress were more likely to die, BUT only if they also believed that stress was harmful to their health. The people with high levels of reported stress who did not believe that stress was harmful actually had the lowest risk of death of any group in the study.
But if you’re one of the many millions of people who really do think that stress is harmful, how to do you start to develop more of a “stress helps” mindset? According to psychologist and researcher Alia Crum, there is a three-step process to help you practice a “stress helps” mindset:
1. Acknowledge stress when you experience it and notice how it impacts you psychologically and physically.
2. Recognize that stress is a response to something you care about. Try to connect to the positive motivation behind the stress.
3. Make use of the energy stress gives you.
Crum and her colleagues found that people who endorse a “stress helps” mindset report less depression and anxiety, higher levels of energy, work performance, and life satisfaction.
The “I’m too busy” narrative, perfectionism and having a stress harms mindset prevent you from being your happiest and most resilient self. Make this the year you stop letting these tolerations hold you back.