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Yesterday I was having lunch with my old colleagues. We had a great conversation: several people told me they liked my blogs, so I was feeling wonderful. Of course, this is not even remotely interesting to you, but it did encourage me to finally start writing again. So, here it is!

The topic: stress takes you back to your childhood and your family. Why?

The autopilot

When there we’ve got more work than we can handle, we build up stress, and when we’re stressed, we revert to running on the automatic pilot as much as we can. Going on autopilot saves us energy. However, the autopilot is not always pleasant for people around us:

  • It’s locked in on the goal
  • It hates distractions
  • It believes it’s always right
  • It’s quickly on the defense
  • It’s irritable with what- or whoever irrelevant for our goal

That type of singular focus is a survival mode. And when we are in survival mode, we depend on our earliest learnings.
Oh yes, we made incredibly important decisions on how to survive at the well-established and mature age of 0 to 3 years old. How to get ourselves fed, a clean living environment (read: diapers), care in case of injuries, cuddles
and the right clothing to keep us warm or cool. We learned to influence our mom and dad to get us the basis of the Maslow pyramid. And, possibly, we learned to manipulate our older siblings into being accommodating as well.

Not many of us have had reasons to revisit the adequacy of our survival methods afterwards. So, with a reptilian built-in function, further socially developed at an age when we were not much beyond little mammals, no wonder our survival
mode is a bit basic.   

So, what mattered in your family for survival? With that I mean: what was appreciated, what was frowned upon? When did you get that pat on the back and when were you sent upstairs to go to sleep without your dinner?

In my family, I felt I had to be brave, strong, grow up fast and work hard. No complaining, no crying. Asking for help did not seem to be an option. Guess how I deal with stress…. I tough it out till my body refuses further duty – even then, not asking for help. My willpower and mind want to keep going.

For many of you this may be similar: your independence and drive makes you successful. Managers and leaders usually have this quality in common. They learned to take care of themselves – and others – at a young age.

Being in charge feels safe and familiar. Normal. Normal is good.

So you default into that instinctual behavior under pressure:

  • You may take on more instead of less. Because then you’re sure it gets done, correctly.
  • You may want to protect others. Because they’ve got so much and you know you can handle it.
  • Your manager asks you to go the extra mile. Because they have this indefectible feeling for your skills in this area.
  • Or worst case scenario: while you’re taking on your boss’ work, your staff also knows how to manipulate you into doing what you’re great at, but which is actually their task.

Now, even if this is your “normal” autopilot, it’s probably not the most effective or efficient for the company, for your team, for you. A tad bit close to burn-out.

Solution #1 Soft shells

Knowing how you do this – stress – will help you become aware of how your automatic pilot works. And when you are aware … guess what? You’re no longer on automatic pilot. You can now choose to do something different.
It will be outside your comfort zone. Not familiar, not normal. It may even give you a feeling of shame or guilt. That would be your family conscience speaking. It’s telling you that “this is not the way we do things around here…”. However, remember: what worked in your family may not be the most effective at work.
So, catch yourself. Know when you’re going on automatic. And do something different, anything else will do till you find the ways that work better for you. 

Solution #2 Hard nuts

One step beyond is to understand the system you came from, your family situation.

Give some thought to the following questions.

  • Are you regularly asked to brainstorm strategy with the boss or the leadership team a level above yours?
  • Are you regularly requested to mediate in conflicts?
  • Is hierarchy such a non-issue for you that it leads to comments and remarks by colleagues?
  • Are you judging your boss’ or your boss’ boss performance? Making statements like “If I were his or her boss, I would …..”.
  • If you’re a man: are you more connected to your mum or did you have a sense of responsibility and caring towards her because your dad wasn’t home or readily available for support?
  • If you’re a woman: are you more connected to your dad or did you have a sense of responsibility and caring towards him because your mum wasn’t home or readily available for support?

If you’ve said “yes” to a couple of these questions, you’ve put yourself in the shoes of one of your parents to help the other one, or you were even taking care of both your parents.

That’s a lot of responsibility. Which is fine when you’re solving kids’ problems. Which is wonderful when business is running smoothly. Everyone loves you because when they give you something it always gets done, and then some.
Not so fine when you already have too much going on at work, and you’re on the automatic pilot, and this nasty little pilot needs to stay socially adept to fit into a hierarchy with a lot of stressed people.

Going overboard

Suddenly, it becomes remarkably easy to step on someone else’s toes. Suddenly, you’ve done something wrong in their eyes. Being blamed for charging ahead.
While you were trying soooo hard to make it work! Are they freaking crazy?!

No, actually…
You are.
Sorry about that.

Because what worked well in your family – with one parent being unavailable, it was great that you were there when your mum needed a friend or your dad wanted someone to speak with as an equal – doesn’t work in business. You’re
not supposed to step out of place into your boss’ seat, or some other department’s seat.

And you wouldn’t… if you weren’t stressed.

Get what I am saying here? This was a tough one for me.

However, once I knew… what a relief! That it isn’t my place to have an opinion about what my management is deciding. That another department’s business is none of my business.That my boss’ business is none of my business.
That if my boss isn’t functioning well, it’s up to his or her boss to decide to do something – or not. It’s not my job to do their work or sit on their seat.

Wow, not spending time on those things leaves a lot of space and energy that I can use for my actual work!

Now, what I described above is called triangulation and parentification in psychological terms. I don’t need you to know that. I only ask you to consider if some of this is true for you – or, in fact, for some of your staff.
If it’s true for you, to take the next step. Get out of your comfort zone to do something about it. For your own good.

There is an easy way to solve it.

So easy that it took me 6 months just to get started. When my coach and trainer told me I had to do this, I laughed my head off. Found it ridiculous and unimaginable. Yes, I was a hard nut to crack.
Maybe you are too, but then again, maybe you aren’t.

The trick is to put up a photo of your parents and bow to them, while thanking them for what they’ve given you. Every day. Till you believe it.  

Ridiculous? Right? Funny? Unimaginable? Unfair? Easy?

What you’ll get

Now, there are some consequences when you do this.

  • You’ll probably stop trying to save the world all on your own.
  • People around you may not like that you’re no longer doing everything.
  • You may feel more connected to that “other” parent (alive or dead, this is your internal autopilot process).
  • You’ll definitely feel less stressed when you switch off the autopilot with its guilt and shame factors.

No worries if you need more than 6 months to get that picture up there. I know some of you are still laughing, but you’ll get to it in the end :-)!

I love to hear if what I described is an issue for you. If you recognize the family pattern (it’s probably going on since generations).

Or let me know if you face another type of stress entirely.

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