Feeling Overwhelmed at Work and Home This Holiday Season? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I always get a little overwhelmed during the holiday season, but this year I am at the brink. I have a big team at work and I usually try to create some kind of fun event for us—but this year it just isn’t happening. There is a massive problem with our technology and my team and I are having a hard time doing our jobs. My printer stopped working and so did the key card I use to go from building to building. Two of my people are out sick and another needs to be talked off the ledge every hour on the hour. 

In my personal life, my car’s check engine light is on and my mechanic won’t return my calls. My dryer at home is broken, and I have two kids coming home from college with suitcases full of laundry. Our Christmas tree is up, but it isn’t decorated, and I usually have the house all ready for the kids. I haven’t even ordered Christmas cards, let alone sent any! The dog is limping for some unknown reason and the cat keeps throwing up on my bed.

I just got off the phone with a colleague who told me that one of my direct reports dropped a big ball and really screwed up. I am this close to picking up the phone and letting my direct report have it, but I know it wasn’t really his fault. So I am writing you instead.

I feel like everyone and everything is letting me down and I am pushing a huge rock uphill by myself. I can’t even think anymore. Help?

Melting Down


Dear Melting Down,

Oh my dear, this sounds hard. And so familiar. When you start feeling sorry for yourself, it is time to stop. Just stop. Take a deep breath. Say out loud: “This is not neurosurgery, no one is dying.” Repeat three times.

Then, take action.

Make a list of everything you are tolerating. You can read about tolerations in one of my old posts here. Essentially, a toleration* is every little thing you are putting up with. When the list gets too long, one tiny straw can break the camel’s back. This is where you are right now.

Once you have your lists—one for work and one for home—look at each item one by one. Decide whether you are going to deal with it, dump (ignore) it, or delegate it. Some things are simply outside of your control and you will just have to suck them up. Others you can either do something about yourself or get others to handle.

Before you get to it, though, you need to consider your standards—your expectations of yourself and others based on both what you think is important and marks you have hit in the past. Remember: standards are not laws. Gravity is a law. I must have the tree decorated by the time the kids come home is not. Do you see the difference? You have made up that some of the standards you hold yourself to are a priority—when, in fact, your reality is making them impossible. For right now, as you go over your list of tolerations, ask yourself where can I lower my standards, just for this year? I remember one year when I was similarly overextended, I just didn’t do Christmas cards. My sister-in-law was horrified—but you know what? Nobody died.

So lower your standards and your expectations of how things should be. Deal with the real problems—like your car—the ones that won’t resolve themselves and will probably turn into bigger, more expensive problems. Find a new mechanic. If the dog is still limping, make a vet appointment. Assuming the cat is feeling better, close the door to your bedroom just in case.

Let the kids decorate the tree when they get home and take their clothes to the laundromat. Send them a warm text to explain your situation and to warn them so they aren’t surprised. They may moan, but they will also probably rise to the occasion—especially if you manage their expectations. Send a nice email to your work team thanking them for their hard work and promising a fun event in February—which, honestly, is when people really need one. The technology problems will resolve themselves eventually, and you aren’t going to get fired.

Tom Magliozzi, one of the co-hosts of NPR’s Car Talk show, says: “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” Deal with the incontrovertible reality, and remember the rest is all made up. Be the model of grace, humor, generosity, and patience you know yourself to be, especially with your team. Keep breathing. Your kids and you will be fine.

I wish you great peace, healthy pets, a functioning car, and upgraded technology in the New Year.

Love, Madeleine

* Thomas Leonard, a pioneer of the coaching profession and the founder of Coach University, the ICF, and Coachville, coined the term tolerations in the late 1980s.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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