Brendon Towle Coaching

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Does Self-Imposed Pressure Help?

I was talking to a friend a while back about the relationship that he was just getting into, and he was talking about how important it was to him that this one worked out. “I’m almost 40, and I feel like this is my last chance,” he said. “I put myself under so much pressure to make things work out.”

I’ve written before about the negative effects that stress and pressure have on our ability to do much of anything. As a reminder, one commonly accepted definition of pressure is:

The feeling that the results in some situation are important, uncertain, and my responsibility (i.e., the results depend on my actions and I will be judged on the outcome).

And, the simple summary of the research around pressure is:1

The bottom line—pressure is the enemy of success. It undermines performance and helps us fail.

Given that, it seems crazy that anyone would willingly put themselves under pressure. But, many of us do it; sometimes unconsciously, but sometimes out of the mistaken belief that the pressure is somehow helpful.

In most cases, the way we put ourselves under pressure is by magnifying the importance of the particular situation we’re in. In my friend’s case, he believed that the relationship he was just starting was his last opportunity. Because he believed that, every interaction with her took on additional importance. Whether or not she appreciated the date idea he had for the weekend wasn’t just about that weekend, it was about the rest of his life.

Now, it’s pretty standard in these sorts of situations to assert that the current relationship (or job, or whatever) isn’t the last chance. “There are other fish in the sea,” according to the popular saying. While this is probably true, the fact of the matter is that we don’t know. I believe that my friend’s relationship is not in fact his last chance, but I don’t know that.

However, this is a case where the belief is useful regardless of whether or not it’s true. Pressure harms performance. And, one of the components of pressure is the idea that the results in the situation are important. The more important the results are, the more pressure there is.

Believing that this is the last chance makes every single interaction seem that much more important, which magnifies the pressure. By believing that there will be other opportunities, we allow ourselves to take some of the pressure off this particular opportunity.

For example, I’ve had a number of opportunities lately to give a talk in front of an audience that included potential clients. It’s easy for my mind to tell me that I have to do it perfectly, because I have to impress these people, because there will not be other opportunities.

But, the lie that my mind is telling me is right there on the surface. I’ve already had several of these opportunities. There’s no reason to believe that they will suddenly disappear. Although I have no crystal ball and can’t predict the future with certainty, it seems reasonable to assume that more opportunities will come. And, by making that assumption, I can reduce the pressure on myself—whether or not it’s true!

Similarly, it’s easy for me to put pressure on myself about writing more. When I first started publishing on this blog, I had a stack of almost a dozen articles that were close enough to ready that I could pick any of them and publish with a hour’s notice. As I’ve continued to write and publish, I’ve published things from the stack faster than I’ve refilled it, and so these days there’s often only one or two things in that pile.

So, it’s easy for me to think that “I have to write more” or “I have to finish this entry today” or something like that. But, that’s not actually true. Sure, I have a goal of publishing something new every week, but there’s no external force holding me to that. If I were to miss a week, it would be unfortunate and I’d be a bit bummed, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, or even the end of my coaching or writing career. This is definitely another case where there’s no such thing as “I have to.”

If you’re in the habit of putting pressure on yourself, whether it’s unconscious or intentional, I’d encourage you to experiment with something different. Try telling yourself that your current situation, whatever it is, isn’t quite as important as your mind wants to say that it is.

I’m not saying that you should try to tell yourself that it is unimportant. Rather, just tell yourself that it’s not as big a deal as your mind wants to make it. If it currently seems like a 10, look for some evidence that it’s maybe only a 7. If it seems like a 7, look for some evidence that it’s maybe only a 5.

If you’re not sure how to do that, try asking yourself “How do I know that this situation is actually that important?” If you’re anything like me, chances are you don’t really know. If that’s the case, it’s probably to your advantage to assume that it’s not actually as important as your mind is trying to tell you.


  1. This quote, and much of the research, comes from the excellent “Performing Under Pressure” by Dr. Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry.

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