The cause of stress that you’re probably ignoring

Tony Robbins says that stress is the over-achiever’s word for fear. And, as someone who identifies with the aforementioned label, I kind of agree.

It’s taken years and much subtle peeling back of the layers to get to the bottom of why I find things stressful and how that impacts my life. Living with a man who lives very much in the present moment, barely gets flustered by work and has no problem leaving the office at 5pm has, in addition to my total physical breakdown, forced me to confront my addiction to being stressed head on.

What he taught me was that not everyone worries, stresses and activates their fight or flight response the same way. He showed me that what causes us to stress is based intrinsically on our deepest values and how we perceive those values being threatened. As a woman that subconsciously equated my identity and worth with my achievement at work, I had a strong value around giving, achieving and purpose. And so it was no surprise that it was in the work situations that I would find myself over-reacting to seemingly benign threats.

For him, though, family is his highest value. And the times when he feels stress and the physical manifestations of that mirror the times when he feels as though he’s let me and my daughter down, or feels as though his contribution in the home is not sufficient.

The first step, then to addressing the ‘stress’ problem, is taking a good look at the situations in which you find yourself stressing and to ask yourself what values are being threatened by that situation? As I always say – wellbeing is a game of knowing, and then loving yourself well.

But there’s a pattern beyond the values framework that I have noticed not only in my own journey to reduce my stress (and in the process drastically improve my overall wellbeing) but with my clients too. It’s a pattern that seems very much tied to our womanhood.

The absolute drive to portray an image other than what we are, I believe, is the biggest cause of stress among professional women. 

Sometimes, when people ask about my adrenal fatigue, I tell them that it was caused by my uncompromising urge to meet the image of the successful woman I had in my head.

This image was of a woman who had it all. An amazing body, a stellar career, a brilliant relationship, adoring friends, a killer lifestyle and choice to do whatever she desired.

The relentless urge to be this woman was, in short, exhausting me to the core. Not only because this ideal doesn’t and can’t exist – every one of those elements has a shadow side (travelling for work is isolating and lonely, for example) – but because the more I pushed toward becoming this woman, the more I lost touch with who I truly was.

The further away I slipped from this woman, the more I clung onto control. My shoulders edged up toward my ears. The fear – that I wouldn’t be loveable unless I was this woman – so great that I suppressed my inner urges to do the things that totally lit me up.  And eventually, I stopped wanting to do them all together.

Over time, I learned to change my idea of success and in the process I let go of that image and all her perfection.

She was keeping me prisoner, and it was time to let the real me – the inner whisperings that I had ignored for so long – rise to the surface. In doing so there was a process of grieving that woman – months of letting go of who I thought I might be and all the hurt and pain and fear that goes along with that.

She had been my guide for so many years, and then she no longer served me.

What I teach clients now is to think of that woman as an oil painting, not a fixed glossy image. She is a work in progress and YOU get to decide how she evolves. Sometimes circumstance will highlight a piece of the painting that you might not have realised was there … as if a light in the gallery has come on and brought to light a corner of a masterpiece you hadn’t previously noticed. You will find yourself energized and fulfilled by a certain situation and, using mindfulness, you will notice what had been there all along. You will, over time, paint the painting without fixating on the idea that it has to be a finished product. And then gradually, just like the glossy image, when the time if right to evolve again you will grab a new canvas and start again.

And suddenly your expectations on yourself will relax. You will feel less guilty. You will still care what people think – but you will continue on your path understanding that this is your life, not theirs. Your shoulders will melt away from your ears. And you will wryly smile when you find yourself getting stressed – realising that it’s that old picture coming back into your mind.

And instead of getting carried away with the drama and the stress you’ll take a big breath, pick up your paintbrush, and get back to work.

Do you want to join me on a three month mindfulness coaching program? Doors for Love Yourself Well are now open and I’d love you to join the community of women searching for more fulfilment, wellbeing and energy. With weekly audio lectures, workbooks and meditations as well as group coaching calls, this program brings together heaps of wisdom on stress, fatigue, body image, purpose, mindfulness, compassion, connection and play. It’s your invitation to learn what truly lights up your body, mind and soul, so you can start aligning your outer world with your inner one. Click here to join.

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