Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Under Pressure

I intend this to be a serious post, but I confess that my title was encouraged by the latest news in Deflate-gate.  The owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, says that if the NFL finds nothing in its investigation then the Patriots are owed an apology.  That subject is not my concern here, other than to observe that ratcheting up the pressure when things are murky is not my style, nor is it the style of most people I know in academe.  But it may be the style in big business, where cojones might matter more than smarts. I lead with it only because of my mantra - no pun should be left unturned. 

What I would like to discuss in this post is how the rest of us react when we feel under intense pressure or in milder situations yet when something threatening is perceived.  It is not something we discuss very often.  For example, though I've been involved in a fair amount of leadership training, on both the the recipient end and the provider end, I don't recall it ever being discussed as an issue in such training.  It should be.  It is important for people to understand themselves emotionally well enough to manage this feeling of being under pressure and do so in a somewhat healthful well.  I believe that much of the self-destruction you see in people comes from not having coping skills for dealing with situations when operating under pressure. 

For me it begins with a sense of dread.  I feel ill inside when that happens.  This morning the trigger was checking the road conditions on I-57 up to Chicago and finding that the roads weren't very good in the Chicago area.  My son has a job interview this afternoon and is driving up to Chicago now for it.  Driving in this weather is frightening to me, for anyone at the wheel, whether I'm related to the person or not.  Plus, a few weeks ago my son had an interview in Ann Arbor and the weather wrecked havoc for him on that trip.  So this morning it felt like a replay might happen.  This feeling is deep in me even though I'm not the one who is driving and there's not a thing I can do about it to make it easier on my son.  (I did suggest he wear his sneakers on the way up and only put on his dress shoes once he gets there.  He took me up on that one.)

There is an issue of whether you can function in the moment when that sense of dread emerges.  Some people get that deer in the headlights look.  My reaction most of the time is something of the opposite.  I go into overdrive.  In near panic mode, I want to make decisions rapidly, to resolve the crisis.  It is unlike how I am at other times, where I prefer to be more reflective.  When I'm in overdrive mode, dealing with the situation has my full attention. I have no reserve left.  It is the time I'm most likely to display anger at others, particularly when they question what I'm doing.  That can then readily escalate, as the normal internal buffers which would tend to tone things down aren't present then. 

I believe this going into overdrive is a learned response.  My dad was a severe diabetic and he had insulin reactions (low blood sugar) from time to time.  When you started to see m him perspire and have a glazed look, it always triggered that sense of dread.  It was an emergency and feeling a need to panic came with that.  But response to the situation was critical and I learned to function, be outwardly calm, and do the necessary things to help my dad get past the immediate crisis.  Nevertheless, response in this way can be severely draining, especially the anticipation of the next insulin reaction before the fact.  That took a big toll on my mom, who was a nervous wreck much of the time for that very reason.

I don't want to create the false impression that I'm always functional in a constructive way when I feel dread.  I'm not.  Sometimes the instinct to flea is very strong in me.  Typically I feel shame when running away.  But sometimes shame is not a deterrent.  Instead, it is piling on, in this case self-punishment for caving into one's fears.  There are other times where I wish I could run away but the situation doesn't allow it.  So I have to take my drubbing.

Two different experiences in childhood underscore these reactions.  The first is the source of my fear of dogs.  A dog not on a leash chased me and my brother as we were playing outside.  There was no adult within range to call the dog over and offer us assurance that things would be okay.  My brother and I ran to the front door of our house as fast as we could before getting inside.  I can't remember whether the dog actually nipped one of us or not.  That probably doesn't matter.  Just the chase was enough to create an enduring phobia for me.

The other was a bullying experience, one that was ongoing for a year or two.  On our way while walking to P.S. 203, the elementary school I attended for grades 2 - 6 (it hadn't opened yet when I was in first grade) my friends and I would walk past St. Roberts, the parochial school in our neighborhood.  My memory is not great here, but I don't think we started to walk to school till 4th or 5th grade.  Earlier the parents car pooled and drove us to school.  When they felt we were old enough, we walked.  One of the kids who went to St. Roberts used to pick on me, especially when it was cold outside and I was wearing a hat.  This kid would take my hat and not give it back to me.  I was a big but way too klutzy kid and simply couldn't match up in this dimension with this mischief maker.  I hated when this happened, which it did repeatedly, not every day but often.  Yet there really wasn't anything to do about it at the time.  To this day I have some disdain for wearing hats. 

I am not a psychologist and don't want to claim more knowledge in that dimension than I actually have.  But I think it reasonable to consider these sort of childhood antecedents of adult experience as formative of the "dread trigger" that I had this morning.  Indeed, sometime after my leg accident, when I was recovered physically but less so emotionally, I wrote a post called The Damage That Scars Do, which in part was about the false positives that occur once such triggers have formed.  I do have false positives from time to time.  The sense of dread returns, yet there is no real threat.  This happens to me still, four and a half years after retiring, where work stress, which used to be huge, is now pretty much absent.  Imagine how it is for those who are still running the rat race.  What is to be done about it?

The answers I have to offer to that question are the ones you'd expect.  First, there is no silver bullet.  Expecting otherwise is delusional.  Everybody has stress at work.  Most of the stress is bearable and doesn't trigger the sense of dread.  Feeling annoyed, which can happen much more frequently, is not the same as being afraid.  If you can keep much of the stress in the molehill category, you'll have more in the tank for dealing with the mountains. 

Second, when the sense of dread does occur you can't hold it all inside or it will rip you up.  You need to talk about it with people.  This doesn't mean you air it with everyone.  But with a trusted few you must open up.  This is one real reason why people need a mentor, somebody who knows you well but is detached from the immediate situation.  In my case when I had the campus-level job I was very fortunate to befriend my colleagues from the CIC Learning Technology group.  Most of our interactions were jovial and friendly and not about my particular issues.  Once in a while, usually with a smaller subset of them, we were able to air our troubles and grievances on a mutual basis.  It is not a good thing to learn that your colleagues may have challenges that outstrip your own in consequence.  But it is a good thing that they trust you enough to tell you about it.  Honoring that trust is a prime imperative.  In so doing, they will reciprocate and honor the trust you have placed in them. 

Third, and here I was the example of what not to do, overindulgence in the eating and drinking domain and lack of exercise might be just the ticket for a weekend respite, but when done on an ongoing basis can lead to a self-enforcing negative spiral.  Everyone is too busy - now seemingly all the time.  If you don't plan exercise into the schedule, it won't happen.  And after way too many hours at work, much of the time in meetings that can be stressful, you need relief.  That's where the over indulgence on food and drink fit in.  Instead of being a treat it becomes an expectation.  Then the weight goes up and the attitude about work goes down.

I want to add to this something about working in a large bureaucratic organization (CITES in my case) on a very large campus like the U of I.  There can be disillusionment, not from a sense of dread that is ongoing, but rather from institutional inertia and that blocking the possibility for constructive change.  At first, the two are quite different.  The sense of dread occurs, when it is not a false positive, either in circumstances that are remarkably unpleasant even if manageable, or are unpleasant and doing something about them appears entirely over one's head.  Institutional inertia, in contrast, seems more in the molehill category, especially if you are used to accomplishing things and are new to large organizations.  Over time, however, especially if the inertia begins to seem the norm, the two begin to converge.  Then the dread is ever present and coupled with the poor health habits will make for that descending spiral I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Last, there is a need to give yourself a break.  Most of the people I know have very high expectations about their own performance.  That itself is for the good.  But it means that when they under perform they are disappointed with themselves and are prone to punish themselves in some way (sometimes by working even more hours). The self-punishment can then compound with the initial sense of dread and that can be the making of a disaster.  The ideal expressed in the phase - "don't worry, be happy" may represent too much of the opposite extreme, regarding concern for work.  But it is not too much when considering one's own mental health.  In other words, the external stress is more than sufficient.  One doesn't need to punish oneself for poor performance, in addition.  Yet that is the natural tendency, because there is an implicit assumption that any challenge can be overcome, simply by putting your mind to it.  That assumption may be a good thing too, at first.  It gets you to try hard to best the challenge.  But as a logical matter, the assumption is simply wrong.  You may never know on a case by case basis which challenges are do-able and which aren't.  Giving yourself a break now and then helps to keep you from fretting about that all the time.

Let me close by briefly returning to Deflate-gate.  It is ridiculous, a comedy of the absurd.  Yet the participants (and the fans) may not see it as a comedy but rather as a serious matter.  So too it may be with your own work.  The ticket is in seeing it both as comedy and as drama.  That will not just help you cope.  It will encourage you to enjoy.

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