Before I started coaching and founded Albany Lane, I had several jobs and leadership roles: in policy development, government relations and arts administration. None of these were particularly glamorous, but they were interesting. I met creative and clever people and most of the work had purpose and meaning. It should have made for a fulfilling and satisfying working life – and in many ways it did.
However what was common in nearly all of these jobs, no matter who I worked for or what I was paid, was a sense of ongoing and relentless pressure. It ranged from wanting to do the best to simply not wanting to be in trouble or caught out. In previous work situations I would blame bosses or more simply “the system” for this stress. If I did not worry and work hard, everything would fall over. There was always way too much to do and too little time, resources and people to get it all done.
I was a classic high achiever with “unrelenting standards”, and even when someone would point out what this was costing me in my life (health, wellbeing, relationships, fun) I would say sure – but it works. I get things done.
However about three years ago I realised that this was not a healthy or even sane way to be. So I began steps to change career and lifestyle, and find a way to work for myself. With the support of my partner, friends and professional coaches I found my way to where I am today.
On this journey, I have learnt more about recognising my own needs, saying no, listening to my intuition. I have developed self-care practices to support being present, compassionate and in balance. I have taken many steps towards on my own authentic path.
Yet I still get thrown off balance by my internal relentless pressure to “succeed”. I find myself back in my old habits, being anxious and stressed, seeking relief in food or distractions, blaming myself for not being good enough, “wasting” time and feeling, frustrated, irritated and unfocused.
This happened again this week, where I was working to two competing deadlines. It was not pleasant and caused me much stress. But even in this difficult situation, I was able to take a step back and see what was going on. Being able to hold the two “realities” of sensation and observation allowed me to find or at least create another meaning for what was going on, that went beyond my old understanding.
At first I saw that I was stressed due to the combination of duelling priorities, over-ambitious scheduling, a mix of non-negotiable deadlines, and my own bad habits (ipad before bed, foregoing exercise, irregular meals and way too much sugar). However I was still frustrated because even with this awareness I was unable to break the cycle and relax through self-direction and will power alone.
My next step was to give myself permission to have the old habits. I let myself be supported for a time so that I could gain some space for myself. It was only then with the pressure off for a little while I could have another look at what was happening.
By stepping back, I could see that the sense of pressure had been building over a few weeks. My old self had attached itself to this sensation, as in the past being in that state made me feel safe in the world. If I was under pressure, I would be on alert, and therefore I would be safe from anything that wanted to get me in a changing and unpredictable world. As Rick Hanson (author of Buddha’s Brain) puts it: The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years… the one’s that survive were fearful and vigilant.
Looking at the world this way, my experiences of the week have a different meaning. The conflicting deadlines were not the “cause” of my stress and anxiety. The real pressure and frustration came from my own procrastination, confusion and distractions. I was pulled back to old behaviours that kept me stuck and the pressure on. There were moments of focus and clarity, but it was very difficult to sustain.
As I develop self-care practices like meditation, regular exercise and relaxation, I become less anxious and stressed – which is a good thing. However I am also challenging this part of me that believes that only by being under pressure can I be safe.
That’s the great paradox: the more I feel relaxed and secure in my life, the more I trigger my inner unconscious stress bunny to create an internal state of pressure and anxiety. This might be familiar to you too. I have had clients report becoming more stressed through regular meditation or other self-care work. We are after all challenging our long-held beliefs that “kept us safe” for longer-term gain.
However in giving up those practices at this point of discomfort, we lose the ability to move beyond the power of the old cues and behaviours. We need to find a way to be OK with the uncomfortable feelings, understand and forgive ourselves, to move past this spot.
Does that make sense? I hope so. Is it logical? Lord no! We are talking about unconscious cues, deep-seated in the reptilian and emotional brain. But in developing an ability to self-reflect and observe myself without judgement and with compassion, I have learnt to find another way.