Stress may be caused by both internal (fears, lack of confidence, other personality issues) as well as extraneous (difficult boss, family members expectations etc.) factors. However, it is my contention that if one can gain control over internal factors, which can certainly be done, the external factors will not have the devastating impact that they tend to have. Changed perspective can work wonders. This does not mean quick fix remedies like breathing deeply or counting until 10 or listening to soothing instrumental music – these help but are only momentary fixes. Long term fixes come from understanding and working on yourself, if necessary with the help of a counsellor or coach. I firmly believe just being aware of the stress triggers in yourself will go a long way.
The first in my list of actionable factors is Expectations, both one’s own and that of others.
Throughout our life, we have to contend with expectations. First we have to live up to our parent’s expectations, then those of our teachers. As we progress into teenage, friends take over. It’s all about fitting in then. I do not envy the teenager of today. They are bogged down with expectations – they have to be class toppers in Math and Sciences. Multiple intelligences are a nice concept but raely applied. From there on starts the snowballing of expectations.
So how does this affect our work life? During our teenage and college years, standards are set for us for academics, behavior with relatives/friends, even our choice of partners. We are told time and again that the family’s standards have to be maintained and are constantly barraged by the question “What will people think?” We don’t stop to think – who created these standards? And are they really set in stone? At work we start off with our own expectations of staying on target, getting a raise in a year and a promotion to boot. Oh and don’t forget that foreign assignment. If you didn’t aspire for all these things you did not have ambition. Your boss expects you to stay late every day even at the cost of your health and family life. Your colleagues expect you to cover for them without so much of a murmur. If it was just work, possibly one might have pulled through. We also have family commitments.
To be able to live peacefully amongst this growing mound of expectations one has to adopt a few strategies.
First all instead of blindly accepting and bowing to expectations one can stop and assess if the expectation is valid and worth living up to. Do you really want that foreign assignment because it is good for your career development or because it gives you boasting rights? Is your boss justified in thinking you can stay until 10 p.m. and the promptly turn up in the morning at 8 a.m. for your weekly review meeting? Are your friends being reasonable when they expect you to party in the middle of the week? When parents complain that they have not seen much of you after you have joined this new company, do you explain about your increased responsibilities and work load? Are you contributing to the build-up of these expectations by not setting expectations right in the first place? Often times we have a tendency to avoid confronting these expectations. We do not give it any thought even when it weighs us down. As a first step, the expectations from any new relationship or partnership must be addressed right away. If they are unrealistic, they must be nipped in the bud. Understand your limits – your strengths and your weaknesses. When we are asked in interviews about our strengths and weaknesses we tend to skirt around the real issues, and now many of us have found ways to present a weakness like a strength (which is why I find this question ridiculous in interviews). We need to take stock of ourselves, time and again, re-invent and reorient to the changed circumstances of our life.
Learn to say NO
This is the assertiveness mantra. Most of us are queasy about saying NO to friends, family or colleagues. To oblige them we take more and more on ourselves – It can be a colleague asking to give him a ride every now and then and this bothers you because it takes you out of your way. It can be a friend who drops in unannounced when you need to just listen to music and unwind or spend some quality time with your spouse. Of course one never says “No” to the boss. It committing hara-kiri. Vacations are sometimes needed so one can have a break from responsibilities and expectations – which are usually yoked together. It is OK to want some “me” time. It is OK to take off from work to celebrate a milestone. It is OK to tell your boss that you will have to put a task off until tomorrow since your brain is all fogged up at the end of a long day – all within reason of course. Once you master the art of saying no cordially, you will notice that the burden lightens up.