Who do you turn into under stress?
For many leaders that answer varies according to the type and amount of stress. Up to a point stress brings out the best in us. It brings greater focus, draws on our competitive instincts, and fires us up to take on the challenge, whatever it may be. That kind of stress (called eustress) is beneficial and a lot of the leaders I work with have a higher capacity for eustress than average. In fact, many of us crave it. We feel most fully ourselves when facing those situations.
On the other hand, too much stress of the wrong kind can have the opposite effect. Called distress, this tends to bring out our worst. Often we find ourselves responding in ways so different from our typical demeanour that we surprise ourselves. In my case, distress can bring out a domineering, critical, and combative side that is rarely helpful and often embarrassing.
Knowing the different types of stress and what tends to provoke our worse reactions can remind us of the need to have stress strategies to manage ourselves.
Which raises the second question:
Who do you turn to under stress?
When people talk about it being “lonely at the top” the implication is that there’s no one to turn to when things are tough. A western culture that continues to imagine leaders as some sort of invulnerable superheroes only exacerbates this pattern. And it does damage.
Leaders need people to turn to. We need supporters, sounding boards, advisors, and encouragers. Every one of us needs some wise and trusted friends who will take our call when distress begins.
We also need habits and strategies for managing our stress both generally and when circumstances make it hardest.
Earlier this week I was finding this very hard to do. A variety of situations were combining to have me feeling a lot of distress, and my struggles with anxiety were piling on. I needed relief.
Conversations with my wife, a yoga class, lots of prayer, and ultimately a run along my favourite trails made a striking difference. Nothing outside of myself had changed, but everything was different. Somehow my perspective transformed and what had been overwhelming became manageable. Later a talk with one of my closest friends and confidants helped secure my state of greater peace.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been very intentional about my stress strategies.
There are lots of other people I could have talked to: other friends, family members, acquaintances, clergy, and even the everpresent community of social media. All were available and in different ways appealing. But I am learning that being highly selective about who I share my struggles with in the midst of distress is critical. I need people who will hear me out, ask probing questions, reassure me of their love, and challenge me where I may be in the wrong. I need wisdom coupled with support, not blind allegiance or harsh reality checks.
I am learning that under stress, who I turn to is who I turn into.
I become more and more like the people, resources, and habits I rely on when I feel overwhelmed. That is a sobering understanding.
I’m not sure about the truth of the saying that you become the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. But I have seen many times that those we share our struggles with have a strong and lasting influence on our perspective, behaviour, and character.
Few of us make our best choices when facing distress. I am very glad this week that I have been intentional about anticipating that tough times are sure to come and learning what and who best help me respond the way I want to.
What are your stress strategies?