How to conquer stress (Part 3)

This week, I am going to pull everything together into a unified whole. And at the risk of reducing a very complex idea into an overly simplistic one, let me offer the following formula:

The fear of (X) is the root cause of (stress behavior Y)

As I have already written, when people get stressed they have only two choices. They can either (a) turn on their survival mode or (b) turn on their serving mode. These modes are what I call stress behaviors.

Survival mode looks like:

  • Feeling self-imposed shame/guilt because YOU feel somehow responsible
  • Putting blame on everyone else because THEY are somehow responsible
  • Manipulating people/circumstances to make sure that YOU survive
  • Withdrawing emotionally/physically so that NO ONE can blame you

There is nothing healthy about survival mode. When you – or your teammate/customer/family member/friend – are in survival mode, things eventually get toxic. Bad decisions get made.

Serving mode, on the other hand, is incredibly healthy. It looks like:

  • Influencing people/circumstances in an open, non-manipulative way
  • Adapting to people/circumstances until the stress passes and/or the opportunity to influence appears

When you – or your teammate/customer/family member/friend – are in serving mode, things open up and become collaborative and helpful. Good decisions get made.

Why is this important to know? Because when people start shaming, blaming, manipulating, or withdrawing, it means that they are stressed – not evil.

Pause. How often do the people you know start shaming, blaming, manipulating, or withdrawing the moment they get stressed? Did you immediately think to yourself, “What a jerk” or “They are (insert negative opinion here)”?

Turn the mirror. How often do you pick one (or more) of the survival mode behaviors the moment that you get stressed?

If you answered these questions with something akin to “way more than I would like,” keep reading.

As leaders, we MUST learn to recognize the signs of stress when they are happening. And I am very clearly calling out shame, blame, manipulation, and withdrawal as the primary stress behaviors we should be looking for. The more traditional indicators of fatigue and failure are frankly lagging indicators. The stress is already well on its way to burnout – which is an entirely different problem.

We must transform our awareness of stress behaviors (including the good ones), so that we immediately think “I am stressed” or “they are stressed.” Otherwise, we run the risk of creating more stress, adding our own complexity and making things worse.

Side note: Anger is also a stress behavior – but the key is how the anger is being directed. Is it to “justify” shaming, blaming, manipulating, or withdrawing? Focus on how the anger is being used, not the presence of it. Because healthy anger can be used to serve as well. It is what makes us use our influence against injustice and protect those who cannot adapt themselves.

The next step, once stress has been identified, is to immediately go to the beginning of the formula: “The fear of (X) is causing…”

As I described last week, the fears of failure, rejection, and/or losing control are the most common causes of stress that I know.

When people exhibit stress behaviors, they are afraid.

So, deal with that. Help them succeed, demonstrate acceptance, and lend your ability to stabilize. Serve them, until they can get back into serving mode themselves.

Side note: Sometimes, especially if we are the “authority in the room,” the other person is afraid of US. They are afraid that they will fail us, be rejected by us, lose control to us. You cannot make people behave differently, but you can certainly change your interactions so that what you are projecting is healthy.

Now, if YOU are the one who is afraid, this requires far more effort. You must first be aware that when you shame/blame/manipulate/withdraw, it means that you are stressed. Recognize this. Stop yourself before you send that email, speak up in that conversation, or gossip behind someone’s back. You are stressed – which means that you are afraid. And when you recognize your fear, serve your way through it.

Choose to influence or adapt. Choose to help others. Choose to lift up someone else and trust that success, significance, and/or power are not the “holy grails” that your brain is screaming that they are.

Next week, I will talk about what to do when serving your way through stress is not an option. In the meantime, ponder this week’s topic a while longer.

Does the fear of failing/rejection/losing control cause you to serve (influence/adapt) or survive (shame/blame/manipulate/withdraw)?

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

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