How does one manage stress? The question seems to have gained added impetus and interest in recent years. Peter Bregman, in his HBR Blog in July 2012 wrote that stress and frustration are the result of unmet expectations. To deal with it, he says, we have two choices: Either change the reality around you or change your expectations. Bregman points out that often trying to change the reality around you creates more stress and so he argues for changing your expectations: “get used to not getting what you want.”
But stress can also result from unexpected events which we don’t even have the chance to change. How do I react when waiting to meet a business partner for an important dinner and they have not turned up? There is no message and there is no reply to my calls: an expectation is dashed. Stress is the result, not only of such dashed expectations, but the response we have towards those expectations and events.
Changing expectations seems insufficient and we think that paying attention to another level of our psyche is required to manage our emotional responses to stress. We have two basic modes of perception: the ‘world’ we look out upon (the external world) from our mind or ego and the world of the inner Self (the internal world). The ego mind is our mode for managing our role in the world and our social identity. The inner Self is the heart of our being and frequently gets crowded out and ‘unheard’ amongst the babble of the external world and the demands of the ego.
The underlying cause of the stress, which results from unmet expectations, is the pressure to follow egoic impulses and attachments to expectations as the path to happiness instead of developing, and observing the environment and expectations from the inner Self.
It is from our inner Self-perception that we can become observers of ourselves and our minds and become detached from the immediate sources of stress. As an observer of the potentially stressful situation, you take a step ‘inward’ and simply observe without giving meaning to the unexpected event. You can do this by pausing for 2-3 seconds before responding to any event. By adopting a detached perspective towards yourself and the event, you overcome your ego and become an observer of your reaction or response. This perspective may not come immediately, but stay in the observant mode and your perspective will become clearer and you can then choose how to respond to the situation.
One of the causes of stress is an egoic rejection and reaction to the uncomfortable realities that face us, such as feeling angry and frustrated by the person who missed the dinner date, or, by giving way emotionally to the unexpected pressures that so readily assail us in a busy world. But learning to listen to the inner Self, observing circumstances in a detached way, can help us to accept the circumstances as they present. The reality of the circumstance may be difficult to change, but by becoming an observer of the circumstance – and even our own reaction to it - can reduce stress.
The ego can drive us to become ‘attached’ to expectations and goals but we find that the instincts of the Self can intuitively respond peacefully to the unexpectedness events of life – if we let it by simply pausing. You may have high expectations, but don’t be attached to them. By pausing you can operate from your Self and observe your expectations and your rational processes and solutions. Is a creative alternative possible, one that could emerge by reflection, even intuition? Push back the demands of the ego to demonstrate that you can remain peaceful in any situation.
Operate from your Self and observe your expectations rather than being attached to them. You can be attached to expectations or observe expectations. The expectation is the same but it’s where you operate from which will be the difference between stress and peacefulness. If you operate purely from the mind and ego (attachment) you are more likely to suffer stress. If you operate from your heart (inner Self) and you allow the external event to be disregarded, then no suffering or stress will be experienced. Aim to be the observer of your mind and ego.
One of the deepest fears we can have in managerial life is the fear of bowing out in favour of others. The ego rationalises that our survival depends on holding on to our role and position, even to a job for which we are not best suited – a powerful and stressful attachment. In any event, all good managers agree that it’s good to develop one’s team by giving away one’s own responsibilities in a responsible way. Even if we delegate ourselves out of a job, the inner Self has the power, intuition and reflexivity to perceive new opportunities in life to replace work that we pass on to others. Our ego mind will argue that this is not a rational survival route. But the insecurities and fears of the ego hold us back from being honest with ourselves (and others) and prevent us from observing our career in a detached way. Career stress can be caused by our egoic need for control which can be reduced by developing a strong listening capacity and a role in which our ego is not attached to outcomes.
Practicing this kind of detachment from the external noise and causes of stress is precisely that: practice and requires attention to our subconscious internal world. But here are a few suggestions to begin the process:
- Observe and accept negative emotions so that you can let them go;
- Try having ‘silent moments’ every couple of hours and become your own observer and ask yourself some questions such as: “Have I only been fire-fighting or did I look at the bigger picture?”
- Ask yourself: “What could I do differently in order to observe more?”
- Develop the capacity for detachment, by not responding to external events but simply observe them by pausing 2-3 seconds. If you take the role as an observer in a crisis situation you can make better decisions.
- In which areas can you take a step back and give more ownership to others?
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[Reprinted with permission from The China Europe International Business School.]