An acquaintance needed help. She was boiling mad about something that had happened. She wanted to blow off some steam. A short while into her verbal vent, I gently pointed something out that I thought she had missed. I imagined it might help. I was wrong. The anger previously directly elsewhere turned on me. She had enough people against her, she said venomously, she didn’t want to waste her time on someone else cutting her down. What? In a moment, I went from calm and wanting to help to angry and defensive. I had no time for this. I was doing her a favour. I wasn’t going to waste another moment being made to feel bad about helping. As I hung up the phone, I stewed in frustration and resentment. My work plans for the afternoon went out the window as I tried to recover my equilibrium.
In the heat of the crazy, it’s easy to make bad decisions. There are things, normally quite manageable, that feel quite beyond us when our systems are stressed. The bar for what we can cope with is much lower than usual. Some of those decisions made when overloaded can add to the stress and overwhelm as we struggle with actions that we later regret.
Thankfully, the situation above didn’t go exactly as I described. I was angry, yes – I wanted to hang up – for sure. I know if I had, I would have been frustrated, resentful and unproductive that afternoon as I tried to reconcile what I had done with the person I knew myself to be. My whole system was shouting, “Hang up the phone!” The other person deserved it – they really did. They were disrespectful, rude and unappreciative especially given I had so much else on my plate. I knew in that moment, that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who hangs up on someone. I also knew there was no way I could stay on the phone unless I found a way to calm down.
I grabbed a pebble I have on my desk. I’d picked it up one day as my husband and I walked along the beach. I focused on the rock in my hand. It was black, hard, cold and a little shiny. I felt the weight of it. I ran my fingers over it realizing there were tiny indentations probably caused by years of water, sand and weather. It took only 10 seconds before I felt the wash of calm flood my system and the stress dissolve. I took a breath and refocused. I would stay on the phone. I would do my best to help.
When we were done, I was tired. It had been hard, but I felt good about finding a way to choose my actions based on what was important to me not on what stress dictated was possible.
Stress is a part of life. We do what we can to decrease it, but there are times it is not possible to change a situation. Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, says at those times when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
It was a challenge to let go of the way I automatically wanted to respond, but I am so glad I did. There is something deeply satisfying about choosing who you want to be instead of letting stress choose for you.
Coaching tip – when you’re stressed out, try calming your system by focusing intently on one of your senses for 20-30 seconds while consciously letting go of any thoughts.
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I learned that I am more resilient than I thought.Beyond the Shadow coaching client