Stress

Why The Holiday Is The Perfect Time To Hire Me, Part One: Holiday Dinners

Christmas dinner.jpg

Christmas is four days away, which means that Christmas Eve dinner with the family is only three away. Here is the skinny: whether you celebrate Christmas with a huge family and a huge meal, celebrate Hanukkah for eight separate days of family time, you do not see your family for the holidays but attend a lot of friends' holiday parties, or stay at home by yourself mixing eggnog and Maker's Mark and watching the Grinch on repeat, emotions, self-esteem, and self-talk play important roles in the holidays. You cannot avoid them. I spent New Year's Eve all by myself last year, intentionally thinking "2016 was a drag. I am going to relax, treat myself to dinner and a nightcap, and watch the ball drop" and, even though that is exactly what I did and it was wonderful, holy cannoli did the thought "is this going to be forever?" slip into my head and spark some worry.

I enjoy alone time but I am also confident that it would be quite challenging for my personality to maintain it for a long time. On the flip side, I enjoy spending time with my family but I can feel overwhelmed around the holidays easily with all the bodies and voices and schedule demands. 

If you have followed along for the past few weeks, I have written about topics of personal narrative that relate directly to navigating "the most wonderful time of the year". Today's post is the first of two that will explain why this is the perfect time of year to give me a call.

Let us run through a typical holiday reunion dinner of a friend we will name Brian:

Brian drives to it in his quarter zip sweater and corduroys. He has not seen his family or his distant cousins in a long time and he feels a ping of excitement about showing up like a celebrity that everyone has waited for. He also feels some apprehension because of the absurd amount of social energy he will have to muster for chit chatting all night long about whatever the fam wants to bring up, especially that uncle who "hates to bring up politics again" but always brings up politics again. He slaps on a huge smile and hug everyone in the room with the same greeting, sighs as he stands amongst the group, fields a couple questions, and then he is ushered toward the cocktails. As soon as a drink is poured, conversations continue as they were and he stands and waits to hear in which one he could participate.

Then it hits him. He is just one of the crowd again. The ping of excitement dims and the apprehension from the car waves at him from the inside. He wonders what to talk about, if he should ask a question, if he really cares about the discussion your dad and brother are having about Bitcoin, if he should sit down and see what mom put on the TV as background noise, or if that would seem antisocial having just gotten there. And then he notices that his cousins have children, and he considers his own relationship status. 

At dinner time, he notices that mom took the liberty of assigning seats and he learns that he will sit next to his sister's eight year old son who does not know how to use a fork or communicate without a cell phone screen lighting up the lenses of his huge glasses. Brian wonders why he deserved this. He just got home. Why couldn't he be allowed to sit next to his own siblings at least? He takes another swig of wine.

He eats too much probably to fill the emotional space the experience has thus far created. Now he thinks about the last time he worked out and how his sister runs so much more often than he does. An easy enough task, considering she mentioned her marathon training progress no less than seven times since you got there. He feels a huge surge of anger and jealousy, and then irritation that he is so jealous. When she asks if he has run recently, he struggles to push that massive amount of anger back down into his stomach with a scoop of mashed potatoes and says "Oh, some" when really he wants to ask the arrogant fitness freak for advice and support around getting into a healthy running habit. 

Then the extended family leaves because of the little ones and he sloths over to the couch like Jabba the Hutt and mindlessly listens to his dad while wishing his mom had asked him more about his life throughout the evening. He goes to bed thinking that they do not care about him as much. 

SOUND FUN?? More importantly, does any of this sound familiar?

On the surface, every one is functionally happy but everyone is emotionally reacting to their many unique triggers underneath. Like all feelings, happiness is a mobile occurrence. It can be fleeting. It may last for a while but cannot stick around for too long. Some kind of trigger reminds you of something frustrating, reminds you of your fatigue, something you forgot to do at work, or an off-hand comment from your cousin. Triggers cause a reaction that is yet another temporary feeling state. The quality of a feeling never remains the same within you. It ebbs and flows, grows and dwindles. Your behavioral response, however, can get cemented the more it is repeated. 

New awareness of these triggers and emotional-behavioral reactions can foster a healthy sense of contentment instead of sharp spikes into myriad emotions and unpredictability.

This is where I come in.

The situation I described is wrought with triggers: memories of past holiday dinners, disappearing in the crowd, your assigned seat, your sister's tone of voice, your parents' perceived ignorance. None of these are intentionally presented to hurt Brian's feelings but Brian reacts with hurt feelings. 

Negative self-talk and judgments that Brian believes to be true come next. The belief and the emotions combine to create a narrative in Brian's mind about how he relates to those around him and the world at large. In my example, Brian's narrative is quite discouraging based on limiting beliefs that his family does not care about him. As a result, the narrative will likely show itself in how he behaves and interacts with his family during the rest of the vacation. 

Fun fact: my greatest strength is organizing people's emotion and thought patterns. I either make it visual, such as drawing out cycles of behaviors that always feed the initial trigger and keep the person spinning in the same la la land of frustrating interactions, or I make it a written timeline that links triggers, emotions, behaviors, and responses into a chronological order as a narrative. Either way, I record it external of the person's brain.

Therein lies the magic. I do not fill gaps for people. I do not put words in their mouth. Instead, I take the words that they share with me and I organize them into something comprehensible. And let me tell you, being shown your behavior patterns and why you feel stuck in life or work or love is mind-blowing. I have done it for myself many times. Sometimes it is scary too because it makes it too real. But that is why I am there for methodical support: Because at that point they have a choice to either take that new awareness and roll with it on their own to make change or stick with me and learn how to apply the new awareness to concrete situations in their lives.

Take Brian's triggers and imagine those same triggers in a work setting, out on a date, or in every day interactions with strangers (or myself when stuck in traffic). Take a second to imagine how much more productive and respectful and healthy those situations could be with a little more nonjudgmental awareness and insight.

What I speak about regarding personal branding is exemplified in Brian's reactions, both verbal and nonverbal. I can picture his body language as pretty mopey by the end of the night even if his face is still trying to hide his feelings, not to mention his curt verbal responses. I may spend a lot of time with a client on one particular interaction or dynamic in order to examine what stories a client's body language, facial expressions, self-talk, and verbal expression may tell. Often, the stories you express in one situation are very similar, if not the same, in most other situations so learning about your storytelling in one situation will draw awareness to and improve your storytelling in any situation. 

As we all finish up our work and plan for our respective holiday celebrations, consider for a second your own triggering situations. Does your mind immediately identify them?

Does it take a second or do you automatically know what has been frustrating you?  

What change would you like to make in those situations, if you were able to?

Better yet, what change is in your control?

And lastly, what triggering moments can you predict in your own life this holiday season?

How will you prepare yourself for them?

TRIGGERED! How To Reverse-Engineer Your Reactivity

In the business world, triggers are what companies like Facebook and Instagram exploit in us to tailor content toward our interests and habits to keep us using their platforms. Triggers can also code for something negative, such as when someone or something pisses you off. 

Personally, a MASSIVE trigger for me is traffic and drivers who I identify as dumb. Anger to 1000 in half a second flat. Triggers are called triggers because they cause something to happen. Think about the trigger of a gun. It causes a major reaction. But the trigger is just a trigger. It is not positive or negative itself. Even though the trigger is the first step of causing the gun to shoot a bullet, the trigger itself can't be labeled as positive or negative even if the bullet does something we would deem negative. We assign the emotional meaning to the trigger event. We say whether it is good or bad. When Facebook or Instagram exploit mental triggers to get us to continue using their platform, whether or not it is a bad thing is subjective. 

I bring this up because last week I mentioned the dreaded experience of seeing family over the holidays and the difficulty therein about communication. Family triggers all of us in one way or another. So many kinds of strong reactions engrained in us since we started developing consciousness just simmer under the surface as a holiday draws nearer, ready to lash back at any comment.

"Hey, can you pass me the stuffing?"

"OH, YOU WOULD ASK ME TO DO THAT!"

It happens at work as well. I am guilty of not liking a certain coworker and so I let rage boil up in me when he / she literally says anything. Whether at home or at work, the problem is that our interpretation of the triggering event dramatically affects the relationship downstream between the two parties as well as your relationship with yourself. When I get angry at traffic, it feels natural to blame every driver around me. It is not their fault, though. In fact, I am equally to blame because I joined all of them in driving that main road at that moment during rush hour. But I still feel anger. Then the interpretation of every other driver's idiocy cements itself into a mindset I adopt whenever I get into the car, which puts me on edge and may potentially make me feel a lingering tension when I get to my destination. If the destination is a social event, that tension may then affect my countenance and sociability with other people and thus relationships are damaged.

Think about someone or something that really stokes that rage fire in you. Coworker? Ex love interest? Starbucks barista? What do they do that you would call the trigger? Keep in mind, their behavior isn't positive or negative. We label it as such. So, why does that super specific trigger cause such a reaction in you? Do other things elicit that same level of reaction?

Our reactions to triggers can be very different. For instance, the anger I feel well up in traffic is very different than the frustration I have felt when my siblings have pushed my buttons in the past. I do not think my siblings are dumb and should consider retaking a driving test like I do for the people I encounter in traffic, but things they have said or done in the past have triggered me to react with anger. Except for some occasions, the truth that is frustrating for many to accept is the fact that those who trigger you are not - at least most of the time - doing so on purpose. Maybe the way someone talks makes them really happy but sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you. That person unfortunately cannot be blamed for your reaction. It is how they talk. 

What to do about this hard truth is even harder. It is a form of radical acceptance. It is okay to feel angry and be triggered, but it is not okay to let it ruin the rest of your day or extensively affect your life going forward. That is completely on you. In my example, I do not want my current and potential social connections to be negatively impacted just because another driver did not use their turn signal, so I have to work backwards. Like in the design world, it is a matter of starting with the end in mind. 

If I want my relationships to be spared the flares of my previous anger, I must somehow check that anger in the car and leave it there. To do that, I must reword the story that my anger narrates.

That way, "Every driver in the entire world is an absolute waste of space" changes to "Wow, there is a lot of traffic right now. I bet I am not the only one stressed out."

Now that the story has changed about the situation, I understand that I am not actually angry that a ton of other people chose to go out driving right when I did, but instead that I get angry when something stops me from getting somewhere. My anger is no longer generalized to blame all others, but instead it is connected to something very personal about me.

See what I did there? It is a simple process of reverse engineering. By starting with my preferred outcome in mind, I was able to bring awareness to what was actually pissing me off in the moment and thus created a new choice when I get angry at traffic in the future. I still get angry at traffic, but I am much better able now to remind myself why and leave it at that. Radical acceptance. 

I help clients with this quite often, actually, especially in their daily work life and in networking situations. Reactivity is RAMPANT. It becomes so patterned and rigid that it is very difficult to break. It becomes a reflex. Think about it for yourself. If you are going to see family for the holidays, I bet you can probably predict how you might react to each member regardless of what they say or do. Write that down. Start the process. I am not telling you to ever change the emotion because the emotion is not a bad thing. How you behave in response to the emotion can be. So as you think about your holiday triggers, ask yourself: "what is the outcome that I want?" and go from there. 

DECK THE HALLS WITH FIVE QUESTIONS THAT HELP YOU ASSESS YOUR RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNICATION STYLE

Andddddd suddenly it is December again. Even though Christmas music has been playing and Starbucks has been using the red cups for over a month, now is when we buckle down and freak out about gift-giving, snow tires, and, of course, even more time with the family.

I love my family and I am lucky to have a family that communicates through an endless group text message, but every family has their own version of pervasive challenges that never quite go away. Especially around the holidays, personalities clash, arguments happen, the house is suddenly THAT MUCH smaller as "grown up, mature" kids try to prove how grown up and mature they are. 

For the majority of families whom I have served in the mental health field, holiday time together is an impassible terrain of anger, sadness, and trauma. In every case, all of the tension is caused by the absence of a single tool: respectful communication. It is very difficult for a child to have a parent or sibling yell at them and relentlessly blame them for something they did not do and for that child to simply shrug it off with a "well, something is going on with them and they are projecting all over me. I wonder what is wrong."

When you are getting berated for no reason, it is human and normal to feel sad, angry, resentful, and defensive because you are being attacked and your self worth is threatened. I am one of the billions of people who have been bullied before, and I still get bullied to this day. Think about bullying, though. It is so sad that a bully is so insecure about him or herself in some way that they have to exert negative control over peers who they deem to be weaker in order to feel less powerless and more worthwhile in the world. What if that bully instead approached some of the "weaker" kids, asked to sit down at their lunch table, and be friends with them, and over time be able to talk about their anger and stressors to friends who would show him or her compassion?  Why does the bully not do that?

Because it is DIFFICULT.

It is difficult to express your feelings. It is difficult to trust others with your vulnerability. It is difficult to be authentic. It is difficult to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is not your fault. 

Why do you think we had a section in high school health class when we were formally taught how to use "I" statements to express our feelings and have a respectful conversation? Because it is difficult to say "I felt hurt when you said ____  to me." It takes a lot of self-awareness to know how specifically your feelings are hurt, and even more self-assuredness to verbally express them.

And therein lies the big issue.

Not many children or adults know how to put words to their feelings and calmly discuss them. A lot of people know what they are feeling but, because they do not know how to verbalize it, they resolve to believe the only way to express them is through action or argument, leading to fights and resentment.  You cannot change others but you are always able to make change in yourself.

Last week I wrote about gratitude for the connections we make, and respectful communication is the fire that forges those connections into healthy relationships. You see, how you carry yourself day to day and communicate with those around you comprises the story you tell the world. We will never be done working on personal expression and respectful communication, myself included. But we cannot do it alone. I am proud of my own ability to openly express my thoughts and feelings and I had a lot of help along the way. Now I help people identify the stories that they are telling the world, how it is getting in the way of their goals or their relationships and, most importantly, what to do about it.

I have helped clients effectively present wedding toasts, strategize comfortable and authentic networking for their new startups, and hold a respectful conversation with HR about a boss that they absolutely hate.  Our presence is not enough to make a strong relationship. Healthy connections with others comes down to how you communicate. And let me be clear. We all need connections.

So now that we are riding fast toward the New Year, stop and think about the connections you have right now (family or otherwise) and ask:

  • How do I communicate with them?
  • What tone do I use or emotions do I feel during the interactions?
  • Can I feel that I want some kind of change?
  • Is something missing in the connections that I wish was there?
  • Can I put words to what it is?

That is where you start. 

FRIEND-REQUEST YOUR STRESS: How to optimize your learning in an overstimulating world

I saw a meme once that alluded to the fact that the purpose of school is to fill us in on what has been going on in the world before now. Simply to catch us up on why are learning in the first place. Yeah, I see your wheels turning. You are thinking back to that social studies class where you learned about the Ice Man in the Himalayas or Alps and are curious how that applies to your accounting job now. It is kinda disheartening to think about all the classes we have sat through and wonder what you learned and why.

Pause for a deep breath.

We have learned a lot in our lives. Everything in life is learning even if not in a classroom. What is taught in school is constantly evolving. Evolution is change. Change causes stress. When I am learning something new - like when I had to teach myself my own bookkeeping a few years ago - I have a miniature panic attack at the beginning. Just a little one. It has to happen because it is human. Getting unexpected instructions at work right now is like getting homework at the end of a class period. It suddenly stresses you out a bit because you did not know of it before.

And what is worse, WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES. Not only do our bosses and teachers all have different personalities that lead to different teaching styles, every student and employee has a totally different learning style. No wonder communication breakdown is the primary cause of job dissatisfaction. But I digress. More on that later...

Learning something new causes stress. Straight up. And that stress is tied to a unique learning style.

Perfect example: Someone very dear to me learned how to administer stress tests while studying Exercise Physiology back in college. She was verbally taught all the step-by-step procedures to administer the test, what each apparatus and programmatic feature was, and how to explain the process to the subject. All good and interesting, except she had no clue how it all fit together. Cue the minor panic attack (Stressing about a stress test: priceless). Luckily she had initiative and has the same blended learning style as I do so, come time to demonstrate the stress test in the lab portion, she did not hesitate to volunteer. Even though she did not fully understand what was about to happen from a practical perspective, her engagement in the demonstration made her consolidate all of the information and understand the process to every detail.

Not all of us have the initiative that she did to take the risk and volunteer to be a test dummy, but we all feel those sudden rushes of momentary panic when we are taught something and do not understand it. All you have to do is recognize it and move on.  Even if you do not ask for help at that point, you must keep going. Reread the textbook seventeen times, stare at the math problem, google how to do what your boss just asked you to do.

We live in a world that is completely flooded with information. Words, images, data everywhere. I thought there was a lot of information to learn back in middle school when we did not yet have cell phones or AOL. Now look where we are. Something new is thrown at us in alarming fashion a zillion times a day. A lot of it we do not consciously notice but our brains and bodies register. It is a lot. Some would say too much. If the overload of information does not match your learning style, anxiety is bound to arise. We are learning new information both consciously and unconsciously from so many new sources all of the time that overwhelm will happen. It is guaranteed and it will not stop.

But here is all you have to do:  Accept that. Yeah, that is all. You are going to get anxious. Every day you are going to get presented with something new to absorb into your limited capacity brain tissue, and it will cause stress. Do not shy away from it, though. It is just your brain wiggling and adjusting itself to store more information. Own it. Expect it.

Why? So you are not surprised when the stress pops up. That way, you will recognize the stress simply as your response to the change and then you will be more open and comfortable to learn the new thing or take on the new task even though it is unfamiliar and unexpected. 

So say hi to your stress, do not push it away. You might learn something from it.

KIDS THESE DAYS: THE MILLIONTH REASON WHY TECHNOLOGY SHOULD BE FEARED AND RESPECTED

I read an article in Time magazine back in 2013 about how technology has changed the way that children learn these days. Selfie fever was already an epidemic at the time, but kids did not know how to take them correctly. They simply knew that they had to dress up, pose "effortlessly", and take a thousand pics just to be sure.

The Millennial generation was the first to grow up with the onslaught of computers and cellular phones. My sister is on the upper boundary of the Millennial age bracket and she did not get a cell phone until senior year of high school, by my parents' insistence. This new weird gizmo was too dangerous to be entrusted to an adolescent...

When she got hers, my brother and I looked on with wonder, interpreting what we saw of the phone as the combo of a landline, a remote control, and a PlayStation 2 controller. We were all like, "what's a text message? Don't you talk on it?"

Little 'ole me came along and my parents softened a little by letting me have a cell phone during sophomore year of high school instead of senior year because so many other kids already had them. My parents are not pushovers or people who predictably hop on bandwagons, so giving us phones was genuinely due to the value of accessibility. If I needed to access my parents for anything, I no longer had to go to the school office and wait in line to make a landline call out. My phone, a beautiful and sleek Motorola flip model, lived in my backpack (cause there was no way something that bulky could live in my pocket just yet...especially with an antenna) and there was security in knowing that it was mine and that it could be used to contact my parents at any time.

And that was before any apps...or a camera...

The Time article scared me when I read it because it meant that the advent of the internet and the proliferation of cell phones fundamentally changed the way that human beings learn information. In the old days, it was lecture and discussion-style and then you take a test to realize how much did not actually sink into your brain. The teacher was the source of information, however, and you could not comfortably call that teacher at home if you did not get something. You had to refer to a book of some kind.

But then in 2013, the article spoke to how students hear the information from teachers and make mental note of keywords or key-phrases that they can then look up online or on their phone later on or before the test. Not only that, if there was a story on the news that seemed interesting in passing, children will log the topic and tv channel in their mind so that they know where they could find it later instead of sitting down and watching right then. They learned where to find the information, not the information itself.

It freaked me out because it meant we youngens were learning in such a different way than people had in the past and even the way that I was learning had changed over time.  

But even though the kids that the article referenced (FOUR YEARS AGO, mind you) simply tie a balloon to the back of their brain that holds the location of the new knowledge just to have for later, that is still new knowledge. Forming the memory circuit for where that information lives is still a new memory circuit. Sure, the person does not absorb the history lesson's content right then, but they still have taken in a new piece of knowledge about that content. Not only that, but they have created a new adaptation for survival in knowing where to find certain information that they are being taught is important.

This learning style contributes to the overall ADD of my generation because the logging of the key phrase and where to find the content only takes a couple of seconds, freeing up time in the classroom to draft one's next tweet or zone out looking at the cute guy or girl in another row. Kids now ask "what's next?" because they tie up the balloon and compartmentalize information so quickly.

I am absolutely guilty of this, especially in the past few years when the amount of accessible information has continued to explode and the amount of things I have wanted and needed to learn has similarly expanded in the course of entrepreneurship.   

So why am I still scared of that article?

I am scared for the kids. I think I am fine and most of my adult comrades who use the balloon trick are fine because we mostly know why we are saving that memory circuit and because we need to devote our attention to some other piece of our job. But kids do not know what they should devote their attention to yet, which is why technology is so distracting and the allure of social media is so strong. They tie up a balloon about history class and when the test is and call it good. Then they hop back on Instagram.

So even though kids are still learning, I can still be scared.