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How to Manage Stress: Redefine Success

As a reminder, last week I started with the definition of stress:

Stress: The feeling resulting from the belief that I don’t have enough resources (time, money, assistance, etc.) or ability (skill, talent, knowledge, etc.) to be successful in some situation.

Some ways of managing stress come from a couple of questions that we can ask ourselves based on that definition:

  • What is the resource or ability that I think I’m lacking?
  • What do I believe will be the negative consequences of not having enough of that?

Sometimes, just answering these questions can address the stress. Other times, not so much. If not, the next step depends on whether or not our belief about lacking the resources is accurate or not.

What if We’re Wrong?

If we’re coming to our stress from a place of low self-confidence, it might be strange and foreign to think that we might not be correct about our assessment of our capabilities. It may be hard for us to accurately and realistically assess our abilities to perform a task. So, I totally get it if your instinctive response to this section is to say “No, no, I really do know that I’m lacking what I need.”

For example, although I was actually correct that I didn’t have enough time to do the reading for my PhD program, I could have just been intimidated. It was my first experience reading lots of academic papers, and that is a bit of a different beast than reading novels or textbooks. Some of the first papers we were assigned to read were particularly difficult. If I had been intimidated by one of them, it could have caused me to be off in my evaluation of what the task would take and what I was capable of.

In cases like this, one of the best things we can do is to practice self-talk that acknowledges our previous successes. Reminding ourselves of the things we have done successfully, even if small, is a great way to alleviate some of the belief that we don’t have what it takes to do this. Reinforcing this self-talk by journaling about our successes, or documenting them in some other way, is another great way to help address our incorrect belief.

Another great way of addressing this is to name the negative voices that tell us about our lack of capabilities, and then dismiss them. This helps us remember that just because we think it, it isn’t necessarily true.

What if We’re Right?

If our belief about not having enough resources is accurate, we basically have only two options: get more resources, or redefine success. Getting more resources can be done in many ways: asking for help, asking for an extension of the deadline, or taking the time to learn a new skill are some obvious examples.

However, it’s often more powerful to look to redefining success as the solution. In my PhD reading example, I was correct: I did not, in fact, have enough time to do all the assigned reading.

In that particular kind of situation (our belief is accurate, we’re lacking time, the task must be done by us, and the deadline is firm), the only option is to do less and figure out how that can be okay. In my case, that involved talking to other students and faculty members to allow me to take a different perspective.

I’m a fast reader; if I didn’t have time to do all the reading, basically nobody did. And, it was a small department; all of the instructors knew each other very well, and every one of them knew how much reading was being assigned. So, there’s no way that any of the professors really believed that every student was going to read every assignment. Instead, part of the point of the assignment was for students to figure out on their own how to identify the most important things to read, and how to manage their time so that they got the most important things done.

By redefining success in this way, I was able to recognize that I did have what I took to be successful. I could identify the most important things to read. I did have the time to read those things. And, nobody other than myself was expecting me to do more than that anyway.

In other cases, the problem may well be that we’re defining success as perfection. One of my graduate advisors once wrote that the problem that most graduate students face in defining their research was that they expected it to be as big and important as the Theory of Relativity. But, not everyone is Einstein. Not all research needs to be Einstein-like. Plenty of research that is not as groundbreaking as Einstein’s work is still important and valuable and worth doing.

Similarly, the stuff that we’re doing in our lives doesn’t have to be the best ever. I don’t have to write the best ever essay on stress management, I just have to write something that will help someone. Movies are successful even if they’re not the biggest money-maker or award-winner of the year. Books can be successful even if they’re not best-sellers.

By redefining success away from perfectionism, away from earth-shattering, away from “the best ever”, we give ourselves freedom to accomplish things that are still worthwhile and useful. And, by recognizing that we can indeed accomplish things that are worthwhile and useful, we can reduce our stress by believing that we can and will be successful.

The last two weeks I’ve been talking about how to manage the stress that you’ve already got. In an upcoming entry, I’ll talk about how to avoid it in the first place.

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