“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” ~Mark Twain
Life happens. And sometimes when life happens, we can get pretty stressed out. I’ve found that the way we view situations can either reduce our stress or make it worse. Here is just one way we aggravate situations, possibly unnecessarily, and how we can adjust our perspective to keep stress in check.
A colleague of mine claims that he is “calendar-challenged.” He is often unable to attend meetings at the last minute or shows up late. I am, by contrast, a planner. I live by my calendar and know what I am doing months in advance. The different approach that my colleague and I take in the way we plan—or don’t plan—can cause friction.
I could interpret my colleague’s behavior as merely irresponsible and chalk it up to a fairly ingrained part of his personality. That situation is irritating at worst. Or, I could take his lackadaisical approach personally by assuming that he doesn’t value me or my time. That’s somewhat stressful. I could even interpret his behavior as intentional and assume that he takes delight in making me angry. That is really going to stress me out.
Do you see how my interpretation of the behavior can be as benign as “he’s not a planner” and it can escalate all the way to a vengeful person determined to sabotage my career?
When we draw conclusions about a situation without checking the facts first, we can escalate it into a full-blown crisis in our minds. In other words, our negative thinking can spiral out of control, rapidly increasing our anxiety, unnecessarily.
That’s called globalizing. How we think about our circumstances can make all the difference in the level of stress we feel.
Many of us have experienced a workplace where budget cuts or a bad economy results in layoffs. The pall that can settle over an organization going through a period of like this can cause a great deal of stress, even for those employees still employed.
Enter globalizing. I have what I call “straight to bag lady” syndrome. I can become convinced that if I lose my job I will never find another one, I will become homeless, and then I will be forced to live on the street.
During the downturn of 2008 when many organizations were shedding employees like leaves in the fall, I occasionally went into this spiral in my mind. My good friend and colleague, however, did not. When I would ask her if she was stressed out by the loss of colleagues around us, she would say, “Yeah, I’m not going to worry about it. Even if they let me go, I assume I can just find another job.”
Wow. What I wouldn’t give to have her attitude.
She wasn’t oblivious to the fact that there was a good chance she might lose her job. However, instead of globalizing and assuming everything would just get worse and worse, she was able to stick to the facts in her mind and not globalize. She knew she still had a job. She knew there was a good chance she might lose her job. If that came to pass, she had a plan in mind. Being a bag lady was not part of her plan.
About a year into our firm’s layoffs, my colleague really did lose her job and she put her backup plan in place. She started her own business, something she had always wanted to do. Most importantly, throughout the year of layoffs, a legitimately stressful time in her life, she didn’t drive herself crazy with worry along the way by imagining the worst.
I’ve heard that our bodies and brains respond to an imaginary worry in the same way they would if the imagined situation was actually happening to us. Why put ourselves through the stress of something that just isn’t as bad as we think?
Globalizing places a very negative filter over our perception, causing stress and anxiety to feed on itself. We are, then, far more likely to interpret every situation as disastrous and to give the least benefit of the doubt to every person we encounter.
The loss of a job is made worse by globalizing that we will never find another job again. The loss of a partner is made worse by globalizing that we will never find anybody else with whom to share our life—or that every member of our pool of potential candidates is horrible. The loss of a marriage is made worse by globalizing that we are not loveable.
The best way to reduce anxiety is to look at the facts rather than our subjective interpretation of them. It is all the more important to doublecheck facts if we have come from anxious environments, where the people around us were globalizing up a storm.
Digging into our own background to make sure we have not applied a negative filter to everyone we encounter is an important step. Doing so will cause us to lose the opportunities presenting themselves in times of perceived crisis or to miss out on all the people who would never dream of acting in a negative way toward us.
Is my colleague’s calendar issue just an irritating quirk, is it part of an overall pattern of behavior that evidences one’s disrespect for another’s time, or is it evidence of something worse, such as intentional sabotage? Is my fear of going “straight to bag lady” based in reality in any way?
One way I bring my perspective back to an objective one is by whipping out a pen and some paper and making a list that separates the facts from my fears.
I can list the times that my colleague’s lack of organization affected me. Then I can all of the ways my colleague is respectful of me. When I step back and look at both lists, I will have a better picture of what that calendar quirk of his really means, if anything.
My lists may show his calendar challenges as an anomaly compared to a long list of behaviors in which he is respectful and supportive of me. In that case, I can chalk up poor planning skills to an irritating and innocent habit, find a workaround to the problem, and be thankful I work with such a good guy. No one is perfect.
On the other hand, if I see that there is a pattern of behavior in which my colleague seems to genuinely devalue me and my time, or the list reveals someone who is intent on sabotage and it is directed squarely at me, then I have clearly defined the problem at hand. Regardless of the results, they will bring my perspective much closer to reality instead of the anxiety-provoked interpretation that may be in my head.
In gauging my risk of becoming a bag lady, I can write down all of the factors I have working in my favor. If I have solid work experience, a good education, and a good network of contacts, is there a reasonable expectation that I will find work, even in a poor economy?
I can also list the backup plans available in case it takes a while to find another job. Perhaps I have savings, supportive friends and family, or an available line of credit at the bank. Since someone is always hiring even in the worst economies, I may need to start exploring other geographic areas or industries with opportunities.
Reigning in our brains from globalizing a situation—even if it reveals that a problem does exist—still relieves our stress significantly. It defines the problem and it clarifies the extent of it, which enables us to respond appropriately. A problem accurately defined is already partially solved.
Keeping globalization in check also means that we reduce the stress of the people around us. If we are constantly overreacting to others, assuming they have done something intentionally when their behavior is well intentioned—though perhaps imperfect—we are creating conflict that need not exist. People around us will distance themselves from us, since no one feels they can trust an overly sensitive, over-reactive, and accusatory colleague.
If I freak out every time another of my colleagues is laid off, then the people around me will also keep their distance. They are focused on keeping their own anxieties in check and a frenetic worrisome person in their midst only makes it harder. Anxiety is contagious, but fortunately, so is calm.
Are you inadvertently making a difficult situation even worse? Unfortunately, it is human nature to globalize about how badly things might be. It is our ego’s misguided attempt to gain control over an unknown. If we think about the worst-case scenario, then we will be prepared if it turns out to be true, right? Wrong. Globalizing just leads to the escalation of a situation.
Regaining an objective perspective prevents us from floundering in negativity and enables us to move forward into a resolution that accurately addresses the situation.