In the third week of the Institute, we focus on stress and self-care. We put it early in the program because when you’re chronically stressed, it negatively impacts how you show up as a supervisor. Quite frankly, it negatively impacts how you show up everywhere and with everyone. You can’t improve how you supervise OR the quality of your life until you better manage your stress. So, this week, I wanted to share the single most important thing I’ve done to reduce my stress. If you’ve been struggling to keep your stress in check, keep reading.
When I was in my last campus position, my stress started increasing to the point that my health and wellbeing were taking a huge hit. When I first got the job, I loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but overall, we Student Affairs folk had a great environment and we thrived. But after we had an administration change and then a new VP who became our supervisor, things became toxic.
I’ve talked about this before. And when I have, I’ve focused on the external problems and how they impacted me. Basically, new leadership meant functional and cultural changes which turned into more stress for me. That’s often how we view stress. Something out there is causing discomfort and stress in here. And to a certain extent that’s true. There are systemic powers at play that can absolutely create structures and environments that are not conducive to our best interests or wellbeing. I’ve had past supervisors that I didn’t think were great or whose decisions would occasionally make me feel stressed, but at my last institution it truly was a toxic environment.
But looking back on the situation, it wasn’t just my new supervisor and the new president that caused my stress. I added on to that stress by my own thoughts and beliefs. For example, one of my Top 5 Talent Themes is Strategic. I can make a quick decision, but that decision is typically supported by my Input. So, when I make a decision now, I have a good idea how it’s going to impact the future. Well, this new administration was NOT strategic. It was particularly irritating to me because neither the president nor my supervisor had ANY experience in student housing, but they also didn’t ask for my feedback. I could see how the thing they wanted to do now would bite us in the BLEEP in 6 months, 2 years, etc. I would internalize this and go over and over it in my head worrying about it, complaining about it, but most importantly wasting my valuable energy. Initially, I also spend a lot of time and energy trying to change their minds, knowing full well that wasn’t likely to happen. The whole thing drove me nuts. Or rather I should say, I let it drive me nuts.
In a nutshell, it wasn’t just external forces at work that caused my stress. How I reacted to those external forces added to it. And how I reacted was driven by my thoughts and beliefs. I believed I had more expertise and had better solutions than theirs. So, I became obsessed with why these were terrible decisions and how I was constantly slighted each time they ignored me or my suggestions. I became stuck in a loop asking myself and sometimes others questions like, “Why would they do _____? Why didn’t they ask the people who know the most about _____? Don’t they realize in 6 months _____ will happen?” And I would envision all the future problems that I would have to deal with which increased the stress I was feeling.
It wasn’t a good environment for me, but my thoughts and beliefs made it worse. I believed I was failing in my role and being inauthentic if I didn’t fight for what I thought was right. After a few negative experiences with my supervisor, I believed that any time they got involved in a student issue they were going to either undermine me or make a decision that would create more chaos. On some level, I believed that since we were there before the new president and VP and things were good, that we should fight to save that culture. I also believed if I didn’t fight or advocate for what I knew were better decisions, I was failing at my job.
I eventually realized that if I wanted to stay, fighting wouldn’t work because anyone who disagreed with either of them went on their BLEEP list. So, I made the decision that if I didn’t want to feel constant pushback the only solution was kissing the VP’s BLEEP. This was not an easy or comfortable decision for me. I’ve always prided myself on my candor and advocating for things I believed in. So, on one hand, the BLEEP-kissing reduced the stress I felt because I stopped fighting. But on the other hand, it increased my stress because I felt I wasn’t being honest about who I was. Do you see how my thinking and my beliefs were adding to the external pressure I felt?
Let’s fast forward a bit to when I left campus to start Strengths University. I’d never started a business before. When I heard things from other folks, especially those who had their own businesses, I took what they said at face value. For example, the person who was managing my 401K was excited about my new journey and casually mentioned, “It takes time. I always tell people it takes about three years. After that, you know whether or not it’s going to work.” So, in my mind, three years was the timeline for my success or failure. My first year, that seemed so far away that it didn’t really phase me. But after that it became this huge deadline looming over me all the time. In addition to the stress I felt just trying figure out how to run a business, I was even more stressed by this looming three-year deadline. And once I hit three years, I felt like a failure.
The problem was, that’s not correct information. On average it takes way longer to really build a successful business. My current coach says at least 7 years. That’s a much different timeline. All that stress I was feeling related to this arbitrary deadline was self-induced. And we do this to ourselves all the time. We create deadlines and expectations of ourselves in our heads based on our thoughts at beliefs without bothering to verify whether these thoughts are true. And so often the thoughts and beliefs we live by aren’t even ones we consciously chose. We got them from our parents, family, teachers, religious figures, society, colleagues, etc. And once they get in our heads, we just repeat the same thoughts over and over again until they feel true. They guide our actions and our emotions in ways that often add to our stress levels.
Now the title of this article is The Most Important Thing I Did to Reduce My Stress. So, what is that thing? It was to start challenging my thoughts and beliefs. I didn’t do this while I was at my last campus job and I paid a heavy price. Instead of challenging myself, I doubled down on what I thought and believed and because of that I became stuck. I was stuck in my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I kept thinking and doing the same things over and over again hoping I’d eventually get the outcome I wanted. But as Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In other words, when we don’t challenge our thoughts and beliefs we get stuck in the feelings and actions those thoughts and beliefs manifest and we can’t get out.
When I was on campus, I questioned the external things that the president and my supervisor did that I assumed were the cause of all my stress. Questions like…
Why don’t they ever ask for our input?
Why haven’t they thought about _____?
How can I keep my supervisor from undermining my decisions?
But the problem was, those questions – even if I’d been able to figure out the answers – wouldn’t have ended the stress. I had no control over what they did much less why they did them.
My coach, Dawn, always says, “If you want better answers, ask better questions.” I should have been asking myself questions that challenged my thoughts and beliefs. Those were within my control. Those were things I had the power to change. I should have asked myself…
Why do you feel responsible for the decisions other people make?
Does not fighting the president or VP really mean you’re a failure?
Is this environment giving you what you need anymore?
The answers to those questions would have empowered me to make decisions based on my best interests instead of trying to survive a toxic and dysfunctional culture. Those answers would have also kept me from adding stress to my already stressed system. I was focusing my attention and therefore my energy on the external stressors. That meant I had little energy left to focus on myself and my needs.
If I’d questioned whether three years was indeed the timeline for whether a business was successful, I would have avoided quite a bit of stress. And it was stress that probably interfered with my ability to move ahead faster. And even though I’ve started questioning my thoughts and beliefs, I’m still learning and growing. Everyday my thoughts and beliefs show up with the potential to add stress to my life. The other day, I was working on a proposal that I’d internally decided had to be done by the end of the day. I was frantically trying to get through it. Then I stopped and checked in with myself, “Why do you believe this needs to be done today?” I didn’t really have an answer. The individual who requested it said there was no hurry. I had made up the hurry. Once I realized that, my stress automatically decreased.
Questioning your own thoughts and beliefs isn’t about ignoring your values or discounting your beliefs to make things easier in the moment. This is about truly challenging where these beliefs came from and whether or not they’re serving you. There are absolutely external stressors that challenge you and that you can’t control. But your response to those stressors is something you CAN manage. If the questions you’ve been asking just make you feel stuck or more stressed, maybe you’re not asking the right questions.
Yes, dysfunctional or oppressive systems absolutely contribute to the problem, but those take time to change. Challenging your own thoughts and beliefs makes things better for you and the folks you supervise NOW. And that might very well give you the energy to keep fighting for the systemic change that can get rid of those external stressors.