COVID’s Dashed Your Dreams? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I know I should be grateful to have a job, and I love the company I work for. BUT. My whole company is madly trying to stay afloat and reinvent itself and I have more work coming at me than I can possibly do. I am working 16-hour days. I have my laptop in bed with me until midnight and get going again at 6:00 a.m.

My husband is retired and is good natured about it. He says I need to set some boundaries—but everyone is working as hard as I am. We are all doing what we need to do to survive the changes in our business and the resulting economic disaster.

I had all kinds of dreams about this last chapter of my career and they did not include feeling like I am part of a startup. Been there, done that, hated it then. I am angry, overwhelmed, and exhausted—but more than anything, I feel so disappointed. And then I judge myself, knowing that so many people are so much worse off than me: sick, losing loved ones, out of a job, homeschooling children while working full time, not to mention all the kids with canceled proms and graduations. What do I have to complain about?
And yet, here I am feeling out of sorts and not able to pull out of it.


So Disappointed

Dear So Disappointed,

You bet I have thoughts. And a lot of similar feelings. I spent a couple of days feeling sorry myself because I wasn’t going to get to see my daughter pick up her Master’s diploma in her fancy cap and gown and yuk it up with all of our pals in New York City. And don’t get me started on how hard it has been to let go of our collective dreams for her gorgeous wedding in July. I mean, we argued over whether we should have broccoli salad (my vote: gross) and about 127 other details. And OMG, the band was going to be the best! And now—nothing. “Come on,” I tell myself. “People are dying. Get over it.” So I let myself have my sad little pity party for a weekend, and then I did get over it.

You must allow yourself to have your feelings. Just because someone else is suffering more than you are doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to acknowledge what a big fat bummer your own reality is. In fact, if you suppress your feelings, you will just end up feeling numb—or worse, you could start acting out: smoking, drinking too much, drugs, overeating—we are apparently having an epidemic of this kind of thing right now. So don’t do that. But you also don’t want to ruminate on your feelings by going over and over the same sad story in your head. That won’t help you; you’ll just get stuck in a nasty rut.

What will help is to break all of this down. Part of what is going on here is a mashup of all the facts, thoughts, and feelings until it feels like a car alarm is going off in your head. Let’s tease everything out so you can deal with each thing, one at a time.

The absurd workload: Your husband is right. You need to set some boundaries. Laptops do not belong in bed. Yes, I know millions of people watch TV on their laptops in bed, or goof around on YouTube and social media. So let me rephrase: work does not belong in bed. Yes, that’s better. New rule for you: NO WORK IN BED. You need your rest time and your sleep, and you will not be able to keep up this pace without health consequences.

I don’t care if everyone else is working as hard as you are. You are the one who is in pain. Put up the hand and say no. You know perfectly well what you can do in a reasonable workday—maybe that is 10 hours or even 12, but 16 is just sick and wrong. You are not saving babies from Ebola here, but somehow you have gotten yourself into life-or-death mode. The adrenaline and cortisol being released in your system will hurt you if you don’t cut it out.

Break down your work requirements and tell your boss and your team what you can do and what you can’t do. My experience is that the reward for good work is more work, not a break. Your boss is depending on you to cry uncle and tell him when you can’t do another thing. If you suffer in silence, the work will just pile on. You had gotten into a nice work rhythm before the Covid Fun House Crazy, so you got out of the habit of having to say no when enough is enough. Flex that muscle and use it now. I promise the entire organization isn’t going to go down the tubes because of you. If the company isn’t going to make it, the extra four hours you take to exercise, meditate, and sleep is not going to make the difference.

Suddenly trapped in a startup: Well. Yes. I can relate. I have been part of three startups—and the last time I said “never again.” Startups are a young person’s game, honestly, because they do take just about every drop of blood and sweat from each overtaxed employee.

The problem is this: every business is kind of a startup right now. Everybody is scrambling to figure out how to win or even operate with the new business landscape and restrictions. My own company is in the same boat. I keep hearing things like pivot, iterate, and fail fast, experiment! It is exhausting. All I can say is, this isn’t going to last forever. Your company will figure it out and things will settle down. This doesn’t change anything I said in the last section. It is reality and all you can do is adapt. Get some boundaries, take care of yourself, and do your best. This too shall pass.

The dashing of your dreams: This is a big deal. Bet you didn’t think I was going to say that. And I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t studied neuroscience. I’m fascinated by one little neuroscience tidbit about the chemical reaction that occurs in our brains have when explicit expectations are disappointed. Research shows that when we have an expectation of something good and it is not met, our brains actually stop producing dopamine for a time.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is generally thought of as a feel-good chemical. It is released when we experience pleasure or anticipate a reward—cupcakes, wine, the perfect find on sale, juicy gossip. When we anticipate something good, our dopamine receptors are primed for the rush, and when it doesn’t come, the entire dopamine delivery system grinds to a halt. It feels terrible. In fact, it sets up such a negative downward spiral that it can affect our mood, and then our performance.

We intuitively know this. Think about the times you have strived for an outcome but tried really hard to manage your own expectations. We know disappointed hopes feel lousy, but unmet expectations feel even worse. So you, my friend, are the victim of perfectly reasonable expectations that are not being met. Your dream has turned into a nightmare. This is increasing your stress levels, decreasing your creativity and problem-solving ability, and probably affecting your confidence, too. The fact that you are not alone is no consolation.

What can you do about it? Reframe. Rewrite the story about how this part of your life was supposed to go. Define the narrative you had, and then redefine it. It might sound something like this: “Well, I thought this part of my career was going to be four-day work weeks, during which I could focus on my cherry-picked projects. I was going to do yoga every day and cook gourmet meals every night. But all that has changed now. My considerable wisdom and experience is now needed to creatively respond to this new challenge and rise to occasion by working at an accelerated pace again.” And so on. Focus on the strengths you can bring to this challenge, and what exactly will make you feel proudest when it is all over. Reset the expectations you had for this chapter of your life and keep them centered, as much as possible, on what you can control. You will find yourself in an upward spiral very quickly and start feeling a lot better.

If you need to wallow a little, go ahead. No one will blame you. But then do your work, untangle the yucky mess, deal with each thing one by one, and get that spiral going up.

Your husband will thank you, and your colleagues will too.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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