These days you will often find me speaking to large groups of people at meet-ups, webinars, hangouts and sometimes from stage. It is something I really enjoy and love to do, but in the very beginning, before I even had a business, it was a challenge. A long time ago, I used to plan events in the hospitality industry and I would get stressed out over every little detail. I wanted to make sure that everything was perfect and that it ran smoothly. As the date approached for each event, I would start to feel the pressure. I would tell myself that there was so much to do! That I was so busy and had very little time. A few weeks before, I would start planning in order to feel better about it.
But it wasn’t real preparation, it was more like coming up with a very long list of things to check off, just to feel like I was doing something. I used to tell myself that I would prepare in advance, but other things always seemed to pop up. Then I would find myself panicked the day before, dealing with last minute urgencies and feeling less and less confident. So much for being prepared! I did manage to rehearse on that final day before each event, but it felt extremely rushed and stressful. I kept reminding myself how much I enjoyed my job, and that it was important to me, which helped. I told myself I would learn from this and never do it again. But by the time I scheduled the next event, it was as if I’d forgotten the entire experience and I did it all again. This had to stop.
Do you feel as if each day at work you’re approaching burn out? Are you rushing around, trying to tick off that very long checklist that keeps growing? Do you notice that all you’re talking about is how busy you are, complaining about how much responsibility you have and how you can’t possibly delegate because nobody else will do it properly? When you express how stressed out you are, do you feel more useful, more committed than everyone else? Does it give you a sense of pride, that you are so busy? After a stressful day, do you find it challenging to respond nicely to your partner or your kids when you come home and the place is a mess? Do you even like coming home or does it feel like just another bunch of checklist items to get through until bed? Do you feel under-appreciated at work or in your relationships, and all this business and fuss makes you feel more important?
Why so stressed?
I recently attended a wedding, and it was a spectacular affair! I watched the event organiser with curiosity. I had expected her to be running around with an ear-phone and walkie-talkie, flailing her hands as she spoke to three different people at the same time and putting out fires all day. Instead, she appeared relaxed, orderly, confident and attentive. She appeared completely at ease, walking purposefully and communicating calmly with a smile on her face. After the beautiful reception, as people filtered out of the room to make their way to another venue for the party, I found myself in a lift with the event organiser.
I commented to her about how she must feel relieved to have another successful event wrapped up without a hitch, and I asked her if she would now have time to relax before the next one. “I can only imagine how busy you are!” I said. She smiled and told me that actually, she had not been busy at all. That many years ago she used to want to control everything and micromanage. She would work ten times harder than everyone else to make sure her events were as magnificent as the one she’d just done. Until someone she loved became very ill, and she decided to delegate more of her work to others, so that she could spend more time with this person. At first it was hard, and she said that she struggled to let go of wanting to control, but when she did, she never looked back.
She said; “I used to get wrapped up in the craziness of my schedule, and use that as a way to somehow show other people how important I was. The idea that somehow, being like a micromanaging workaholic meant that I was more special, more worthy, more honourable. Since I learned to let go of that, now my events are just as spectacular, if not more so, than before. I don’t get worked up about anything. I no longer waste so much time telling people how to do things my way, and I let my team take ownership and figure it out. This has actually strengthened us, and everyone I work with is less stressed and more creative, which works out brilliantly for our clients too.”
Asking better questions was the start.
After that conversation in the lift, my whole mindset started to change. I realised that I might be worrying so much about all the little things before an event, because on some level I believed that looking busy and stressed was a good thing. I believed that’s what I was supposed to be and do on those occasions, because maybe that’s what I saw other people doing, or felt that I was expected to behave a certain way. However it happened, I had kept on perpetuating the behaviour until it turned into a habit. A habit that no longer supported me and did not feel good.
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It clicked for me that there was no reason to get so worked up and stress myself out the way that I had been. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and all the pain definitely didn’t seem worth it. I realised that it wasn’t that stress was happening to me because I was so busy. It was that I was creating the stress, and using my work, or the peak hour traffic, or the person who doesn’t “do it the right way” as an excuse to keep repeating the pattern. An excuse to stay comfortable in my habit, instead of doing the work to change it. I wondered what might happen if I just let go of the identity I had created for myself about how busy or stressed I was. What would my life look like if I wasn’t doing that anymore? What did I want it to look like? How did I want to feel instead of stressed?
Can you think back to those times in your life when you might have felt overly stressed out, or reacted in a way that was out of proportion? Maybe you found yourself shouting or getting easily annoyed and snappy at people. Maybe you’ve been rushing around, looking frazzled and telling people how tired you are, how much pressure you’re under, how big of a task is on your shoulders and how much you get done in a day because you’re so busy. Does the conversation tend to start with “I’m stressing out!” or end with “I’ve just got so much on my plate.”?
What if it didn’t need to be like that? What if there’s no such thing as stress-management, because the way out of the stress is not to manage it, but to simply make a decision. Decide to stop and breathe for a moment. Decide to simply focus on one task at a time, taking the emotion out of it. Once I learned how to do that, it made every decision so much easier.
Be a fly on the wall
Knowing that your pattern of behaviour isn’t working for you anymore, is one thing. It’s another thing to become more aware of the problem and how and when it shows up for you. Not everyone experiences stress in exactly the same way, but you might be surprised at how often your thoughts will be connected to your emotions. Often people who experience more negative emotions, like overwhelm or repeating highly stressful moments, may also be repeating negative thoughts and stories in their heads. The first step towards changing the stressful behaviour habit, is to become more aware of it. You may not even realise how often you might be creating self-talk or images in your imagination about a certain thing that can trigger those feelings of stress.
One way you might become more aware of this, is through simply paying attention to the conversations you have with others, and with yourself. Notice if you’re using lots of negative language or if you start to feel annoyed or angry or frustrated. Are you telling a story that justifies how you feel? Are you complaining more than you thought? Are your thoughts filled with self-doubt, fear and uncertainty? Pay attention to these thoughts and emotions as they come up throughout your day, and make a note to yourself about where you were, what happened just before that, and who were you talking to or what you were doing. I like to pretend that I’m a fly on the wall, watching myself. This helps me to step out of the negative thoughts or emotions, and to pay more attention to observing them and the situation.
Another way you might want to do this, is immediately after you’ve noticed the pattern happening, write down everything that you noticed about that time. As above, you want to pay attention not only to how you felt or what words your were saying to yourself, but also look at the situation from a neutral position. What time was it? Where were you? What happened or what did you say to yourself just before? Was anyone else there? Etc. You can use this journal as an objective way to see with accuracy, what things might be triggering you, or where there is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again.
Create better self-talk habits
Now that you have mastered the art of being a fly on the wall, and you can see your patterns more clearly, you’re ready to start building better self-talk habits that work for you. So how do you do this? There are a few different ways you can do this, so why not try them all and see how they work for you!
1. Interrupt the pattern of thought.
Whenever you become aware of a negative thought or repetitive thoughts in your mind, you can simply take a deep breath, and say the words “stop”. You can say them quietly to yourself, or say them out loud. Then, in that moment, ask yourself “how do I want to feel instead?” and try to imagine what that feeling would look like. If you were to feel more confident or more calm, how would you be standing? How would you be breathing? Would your muscles feel tense or relaxed? Would you be smiling or neutral?
This can be a little interesting the first time, and so to help me remember to do this, I wrote down the steps on a post-it note that I kept in my wallet. It said “Breathe. Stop. How do I want to feel? What would that look like if I did feel that way?” And so all I needed to remember was to take a deep breathe and read the post it. That’s it! It sounds really simple, but it definitely helped me to begin changing my negative thinking patterns, and I started to feel less stress on a daily basis.
2. Choose your words.
The language we use everyday without even thinking, can have a huge impact on how we feel and experience the world. Most people will notice that when someone says a particular word to you, you have a picture in your imagination about what that word means to you. Different people have different pictures, and often the picture flashes through our mind so fast, that we might not even notice it consciously, but it’s there! So when we use strong statements like “I am miserable.” or “I hate this. It’s making me angry. I’m an angry person.” this can cause a person to feel a certain way.
The same goes for using more positive wording. What that means is, if you notice yourself using a word that has negative associations or pictures for you, you can change the word, which will help you to change your picture, and in turn, change how you feel. How awesome is that! So for example, have you ever noticed that nurses will talk about the “level of discomfort” you’re feeling, as opposed to the level of pain? They do this because it helps to create a different picture for the person they’re talking to, which can help that person to deal with the discomfort much better. In your life this might be that instead of saying “I hate”, you can say “This is not what I expected.” or “This is not ideal right now, but I can work with it.” For me, instead of saying “I feel horrible.” I might say “This feeling is less-than-great.” or instead of saying “I’m so stressed.” I might choose to say “This doesn’t feel calm. What would calm look like instead?” By changing the words to something milder, you can change what you’re focusing on, and how you experience that moment.
3. Look for the silver lining
Oftentimes, when a person is experiencing negative thoughts, stressful emotions and getting stuck in their own patterns, they tend to be focusing mostly on the negatives. Sometimes this means that even when a positive thing happens, they don’t notice it at all, or they find a negative reason for why it happened, or they believe that it’s a fluke, a one off not to be relied upon. This is a trick of the mind, that it does when it’s stuck in a negative thought pattern. You can change this by making an effort to look for the silver lining in any situation. I have a friend who calls it “the seed of equivalent benefit”. All that means, is that whenever it seems like there’s a negative situation, just remember that there is always a positive. Maybe we don’t fully see the positive yet, but know that it’s there. Looking for the silver lining might simply be asking yourself “What can I learn from this?” Learning is always a positive. At other times, the silver lining might be that you’ll have a wonderful story to tell one day, or an amazing adventure you’ll never forget. Maybe it’s simply looking for something to feel grateful for and recognising that not everything about the situation is bad.
If you’re driving in traffic and starting to feel frustrated about everyone else around you and their less-than-great driving skills, you could change your attention to look for things you can be grateful for. At least you’re in a car, and not on a late bus packed with sweaty people after a long day at work. At least you’ll be sheltered from the rain, not stuck waiting outside for a cab. At least the scenery along this drive is actually quite beautiful. At least I can use this time to listen to a fun podcast or sing my heart out while nobody can hear me. Maybe what I can learn from this, is patience, which might help me be more present with my kids. When you start to actively look for the positives in any situation, you might be surprised at how many you will find. You also might be surprised at how much it can change your entire experience of any less-than-great moment.
Surround yourself with positive people
Last but definitely not least, is something I take very seriously. It’s called environment. It’s so much easier and so much more pleasant to be in the company of people who are positive, who are also looking for ways to better themselves and our lives together. When you surround yourself with a group of like-minded people who care, you will notice how you all support each other in making your positive changes. If you spend more time with people who are only interested in focusing on the negatives of life, it can be challenging to keep moving forward in your own personal positives. So why not make it easier on yourself, and find a group of people that lift you up and support you, and that you can lift up and support too. Make a point to catch up with them, maintain your friendships and mentorships. If you can do this enough, you might start to notice a difference between your old environment, and the new. You might start to notice how the more positive and less-stressed you become, the more free and fun life can feel.
That’s been my experience anyway. These days, I love what I do and I just get on with whatever it is that is important to do. I focus on finding solutions and methodically working through tasks. Now my sense of pride and joy comes from being able to accomplish so much, in less time than before. It also gives me the opportunity to do more of the fun things in life and spend more time with those that I love too. Not only that, but I’m surrounded by an incredible group of people who are all working together to do the same in their own lives, and for others. And it all began when I started asking more empowering questions and working my way, step by step, through those old stressful emotions.