When it comes to being stressed and proud of it, our culture is sick. It’s very, very sick.
The other day, I overheard a woman bragging about all she had to do for herself and her two kids, most of which sounded entirely optional. She talked almost nonstop, cutting her friend off every time she suggested something she could do about it. Finally, she sighed and condescendingly told her best friend “I wish I didn’t have as much going on so my life could be more tame like yours, but I can’t possibly give anything up.”
Somehow, it’s become vogue to brag about how much stress we have. Worse, even if you don’t have that much stress, it’s important to appear as though you do.
It’s one thing to feel overwhelmed and get some support. We all need a little help from our friends from time to time, and it can be a huge relief simply to be heard. It’s completely different, however when you have no interest in improving the situation and are really attached to being (and staying) stressed.
That falls into the category of stress pride.
Stress pride is some bizarre form of sado-masochism. It’s painful to yourself – and painful for those who have to put up with it.
Otherwise-sane people believe the strange idea that the more stressed, busy, and overwhelmed they appear to be, the more important they are.
They get off on it (although they’d never admit that).
Stress pride seems to be a thinly veiled defense against insecurity, fear, and a lack of control. The remnants of our messed-up Puritanical work ethic also feed this disease. So do media depictions glorifying Supermoms, Olivia Pope, and workaholics everywhere, goading people to take on more – or feel like a loser if they don’t.
Stress has become a status symbol.
While not everyone buys into this, there’s far too much of it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s an epidemic.
Spotting Stress Pride
The stress-proud detail everything they ‘have’ to do, recount the pressing deadlines, and complain about how exhausting it all is – yet they keep doing it time and time again, feeling productive and relieved.
They secretly believe that people who don’t wear their stress on their sleeves are probably slackers.
Even during what are supposed to be fun times like dinner with family or friends, the stress-proud hold tightly to their stress, focusing on it rather than on the loved ones right in front of them. Worse, they think this is necessary or even the ‘right’ thing to do.
And vacation? They either don’t take it or complain about how plugged in they ‘had to be’ the entire time.
The stress-proud behave as though they’re trying to win a context, albeit a very screwed-up one that trashes their nervous system and alienates friends, family and colleagues.
If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “I should be busier” or “Why aren’t I doing as much as [insert name of crazed friend or coworker here]?”, then you’re dangerously close to having a stress pride mindset.
Workplaces Can Be Stress Pride Incubators
Lots of workplaces use people’s insecurity to their advantage, either subtly or overtly encouraging stress pride.
Bosses openly praise those who stay late and are ‘always on’, regardless of their actual accomplishments. They may assume those who are relaxed or happy must not have enough to do and may even deem them lazy.
Even more pernicious, they may encourage competition and one upmanship until the workplace resembles a never-ending human cock-fighting ring.
You get ahead by making sure everyone knows how stressed you are, rather than by your merits.
The Costs of Stress Pride
Here’s the stark reality: stressed-out people are less productive, creative, and innovative.
When you’re stress-proud, you keep your body in low-level fight or flight, which pretty much sucks.
You strengthen neural pathways of negativity, causing you to habitually focus on what’s wrong, rather than seeing what’s going well, acting from your competencies, and getting relief.
You contage others, spreading the dysfunction even further.
Moreover, if you’re stress-proud people, you’re almost never present. You miss the little moments, like your child’s smile or the chance to bond with a coworker. And you’re never gonna experience that state of flow, where you’re utterly immersed in a task and time seems irrelevant – because you’re focused on the clock.
We all need to recharge, whether it’s some down time during our day, relaxing in the evenings, or taking a vacation. If you don’t, you’ll end up sick. Very sick.
Stop the Insanity
Let’s get rid of stress pride. Together.
First, stop bragging about your stress, don’t validate anyone else for doing so, and for heaven’s sake, don’t get caught up in that “no, MY stress is waaay more than yours” one upmanship crap.
Second, take a long hard look at what’s on your plate – and who put it there (hint: a mirror will be really helpful).
Some stress is unavoidable. Lots of it isn’t.
You may choose to take care of a pressing health concern or meet an aggressive work deadline.
You don’t need to overload every day with activities – for yourself or for your family. You don’t need to cram little things in every nook and cranny of your schedule. You don’t need to stay busy to avoid feeling your feelings.
Third, decide (1) whether you can actually do something in that moment to alleviate your stress and (2) whether you choose to at that time. If yes to both, do it. This means taking actions that address the situation in a constructive way. If you’re stressed about remembering everything, make a list. If your closet needs review, start pulling things out. If you have a work presentation, write it. Just do it.
If you can’t do anything in that moment or decide it’s not the right time, however, the best thing you can do is focus on what’s happening right in front of you. Be present.
Obsessing about it won’t get a damn thing done anyway. You just rob yourself of enjoying the non-stressful parts of life – like a nice coffee date with a friend.
The Present is Stress-Free
Consider this: being in the present moment is never stressful.
You read that right. You can’t be stressed if you’re engaged in the moment.
The moment is about what’s happening right in front of you, which isn’t stress (unless you’re facing a literal, physical threat in that moment). It may be action to alleviate your stress or commonly, something unrelated that is much more interesting. It’s really that simple.
Stress happens when let your mind take over, pulling you out of what’s actually happening and into some obsessive mental freak show. What’s happening right now? Sadly, many of us are so caught up in thinking about our problems that we miss out on beauty, compassion, fun, and aliveness happening right before our eyes.
If you paid more attention to that, you’d be far less stressed overall.
Which Way Will You Go?
So the question really is…
Do you want to wear your stress like some ridiculous badge of honor and feel like crap?
Or do you want to be more happy, present, and joyful?
If everyone at least made a commitment to consciously move toward the latter, our entire society would shift in dramatically positive ways.
We’d accomplish just as much – most likely a whole lot more – and gain valuable insights, perspective, and ideas.
We’d be more engaged with our jobs and our lives (and more pleasant to be around).
We’d be more focused and present, less likely to miss the important stuff.
We’d have more balance, getting the rest and play we need to successfully meet our challenges.
We’d take vacation – all of it, without plugging in – and recharge and reflect more regularly.
We’d transform the workplace, so that productivity, collaboration, and creativity are prized – and we’d find the courage and self-preservation to leave toxic ones.
A Stress Pride Challenge
When it comes to stress pride, our current culture is a petri dish. It’s up to us to stop its spread.
The next time you’re tempted to tell people about how much you’re doing or how stressed you are, stop. Take a deep breath, and consciously decide whether to take effective action or focus on the present.
Stress pride feeds off attention, so when someone else brags about their stress, don’t engage. Instead, ask them what’s going well. Encourage their competency. Gently question their ‘have to’s.’ Or change the subject.
Over time, we will all be far more healthy, happy, and even productive.
That’s something we can all be proud of.
What’s been your experience with stress pride, either your own or someone else’s?
How do you encourage a more adaptive way of dealing with stress and focusing on a healthy mindset?
What could workplaces do to foster a more balanced, adaptive, and productive environment?
I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions in the comments section below – and make sure to leave your email address so you don’t miss a post. Thanks!