How to handle the stress of doing something stupid
Even the smartest people do stupid things. But the real challenge is being able to be the best version of ourselves under stress and choose behaviours that align with our best self.
Stress is all pervasive in our 24/7 culture. We’re constantly receiving information and transmitting information and are continually reacting to other people’s words and energies at work. The idea that we’re not going to drop a ball at some point is ridiculous. Being human means we will make mistakes but how we handle the emotion that arises is critical.
The good news is that we’re not powerless to our stress reactions. We don’t have to think that it’s simply a matter of fait accompli and focus on hoping that the next time we’ll handle it differently.
Everyone experiences stress but the key is what you do with it that’s makes the difference to the outcome.
Nick is one of several customer services team leaders who are under pressure working in a demanding emotional environment. Much of that pressure comes from the nature of the work – there’s always tensions between delivery and service and his team exist to resolve those tensions. But there’s an internal pressure he keeps bumping up against. When someone in his team screws up Nick feels anxious. He compares himself to the other team leaders and what he believes is expected of him. He beats himself up that he doesn’t meet those expectations.
When mistakes happen Nick makes them personal to his sense of self worth. He finds the person responsible and has a go at them telling them how he’s disappointed. Nick doesn’t see that his need to blame is a reflection of what he’s also doing inside himself. He uses perfectionism as a defensive behaviour.
How else could Nick react?
The truth is there’s no external fix for internal problems. This is an opportunity for Nick to address the underlying pattern or it will keep expressing itself through a different problem or crisis. Instead of avoiding looking at his own stress reaction, Nick can take charge of it. Nick can look at the connection between his physiology, emotions, thinking and behaviour. He can make the connection between when he feels anxious and the habitual mental pattern of comparison and beating himself up that has far more of a debilitating effect than the actual stressful event.
Are you aware of your habitual stress response and how it impacts how you handle mistakes?
Many business cultures have espoused values of failing friendly. They know that it’s an inherent part of innovation and want their employees to feel safe to make mistakes and learn. But human nature means that whilst we might love the idea of failure when it comes to actually being with it, we’d rather it happened to someone else. We feel vulnerable, make up that it will be career limiting or that it will have a negative impact on us in some way.
As leaders in our lives being aware of our habitual stress response is essential. When something stupid happens we often react with anxiety, anger or frustration. It feels like something is stopping us having what we want or preventing things from being the way they should be. We judge and then blame which sabotages relationship. Incoherent heart rhythms and stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) are activated. The more angry, anxious or frustrated we feel the more we block our mind from seeing different perspectives that would be helpful. We get caught in unhelpful old patterns
You don’t have to be hijacked by your stress hormones. You can with simple breathing techniques create the physiology you need for peak performance.
- Identify your habitual stress response e.g. anxiety, frustration, overwhelm, seriousness etc. and accept that it’s a habitual way of responding to stressful events. Establish the cost of that behaviour on your own energy and the impact on those around you.
- Make a decision to take charge of your physiology. Practice box breathing regularly to begin with.
- Keep a reflection journal where you write down stressful events and make the connections between what you feel, how that feeling feels in your body, what you think and what you then do. Highlight patterns and identify how you would like to handle those situations differently. You’ll see that if you can create a gap between your feelings and your thinking you will have a moment where you can choose a different response. This is the power of the breath. It gives you a space between the stressor and the reaction.