May is mental health awareness month. And since I'm a psychology geek, I've decided to spend this month discussing this topic and its relevance to all of us.
Let me ask you. How many of these statements are true for you?
As you reflect on your responses to the questions above, consider this definition of mental health from the CDC.
"Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act... Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not the same things."
Work encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, or mental health.
Embedded in our choice of profession are psychological needs (e.g., self-esteem). Social well-being informs our pick of where we work. And emotionally taxing workplaces (a.k.a., toxic environments) receive scathing reviews on Glassdoor by disillusioned current and former employees.
In the late 1950s, Herzberg studied motivation in the workplace. He concluded that it is ineffective to view dissatisfaction and satisfaction as a single continuum because resolving issues that create dissatisfaction only lessens dissatisfaction. The actions required to increase satisfaction are separate and distinct. Decades later, the work on employee engagement by the Gallup Organization supported this conclusion.
The following table presents the top seven factors causing dissatisfaction and the top six factors causing satisfaction, listed in the order of higher to lower importance. [source]
Leading to satisfaction
Herzberg's theory is vital to our discussion about mental health because it emphasizes the need for parallel work paths. To provide a healthy culture where everyone can be their best self and maximize their contribution, one must minimize the dissatisfiers and increase the satisfiers.
There's a wonderful story in The Power of Moments (Heath, 2017) about a woman who dreams of opening a bakery, but after the stress of making cakes to meet her client's expectations, she begins to lose joy for the craft and closes her business. This story supports Herzberg's theory; the motivation to continue to work so hard wasn't possible. It was a lot of responsibility without much recognition, and the work itself was less satisfying with each cake she made. [BTW, the woman celebrates her decision to close her business and hasn't baked a cake since.]
Decisions to walk away from what makes us unhappy to pursue a path of happiness is choosing mental health. So is permitting yourself to create or receive whatever is needed to improve your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Here are some questions to guide you. Be brutally honest in your answers.
Mental Health Check
You know I'm all about work being a place for joy and passion to abound. So let me know if you need help getting back to that place.
Can I be real? Lately, creating and engaging is a struggle. I'm not interested in pushing harder, launching more things, or adhering to a strict social posting schedule. I need a break, and whether I'm willing to recognize it or not, my mind and body are declaring freedom.
I read a book last week that discussed negative self-talk and the reasons to be more generous with ourselves. As I reflected on this, I realized that I was caught in my own loop of berating myself. And so I decided to lean into my need for stillness and stop fighting it.
Knowing the value of an eddy isn't enough. Because they sit alongside rapids, it takes skill to direct the raft away from the river's natural flow and into the eddy. Raft guides practice and hone this skill because once the current carries you too far downstream, there is no going back.
Mother nature offers so many lessons, and this is another one worth learning. Catching an eddy is a gift. It doesn't remove us from the fun. It isn't the end of our journey. An eddy is simply a moment of calm alongside the chaos of whitewater.
So I am no longer judging myself for everything I'm not doing. I'm choosing to enjoy my eddy, renew my energy, and take in the scenery. Moving forward is just a few strokes back into the current. Is your body telling you it is time to catch an eddy? Whether you give yourself five minutes or five days, don't be afraid to step out of the rapids and into an eddy of calm.
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Welcome back! I've got a question for you...Where is your level of emotional exhaustion today?
Emotions are such a rollercoaster ride, aren't they? Just when you think everything's nice and easy, the bottom drops out, and you're plummeting again. So many of my clients are identifying this struggle that I thought it worthy of a blog series. If you need to catch up, just use this link.
Humans are natural storytellers. And it turns out that storytelling doesn't require an audience. We are continuously telling stories in our own heads. It's our way of processing and making sense of the world around us. And this is especially true when we experience negative feelings like fear, anxiety, defensiveness, and uncertainty.
What's more, the story we tell ourselves can quickly become the story we tell others. You know what I'm talking about—lunch conversations that sound something like this, "Cathy couldn't stand that everyone else was interested in my idea, so she had to jump in and start telling everyone why my idea was never going to work. She always has to prove that she's the smartest person in the room, and she doesn't care who she steps on to do it."
Our default as humans is self-preservation, and that includes protecting our self-esteem. We love to be right and seek affirmation of our conclusions and beliefs. Often this takes the form of coalition building (a.k.a, dragging other people into our drama). Not only do we proclaim the story to our friends and colleagues, but as in the example above, we serve it with a side of character assassination.
We believe that we are good people who seek to do good in the world. When we negatively impact others, we tend to look outside of ourselves for cause and effect. For example, when I almost hit the car in my blind spot, and they honk their horn and wave at me furiously, I feel bad about my error and am thankful for their quick action, but the story I tell myself is "I didn't see them in my blind spot. If I had, I wouldn't have changed lanes."
On the other hand, when I'm the person being cut off, the story changes completely. Beyond the adrenaline-fueled expletive, I make a lot of assumptions about the other driver, "Get off your phone" or "Is it so important that you stay one car length ahead of me that you are willing to cause an accident" or "Pay attention @$$hole." Come on, admit it; you do this too.
It turns out that this is so common, social psychology named it—Fundamental Attribution Error. Succinctly, this is our tendency to ascribe our actions to external factors while ascribing the actions of others to their character or personality. Voila! The magic cocktail of resentment and snarkiness is born.
In her book, Rising Strong (2015), vulnerability expert Brené Brown encourages readers to share "the story I'm making up." She counsels that this act can be a relationship-saving move. Not only does it invite the other person to correct how you are reading the situation, it also opens you to how your story may not be accurate.
So beyond snarky, under your breath utterances, how do you get better at recognizing the story you're making up? Look for three words--could, would, and should.
"She could see that I was running around like crazy trying to get everything done, but she didn't offer any help."
"If he would have asked for my opinion, this wouldn't be such a cluster."
"She shouldn't make plans in front of me and not invite me—how rude!"
We keep ourselves stuck in a heightened emotional state when we continually set ourselves up to be triggered. Could, would, and should mask expectations that we project onto others, mostly without their agreement. We obligate others to our standards of behavior or expect them to read our minds. We're the architect of our own mousetrap of negativity.
When I catch myself in woulda, coulda, shoulda thought bubbles, I now recognize that I need something from the other person, and I have the option to ask for it.
Feeling rushed to prepare dinner, my thought bubble, "Why is he just sitting there reading instead of offering to help me?" becomes my spoken question, "Hey, Dave. Do you mind helping me by cutting the vegetables?"
So the next time you are trying to present an idea, and the other person is paying attention to their screen instead of looking at you, choose not to walk away in resentment, be a victim, or stay stuck in your story that is getting you nowhere. Who knows what you'll learn when you dare to say, "The story I'm making up is that you are not interested in discussing this with me, and so I'm wondering if I should talk with you about this at a later time." Perhaps there is a legitimate distraction, and perhaps there is zero interest in discussing your idea. Either way, you walk away with clarity and honesty in the relationship and take control of the dips and turns of your emotional rollercoaster.
Like me, are you a fan of Marie Kondo's idea of filling our lives with only the things that spark joy? I've been thinking about all that Emotional Fatigue and asking myself what it would take to replace that depletion with an infusion of positivity.
Just as Marie teaches her clients to consider material goods and discard those that no longer spark joy, I'm inviting you on a journey to do the same thing with your thoughts. Imagine examining each as if it were an object, looking with fine-tuned precision, and letting go of any thinking that contributes to your anger, frustration, or resentment. But, the exercise doesn't stop here. In equal measure, we need to recognize and increase focus on our positive thoughts.
In this series, I'm offering practical actions to create an upward spiral of positive experiences that build upon one another. My first recommendation comes from our universal need to be seen, understood, and valued.
When facilitating meetings with teams reporting emotional fatigue symptoms, I begin with an activity inviting participants to share a recent moment of pride at work. Next, I ask them to write notes of thanks or gratitude to their co-workers. The result of these two concurrent actions is immediate and powerful. Participants report a positivity bump from giving recognition to others that almost equals receiving appreciation from others.
So, the first step is following the wisdom of Gandhi, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." By spreading appreciation to others, you give yourself a boost of positivity too. This step isn't enough to create an updraft that allows you to soar on positive vibes with minimal effort, but it's a significant mindset shift to help you start focusing on something that sparks joy.
Next week we'll take our mindset shift further with some help from Brené Brown.
My foundation in Psychology is always present in my work, so much so that I often fail to notice it. However, I've recently had numerous conversations with clients in which my knowledge is front and center. The topic is emotional fatigue, and it is showing up everywhere.
What is emotional fatigue?
Emotional fatigue is a bi-product of heightened and sustained stress. When we experience stress, our brain triggers several responses. Emotions such as anger, resentment, or frustration accompany the release of chemicals that speed up breathing and heart rate (commonly known as the flight or fight response). Usually, the source of stress resolves, and neutrality (or homeostasis) resumes. Fatigue is the result of this system being on continuous alert.
Signs of emotional fatigue
As one of my clients recently said, emotional fatigue is sneaky. Our bodies have a natural adaptation process that causes us to tune out the ongoing alerts from our limbic system. So we are going along thinking everything is normal until we hit a trigger that spikes our limbic system, and suddenly, our response seems disproportionate to the event (especially to those around us).
Other emotional fatigue symptoms include difficulty focusing on tasks, decreased productivity, impatience, depression, and lack of energy. These symptoms are cumulative and create a reinforcing loop of negativity and dysfunctional behaviors. With the pandemic, our desire to return to "normal life" before the COVID-19 virus fuels a constant feeling of frustration and resentment. It is like a bed of hot coals, allowing our negative emotions to flame up quickly.
Dealing with emotional fatigue
Because emotional fatigue has a biological connection, there are no quick fixes. My general counsel is to have patience with yourself and others. However, it is possible to retrain our brains to have more control over our emotional responses. Here's a summary of a recent article by Angela Duckworth, Founder of Character Lab, that lays out the process.
Name it. Recognizing the presence of emotional fatigue in ourselves and others allows us to have more patience and forgiveness. Awareness is also the first step in breaking the cycle of negativity.
Get curious. Simply deciding to be more positive doesn't work. Emotional triggers are like bolts of lightning. They are swift, powerful, and automatically produced as a result of the conditions. Therefore, we have to decode the conditions to change our response.
Detect. You can't untangle your emotions in the middle of the storm, so a post-mortem is required. As you recall the incident, uncover the thoughts and interpretations connected to your feelings.
Reflect. Once you uncover your interpretation of the event, you can examine why those thoughts were triggered and consider what other interpretations or thoughts were possible: "How likely is this the only possibility? What else could be true?" Similarly, when on the receiving end of emotional outbursts, it is helpful to ask, "What thought might have led to that emotion?"
Recalibrate. With consistent practice, the time required between experiencing emotions and recognizing their cause shortens, and so does the ability to reflect before we react. Angela Duckworth, Founder of Character Lab, provided these short-cuts for understanding the connection between thoughts and feelings.
If you or others around you are suffering emotional fatigue, I hope it helps to know that you are not alone. Being stuck in a negative emotional state is often judged to be a personal failing. However, psychology gives powerful insight into how this dysfunctional thinking and reacting pattern occurs and how to overcome it. If you'd like more information, be sure to reach out, I'd be glad to help.