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Sometimes Life Just Hurts: When it’s OK to Feel, not Fix

[Guest blogger Jane Cocking, MCC, is a Principal at Wisdom Works. In her last post she shared valuable leadership lessons from the playground.]

It was two days of heartbreak and bloodshed. And I’m sorry to say that I’m not being dramatic. Real trauma, including lost love (and the accompanying agony of self doubts and soul searching) as well as a bona fide stabbing in the neighborhood rocked my whole family over less than 36 hours last week. First, the update: the stabbed neighbor is recovering and so is my family member with the broken heart. Second: a deep breath.

In coaching leaders, we focus every day on values, tools, and ways of making the most of agonizing circumstances. And yet all that good advice and all those helpful techniques don’t change the fact that sometimes life just hurts.

No matter how resilient we are as leaders facing work stress, our personal life — by its very nature — has a way of attacking us when we’ve set aside our armor. When my personal life suddenly became a set of LARGE family challenges last week, that emotional rollercoaster threatened to derail not only my work productivity but my own bigger sense of personal equilibrium. Oddly, the usual pile of business deliverables felt much easier than the family crises.

As the week’s unhappy events began to unfold, my first piece of self-coaching was to adopt a long-term view, like planning for the next rest stop when a driver’s eyes get heavy on a road trip. Obediently I looked ahead to my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party, not two days away, but in the heat of crisis this did little to assure me that everything was going to be alright.

I pondered how as leaders we are always in the middle of several things that compete for our attention. There’s an obvious survivor instinct that tends to prioritize the life-or-death and condition-critical issues, but failure to tend to our other basic needs can be equally crippling when true crisis strikes. Even emergency room surgeons take time off to be with their families, to eat, sleep, play, and live. But when our free time — that “down” time to recuperate and recharge with our family becomes another source of stress, what then?!

I turned to Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves’ book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and the book fell open to a simple diagram showing two primary competencies and four emotional intelligence skills. The phrases “self-awareness” and “self-management” jumped off the page as if written just for me: here was a starting point. The tips and techniques I attach to these powerful concepts include a reminder to be with my discomfort in moments like this. Though I love to remedy things, going into “fix it” mode is sometimes the wrong move.

At the same time, I knew I was facing some very real stressors, and I wanted to do something other than worrying. How could I manage my own reactions, rather than have them manage me? I remembered something I had read by Jeffrey A. Miller about how to get emotional distance from a situation: “Take a six second vacation.” Here’s how Miller explained it (and how it worked for me):

  • Inhale for two seconds, sending the air where you need a little help. (Boy, did my jaws and shoulders need that air!)
  • Exhale for two seconds, releasing all muscle tension in your body, starting at the head and moving to the toes. (It took a few tries, but then it was amazing how many knots could unwind a little bit in just two seconds.)
  • Do nothing for two seconds. (Wow, not springing into immediate action was refreshing!)

I could feel myself start to relax and even took another couple of six-second vacations for good measure, which helped me feel more grounded and able to see beyond myself. And that’s when I was able to be there for my family, if for nothing more than to simply listen and care. Really tuning in to hear the heart and soul of another is perhaps the biggest gift you can give a human being, and it becomes hard to do if your own heart and soul are cluttered and heavy.

When my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party arrived, complete with a live Princess Belle and 11 little princesses in attendance, my awareness was still piqued. And I was oh-so receptive to the joys of that day! I knew that the other stresses had not vanished, but my relationship with them had changed. Of course different things work for different people — and when emergencies happen, the more options available to us the better. So, fellow leaders, what helps you most when facing acute anxiety? Please comment below: we’d love to hear.

Photo by acme