The other day, I ran into an old friend from college, Amber. She and I had kept in touch only sporadically, and last I’d heard she was living in England, so it was a total surprise to pass her on a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan.
We made plans for lunch, and when I saw her next, we got to talking. She told me about her fashion design business, her kids, her favorite places to travel. At one point, I said, “Amber, you seem like such a different person than how I knew you in college.”
I remembered her as being timid—kind, sweet, fun, but not particularly ambitious. The woman across from me was empowered, bold, confident.
She laughed. “I am,” she said. “I could not be more different. You knew the ‘old’ me.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Growing up, I had terrible anxiety,” she said. “Every little thing triggered an enormous stress response. Homework, making lunch, doing chores – whenever someone asked me to do something, this tidal wave of stress crashed over me. So I always let other people step in and rescue me. It became a cycle—I came to believe I was helpless.”
“What changed?” I asked. “How did you come to be so successful?”
She smiled. “There was one day in my twenties,” she said. “I was interning at a marketing firm. I really wanted that job to work. I wanted to make something of myself. But I knew that my anxiety was paralyzing me. I knew I’d taken on this persona, as the damsel in distress. But it hurt to be perceived that way. That wasn’t who I wanted to be.”
“What happened at the marketing firm?” I said.
“This one day, I was responsible for putting together a presentation,” she said, “Now, I’d done a hundred presentations in college, but of course I’d always let someone else do the work. So I put it off for days, while my anxiety grew and grew. I was terrified that I’d mess it up.
“But by then, I’d been doing work on myself. I had a life coach, I was reading about self-empowerment. I hadn’t applied it yet, but I had a plan: the next time I was stressed to the point of paralysis, I would step back, take a deep breath, and ask myself: what’s one thing I know how to do, right now?
“The day of the presentation, my boss asked me for the slideshow. I had to tell him I didn’t have it yet. I was so ashamed, I couldn’t even come up with an excuse.
“And he said, ‘Amber, do it now.” And he walked away.
“I was terrified. But part of me knew I’d been training for this moment. So I stepped back, took a deep breath, and thought, What’s one thing I know how to do? Well, I knew how to open Powerpoint. Okay. That I could start with. I broke it down, and honestly, just getting started helped me bypass the worst of the anxiety.
“When I handed him the flash drive, I felt this rush of victory. Like I’d conquered my fears.” She laughed. “By making a slide show.”
Amber is certainly not the only person to handle stress that way. Brene Brown calls this “under-functioning”—when a person shrinks back, paralyzed by their feelings of fear and doubt. Their beliefs fall into a pattern of “I won’t function, I will fall apart. I don’t help, I need help” (from her book Rising Strong).
The flip side of that, as you might guess, is “over-functioning”—wherein the person dives in head-first, staying busy to distract themselves from the stress. They tend to bite off more than they can chew, multi-task, micro-manage, and yes, take over for under-functioners. Their beliefs sound more like “I won’t feel; I will do. I don’t need help; I help.”
Whichever one describes you (and it may be both), the upshot is this: stress pulls us away from our most powerful selves.
When we stand in a place of stress, when we over- or under-function, we’re not centered. We’re not our most resourceful or creative selves, because our response is dictated by fear. Stress, panic, fear, doubt, anxiety – all those things are like Kryptonite to peace, self-confidence, creativity, and joy.
But we’re not powerless against them. We can choose the good stuff. It takes a little practice, a little brain-rewiring, but anyone can make that choice.
So let’s take a page out of Amber’s book.
When you feel a stress response coming on, no matter what kid – step back. Literally, physically (if you can), take one step backward. Imagine putting some distance between you and stress. Notice what’s going on.
Inhale, exhale. Remind yourself that you can do this. Look for what you can change.
What’s one thing you can do, right now, no matter how small?
Notice, too, what’s outside your control. Let those things go. (If you’re an over-functioner, this might take some brutal honesty on your part.)
Then, when you’re ready, take the action you need—but take it from that place of center, not stress.
Whenever you need to, go back to that place of calm—the place that exists outside of stress—and remember, you got this.
Go out and shine.
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