When I work with clients – typically leaders in positions of responsibility, or people working to effect change – what strikes me over and over again is the degree to which stress and overwhelm have become normalised in our culture. The collective experience of stress and burnout has become so ingrained that, when taken to the extreme, it almost becomes a badge of honour, a perceived sign of our importance and value in the world or in the workplace.
This worldview does untold damage, and yet we can see it play out every day, not just on an individual level, but also at the level of corporate and organisational culture. We have simply come to believe and accept that stress, overwhelm and burnout are an inevitable part of modern-day life, part and parcel of our efforts to get things done and get through the day. What’s more, the general opinion, among high-performers especially, is that without some degree of stress, we simply aren’t working hard enough to reach our goals and targets, achieve success and stand out from the crowd.
Fortunately, there is also increasing awareness, at least in theory, if not in practice, of the value of wellbeing in the workplace. Stress management is now a huge industry – and with the best of intentions. But despite all these programmes, the question remains, if stress management truly worked, why are we all still so stressed? Given the vast amount of information that is freely and readily available online, given the multitude of techniques, strategies and tools available that are aimed at reducing stress, and the huge financial investments made by companies in professional development, why is that stress isn’t simply a thing of the past? Why do people, companies and organisations continually find themselves having to invest, year, after year, in professional development that ultimately seems not to have any lasting effect?
The reason is a collective, but innocent, misunderstanding of how the mind works, and of what actually lies behind the human experience. Once this misunderstanding of what causes someone’s experience of stress is cleared up, there is no option but for that stress to fall away, immediately revealing a clarity and peace of mind that did not previously seem possible, and unlocking the innate resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity we have to solve any challenge, big or small.
With a clearer, more foundational understanding of the mind, we see that the mind only works one way, from the inside-out. We see that the world is not happening to us, but rather, that we live in a world of thought. We see that we can only ever experience our thinking in the moment. And although this might seem simplistic or even nonsense at first glance, to insightfully appreciate this fact brings about such profound changes for people in such a short space of time, and without the need to even do anything to make those changes happen, that they wonder why they have never been taught it.
If we truly want to put an end to the chronic stress in our lives and in our society, we have to see that stress is not caused by anything other than our thinking in the moment. Workloads, ‘difficult’ colleagues, the opinions or beliefs of others, our partners, our children, the amount of money we have in our bank account, the traffic – none of these things have the power to cause our current experience on the inside. Nor do our pasts or our previous experiences. As hard as it can be to see – and it is always more about whether we are willing or not to challenge our thinking on something that seems so unquestionable – the only thing we are ever up against is the quality and clarity of our thinking, our state of mind, in the moment.
This is true in principle, by which I mean that it is universally true for every human being, in the same way that gravity is universally true – a constant law of nature – whether we believe it or can see it or not. Our minds work from the inside-out, not from the outside-in. Our experience of the world is an independent, internal, moment-to-moment dynamic, functioning entirely separately to what is happening in the outside world.
How often have you been in an argument with your partner, or your child, or your colleague – only to find that your perspective on them – and the issue – shifts effortlessly, looking entirely different from a clearer state of mind? Some moments, your experience of your work is deeply satisfying and enriching, other times the same workload looks impossible and overwhelming. Sometimes your colleague, or your boss, or the customer service person (or your 5-year-old) annoys the heck out of you; other times you see them for what they are, another human with the same challenges and fluctuations in their state of mind, doing their best, given their current understanding of how life works. You also begin to see yourself in the same way.
This is why to focus on managing stress, through re-framing, breathing, positive thinking etc, is to innocently do ourselves a tremendous disservice. It is based on a flawed premise – the misconception that our experience of life is coming at us from the outside-in; that the world out there is happening to us, that life is essentially hard, and all we can do is to cope as best as we can. This is a misunderstanding of how the mind actually works. Once we re-awaken to, and gain a deeper appreciation for, the inside-out nature of our experience, stress and overwhelm begin to fall away of their own accord. There is simply nothing to manage. When we do have a temporary experience of stress, we see it as just that – a temporary physiological experience of thought – and we leave it to correct in and of itself as the mind wanders on to something else. The teaching of anything less is a losing game because it is unaligned with how stress actually works; not only that, it keeps people in a state of disempowerment by implying that we do not have the innate capacity to thrive independently of our circumstances, others’ opinions and even our own moment-to-moment thinking.
A clearer understanding of the mind is a cure-all because it challenges the very framework with which we view our lives and the assumptions which take us away from our inbuilt wellbeing. The implications for solving challenges from bullying, to child or domestic abuse, to prisoner rehabilitation, to leadership development, to the solving of major global challenges, are profound. When we as individuals – and as companies and organisations – can begin to move insightfully beyond the management of stress to ending chronic stress altogether, and can instead use and leverage our thinking for more creative, productive, visionary endeavours, we can begin to achieve vastly different results and create a much better world.
Susan Andrewes Consulting Ltd works with leaders, individuals and organisations dedicated to achieving sustainable change. For more information on our innovative global and personal leadership programmes, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.