I have always been good at dealing with stress in my personal life—difficult pregnancies, a special-needs child, and parents requiring help. But now I am going through a challenging divorce. My kids are all struggling with it in different ways and it is taking its toll. I’ve recently realized this situation is exceeding my abilities to cope.
I recently had to untangle a big mess because one of my direct reports “didn’t want to bother me” because I have so much on my plate right now. I realized I have been ignoring requests, snapping at people, and avoiding complex tasks that are critical to projects moving forward. I am watching myself from the ceiling, wondering “Who are you? You know better. Where is your composure, woman?”
Everywhere I turn to for advice tells me I need to take care of myself, exercise, meditate, and so on. None of it is helpful. I am hoping you have another angle on this.
Dear Train Wreck,
You should exercise and meditate. Haha, just kidding. I mean, I am—but it is true that taking care of yourself has never been more important. So don’t ignore that advice. Find one thing you can do that helps you feel centered and grounded—just one thing that makes sense and doesn’t require a ton of time or a new skill set.
My heart hurts for you. You are going through one of most destabilizing transitions known to humans. When I was going through a divorce, I spent a full hour driving in the wrong direction on the New Jersey Turnpike with three ten-year-old boys in the car. My sister called me to tell me she saw me take the wrong ramp and I said, “You’re crazy, I know where I’m going.” That, it turned out, was not the case. That is only one of the crazy things I did. This is a whole unprecedented level of stress you are dealing with, and it is serious business. It literally keeps you from thinking straight. So I have two words for you:
Find a therapist or counselor to whom you can vent weekly. Your company probably has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)—many offer six sessions with a therapist. That may be all you need.
Call your best friend every day, set a timer for seven minutes, and complain bitterly about everything bugging you. Ask her to not argue or give advice, just listen. I grant that few of us have such a perfect friend, but you may. If you do, make an agreement with a time limit—say a month. It isn’t forever, and you will do the same for her when she needs it.
Find an online support group.
The bottom line is this: There is no reason for you to try to get through this alone. If there was ever a time to call in the cavalry, it is now.
There is one other thing to try that you probably won’t hear from anyone else, and it has brought me, and many of my clients, through rocky patches. It is a technique from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron called “Morning Pages.” This is how she describes it:
“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages—they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind—and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize, and
synchronize the day at hand. Do not overthink Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
The beauty of Morning Pages is that it takes about nine minutes, tops, and it makes an appreciable difference to one’s state of mind. It costs nothing, takes almost no time, and doesn’t require scheduling for yourself or anyone else. I have found that people who use this technique go back to it in troubled times again and again. For some people, it just works to clear the decks and get us back to our center. It is worth a try.
In terms of your work, it is lovely that your team members are sensitive to your situation. Just make sure they know what to come to you with, and what they are free to use their own judgment about. If nothing else, this period will allow some of them to rise to their own brilliance. So you have that going for you. Talking to them about what you are going through (at a high level), explaining how they should operate during this difficult time, and showing appreciation for their concern is all that’s needed.
You are used to being a high performer and for the first time in your life, you are falling short of your own expectations. That is adding to your pain and confusion. It is also okay. Other people are clearly willing to cut you some slack, and you can too. You’re judging yourself for struggling, and it isn’t helping anyone. Try to give yourself some grace. It is not permanent. It is a moment in time.
Which leads me to my final point: this will end. I promise. Not tomorrow, not next week, but at some point, you will be on the other side of this, and you will be wiser and more compassionate with others because of it.
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.
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