Practice, practice, practice

stress at workRobert Thurman, a renowned Buddhist scholar once remarked “all this talk of practice, what about the main performance?”.  Something important is being said here, and I’ve been thinking about it in the context of the working environment. A good friend was sharing with me at the weekend the challenges he has been facing at work. The last few months have seen extra demand placed upon him – both logistically and also emotionally. Expectations to deliver on unrealistic deadlines, starting work early and leaving late, sleepless nights – many of us know this pattern and the consequences on our quality of life and health. Even when we are not at work, the preoccupation of what needs to be done means mentally we are still behind our desk in the evenings and at weekends. “Its relentless” said my friend. Often, when we hear a friend’s story like this, we might have an internal response of “why don’t you just leave?” Yet, we want to enjoy a stimulating work. How do we find a balance – to find a job that engages and stretches us, but doesn’t stretch us so thinly that fear we might snap?


There was one thing in particular that my friend said that has stayed with me: “I’ve come to learn that work is not a place to get people to like me. I’ve had to switch my attitude – to fulfil my role and have more confidence in my own values”. Michael realised that what had been happening – his stress was rooted in the desire to please. His focus had become to get the job done right to win approval – and he had lost his integrity: performing to other’s values rather than his own. A man with a young family, he had lost sight of what was important to him. “Now I get home in time to tell Charlotte a bedtime story. Work can wait until tomorrow”. He added “Let people judge my actions and my work, not me”.

I often have clients tell me a similar version of the predicament above. Not all of them find it so easy to shift attitude like Michael has. Why is it that people find themselves so caught up in work? Systems theory is one way we can understand the predicament and look to a solution. Both the workplace and the family are systems; and systems transmit rules for behaviour. Each of us will have grown up in a system, our family of origin, with certain rules – many not verbalised, but all the same “said”. We learn these behaviours – what will allows us to thrive, and what risks us being ejected from the system. We might begin to understand that when we experience stress in a system as an adult (like at work), we revert to those behaviours we learnt in the family as a child. Michael knew his reaction to the workplace stress – he was trying to please others, just like he had done (very well) as a child. He was able to make this link himself, and like he said “gave that part of me a good talking to” Now, not all of us respond to a good talking too! But we do need to listen to the signs that we are repeating outdated strategies and perhaps trying to get unmet relational needs satisfied at work.

Janice was a top salesperson in a pharmaceutical company. She originally came to me for coaching as she was losing sight of her priorities at work and wished to set some targets and goals. Some weeks in our work together however, I sensed something wasn’t sitting right with me. Janice would tell me what she ‘wanted”, yet it when it came to working towards the goals she had set, it became apparent that an equal and opposite part of her was avoiding progress. I suggested that we look at this ambivalence more therapeutically. Janice cried – she felt my observation had cracked her veneer, her identity. In that breakdown, she got in touch with how much there was going on below the surface; how her self-esteem was highly dependent on the success of her career path. Her workplace was a surrogate family – throughout her career she was seen at work, unlike at home when a child. And now her career was stumbling, her strategy to be visible, to win praise was also stalling. We looked at the anger she held for “always having to work so hard”. I supported her feeling reactions in the workplace when a colleague criticised her work or when she felt backed in to a corner. Because this is the key – how to feel what was denied being felt in our childhood years. Emotions like anger can feel too dangerous to feel, let alone express, around our caregivers. To be angry with the people that clothe, feed and shelter us is too big a risk. As adults, we can hold the emotional reactions. As I often say to clients, it is the same size problem but now as adults we are bigger than the problem that once overshadowed us.

I’ve mentioned in previous weeks how I have been working with the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “lojong”. These 59 slogans provide reminders of how to bring the Buddhist teachings in to everyday life situations. In the past week, a few slogans have proved very useful to reflect upon. I can see the value of using them whenever we encounter present-day relationships that trigger old relational wounds.

potatoes in a bagBe grateful to everyone – according to this slogan, we extend our gratitude to others – including those people that irritate and annoy us! The logic is that even in the most challenging of situations, we can learn about ourselves by being tested and triggered. The next time you come in to confrontation with a colleague at work, consider it an opportunity to explore what is going on for you. I like an old Zen teaching that explains we are like a potato contained in a sack with other dirty potatoes. Life jostles us about, and in coming in to contact we each other, the dirt gets cleaned off.

Drive all blames in to one – similar to the one above, this slogan points to the opportunity that challenge brings. Inevitably when things go wrong in our life, we look for others to blame. This means we might miss the root of the problem. So this slogan is quite radical – it invites us to do two things: Firstly, to stop…and connect to our reaction (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) – to really know how it feels to be triggered. Secondly, what might we have done, said or thought that contributed to the situation. This can be a hard practice, particularly if we “know” someone else has caused the situation. This has been a useful idea to introduce to clients – to allow them to see how somehow they invite a similar dynamic in to their relationships: to look at the possibility they are the common denominator.

Whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with meditation – I have been working with this particular slogan a lot recently. It speaks to how it is when we are most challenged, when a “curveball” comes at us from out of the blue, THIS is the time we can really slow down and look at our reactions. I have been watching for that initial contraction, that moment I am about to “lose it” in someway – the rising of anger, the tearing in the eyes. It is at this point we can interrupt the stories we tell about ourselves and others. An example: when one of your colleagues criticises your work or demands a deadline to be hit, feel the reaction, open to it and drop the story that only ignites and inflames the injustice, betrayal etc. It allows emotions like “sadness” to be, rather than multiplying them up to “I am alone, no-one cares about me, I might as well disappear” etc…I imagine you get the idea. In the Buddhist teachings, this is an encouragement to stay with the first arrow, and to not add a second one – the layering of our self-centred story of woe.

These slogans can help the workplace, or any other group we belong to as adults, become a place to realise, explore, and work through the wounds we experienced as children. We can use our adult resources to process the long-held feelings that we didn’t know how to react to when so young. There are some potential traps however: we can’t expect our colleagues and line managers to do the emotional work with us, or indeed for us. These people are not family, not our parents or caregivers. Even if you are fortunate to have empathic colleagues who are willing to listen when you are triggered, the understanding of the trigger probably needs processing elsewhere: we therapists talk a lot about the importance of boundaries. What material belongs where is important to think about.

I’ll be presenting some more ideas about interpersonal challenges and the healing opportunities in groups next week.

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