Stress Pride: Stop the Insanity

Stress pride is a huge problem

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Note: This is the third in a series of articles on stress and stress management.  Go here for an overview of the stress response and here for the benefits and guide to deep breathing. 

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.

Stress pride is running rampant

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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.

Stop the Stress Pride

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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.

Stress pride: Stop the insanity

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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.

Stress Pride: Stop the insanity

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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.

Stress pride: stop the insanity

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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?

Stress pride: stop the insanity

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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.

Stress pride: Stop the insanity

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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!

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16 Responses to “Stress Pride: Stop the Insanity”

  1. Natalia October 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    Powerfully said, Mary Beth! I’d definitely rather spread the joy :) Thank you for the inspiration!! XO

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. October 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Thank you, Natalia! You definitely share a whole lot of joy with the world – and I forget all my stress when I’m in your presence! 😀

  2. Katy October 30, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    This article is so right on! From my work days, I remember how one would always have to appear extremely busy which was shorthand for being productive. And now that I am at home with the kids I hear the same tone in people’s voices. People talk about how busy they are almost as a status symbol. it is completely irrational.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. October 30, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      Ugh – and completely irrational is right. I once had a boss who would roam the halls after 6pm, noting who was there and who wasn’t. Those who came in early started arriving later, since they didn’t get credit for being an early bird. None of it was related to productivity. All of it was ridiculous.

      On the flip side, I once had clients who emailed my boss, saying that the work I did was great but that even more than that, they appreciated my attitude. They said I kept the project on track – and actually made it fun – despite our very tight timeline. That really meant a lot to me!

      Thanks so much for commenting, Katy! :-)

  3. Katherine Harms October 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    I know a lot of people who suffer from stress pride. It’s a real shame. They are driving themselves crazy trying to impress people with all their busy-ness, and it’s not working. We are all trying to figure out how to help them see what they are doing to themselves. I wish you success in helping people to give up that mistaken notion that they are earning a lot of points by making sure everyone knows that they are overloaded.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      Thanks so much, Katherine – it’s a tough one. I remember seeing this in work situations, but it seems to have overtaken personal lives as well. Perhaps the central question comes down to this: Do you want to be busy or happy / fulfilled / peaceful? I also believe that saying no to stress pride and excessive busy-ness doesn’t mean that we don’t have full lives. On the contrary: it means being fully engaged. First we have to be mindful of this for ourselves and then gently encourage others to take the more fulfilling path.

  4. Susan November 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    I remember those days of busy, busy, busy. Living with a disabling chronic condition has made that lifestyle impossible for me, which has been a blessing in so many ways, along with having some major challenges.

    My mind still wants to go there, though, and be occupied all the time, even if my body won’t cooperate. So I do need to intentionally slow down, and do what little I can mindfully, and take time every day to quiet the monkey mind with meditation.

    It’s sad that many people are so booked up for weeks ahead, that they can’t take time to get together and just do something fun or even relax over tea. It doesn’t seem worth the bragging rights.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 3, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      So true, Susan! I find it very bizarre to be so booked. I have been very busy at many points in my life, and when I look back on them, I often wasn’t all that happy being in that state. (Of course, that depends on what I was doing – busy traveling is always pretty darn happy for me.)

      I think that when the calendar gets very busy, it’s time for a serious review. What do I choose to keep? What can go? This takes some radical honesty about why each of these items is there.

      As for monkey mind… I often feel like my monkey goes nonstop – it’s as if it doesn’t even need sleep! I sit for meditation, but if I counted the number of times my mind gets caught in thought and needs to be brought back, it’s probably in the hundreds, if not thousands. The good news is that now, instead of beating myself up about it, I’ve reframed this as an opportunity to be gentle and self-compassionate – and that’s hundreds or thousands of those opportunities a session. :-)

      • Susan November 4, 2013 at 11:55 am #

        I want to say it was Jon Kabat-Zinn, in The Mindful Way Through Depression, who put meditation in perspective for me. He said that it’s not about the thoughts coming back over and over – that’s not a problem. It’s about getting into a rhythm with noticing, then coming back to the breath.

        Lately I’ve been able to notice the thoughts themselves, and how silly they are, which makes me want to giggle.

        It’s all about continuing to practice, and accepting it all as part of the process.

        • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

          I like the way you put that, in terms of getting into a rhythm with noticing the thoughts. They come in, return to the breath. Thought, breath, thought breath….

          It’s very powerful to get that perspective, to be able to see your thoughts and how silly they are. I appreciate when I’m in that space – and also conscious of the times I get all wrapped up in them and don’t think they’re so funny. It’s a good reminder that the choice is mine and that when you step away into that observer role, getting out of the river of thought, you’re much more likely to have that clarity.

  5. Daisy November 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Oh, I completely agree. Stress pride is what drives society nowadays. In my previous career, that’s all I’d have to deal with because that’s what the industry was all about, the more I had on my list of things to do the better I was depicting myself.

    Fast forward 8 years later, I decided to leave the biz. Now, though moola isn’t as gratifying, I have more control over what goes into my schedule though I do still struggle with stress pride. It’s what I know but I’m much more aware of it.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      Hi, Daisy – it’s definitely a process to become aware and deal with stress pride. I talked with a dear friend who’s a healer today, and she said “I haven’t been busy lately, and I base my self-worth on my work.” In some ways, it shocked me me because I greatly admire her and the way she lives her life. Then I felt a deep connection to her because I realize how much that underlying cultural belief comes up in me as well. It made me understand her in a new way. What a relief to get a reminder that people I see as farther down the path are dealing with the same issues! :-) Thanks!

  6. CherylAnn November 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    So true!! Very well written! Since a major transition in my life a few years ago, I am no longer interested in having pride around stress and busy-ness. One of my least favorite excuses is, “I don’t have time.” I call BS. We ALWAYS have time for the things we prioritize. I now prioritize different things…things that allow me more quality time with my loved ones and more time to pursue my passions. The gift of major life transitions is sometimes they help you see what is most important…and feeling good about how much it looks like I am accomplishing in the eye of the community is not longer important to me.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 5, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

      Thanks, CherylAnn – really appreciate that!

      I love that – we DO always have time for what we prioritize. That’s entirely under our control. What an amazing choice to spend your time with loved ones and pursuing passions. I wonder what the world would be like if everyone did this. I bet it’d be exponentially more happy, productive, and amazing… :-)

  7. erica lawrence: naturopath - body ecologist. November 6, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    Another great post Mary Beth! You have a great flow; it’s effective and engaging.
    Reading parts of this post caused my body to tense up, I was having a flashback to the times when I was a stress-head, all those familiar emotions triggered! Yikes.
    It really makes a difference taking control of your mental space.
    We are only as stressed as we allow ourselves to think we are. There are many people who would have as many things on their plate as those with “stress-pride” but still present themselves with calmness and grace. It’s all about the mindset.
    For anyone who wishes they were less stressed, all they have to do is make a conscious decision to change their mind-set and continue following through. Prioritizing is key!

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 6, 2013 at 9:42 am #

      Erica, that is so true!!! It’s not about the things you do at all. It’s about the mindset. That was what I found so interested eavesdropping on the two women in Starbucks that day. The other woman was clearly doing lots of things – she just talked about them matter-of-factly or with interest and ease, while her friend was listing ‘have-to’s’ and going on and on (and on) about how much there was to do. The contrast speaks exactly to what you’ve said about mindset. If it wouldn’t have taken my rude eavesdropping to an entirely new level, I would have recorded the conversation as a powerful example!

      As someone whose stress-head mindset has improved significantly but is still a work-in-progress, I find that I can quickly jump into that space of making things stressful, particularly when I’m talking with certain people. I catch it far more quickly now and stand back to observe – and to enjoy the realization that it’s a choice. Thanks for your great insight and nice comments – really appreciate it! :-)

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