I recently had a difficult conversation with a friend who was going through a shitty situation at work. We talked through a few options and action steps to take, and I encouraged them that this too would pass. Sure enough, I got a text from the friend yesterday that they had made it through the situation and things were back to normal.
While I was relieved to hear the situation was solved, I couldn’t help but think about the conundrum that my friend faced in being afraid to ask for help. It was frustrating to see that they were so afraid and concerned about asking for help on how to deal with a stressful or difficult situation they were encountering in the workplace. It’s as if it’s wrong or taboo to admit that you’re stressed, struggling or challenged, and that you have to pretend that everything is fine when it’s not.
One of the realities of life and work is that there are going to be tough and shitty times, and not everything is going to always be rainbows and butterflies. Instead of hiding behind them or viewing them as taboo topics, I think it’s important to acknowledge and discuss them.
Upon further reflection of my friend’s experience, I started thinking about challenging situations I’ve had at work, and how I’ve managed to work through them. I know I’ve certainly had my fair share of struggles, challenges, and stumbles, but through these stumbles and successes, I’ve learned some tactics for how to handle difficult and stressful situations.
Go into the eye of the storm
When you start to experience a difficulty or challenge that makes you feel uncomfortable, it can be scary and cause anxiety or concern. This is a classic case of “fight or flight.” While it might seem comforting to shy away from the task at hand, if you want to continue to learn and grow, it is essential to go head-first into the eye of the storm despite how scary or challenging it may seem. So why should you dive in head first?
First, it’s hard to fully run away from problems at work, especially if they pertain to your job responsibilities. While you can procrastinate or perhaps push them off to the side or onto someone else, at some point they will catch up to you and impact you in a negative way.
Second, seeking comfort is great and feels good but doesn’t necessarily help you continue to learn and grow your skillset. The best way to see what you are made of is to put yourself in uncomfortable positions to put your skills to the test. It may mean short-term pain (and hopefully it’s not too severe), but over the longer term it will help you gain additional skills and experiences.
If you’re in a tough situation right now at work, you’re probably telling me that it’s easier said than done, and you’re probably right. But think of everything that you do well. At some point in your life, you didn’t know how to do that thing, and now, it has become second nature. The only reason that happened is because you took a plunge and pushed through it. This is the exact same thing.
Focus on progress each day
Drawing on the previous analogy, think back to that area in which you excel. Did you become an expert in it overnight? It most likely took a lot of time, trial and error, a lot of effort, and plenty of discipline and persistence. These things are going to be true with whatever challenge or situation you are dealing with at work. You won’t get through it overnight, and you won’t master it in a day, so once you’ve accepted the fact that you are going to go into the eye of the storm and that things won’t change overnight, you’ve also accepted that you’re going to need to work at this for a while.
This may seem challenging and daunting. Instead of trying to think of it as a whole, focus not on solving the challenge or beating the stage, but rather as making progress each and every day to your goal. If you accept that it won’t get better overnight, but that there are things you can do to improve each day, it becomes a much smaller and more realistic goal, one that seems attainable.
Research tells us that one of the criteria of successfully tackling projects and goals is our belief that we actually have what it takes to achieve the goal. So, make the goal seem achievable instead of insurmountable by focusing on it in smaller chunks.
Identify Stress Relievers
When you’re going through a challenging experience, it can be all consuming. Even when you’re not working, it can be easy for it to dominate your thoughts and feelings which can hinder your overall outlook and put additional stress and worry in your life. One thing you can do right away is to identify things that are stress relievers in your life and find ways to incorporate those things in your life as much as possible while you are going through this experience.
For some, it means going for a run, practicing yoga, or listening to music. For others, it means journaling or spending time with friends. Identifying these things and incorporating them into our week can help us manage the stress and make sure that whatever we are going through doesn’t consume our entire life.
Phone a friend
One of the best ways we can help ourselves is by relying on our support network. For example, during a recent challenge at work, the first thing I did was to call up and email all my friends who I thought had experienced something similar before and ask them for their advice, tips and tricks. It’s important to remember that while you may feel that you are alone, the odds are that you are doing something that someone has A) probably done before and B) probably felt how you feel. If they were able to get through it, so can you. Sure enough, after emailing about 5-6 people, I got responses ranging from “I am going through that right now!” to “I know exactly how you feel.”
In addition to sharing their tips with me, a few of them began reaching out to me on a regular basis as I went through the difficult stretch, just to make sure that I was doing okay and moving forward. You may not have all the answers, and that’s okay. But if you dig deep into your resources, you probably can find some answers that will help you out
Focus on what’s within your control
Some of these things will be within your control, and in most cases, you can take action to correct them. Other things are outside of your control and are things that will happen or occur regardless of what you do or don’t do. Now, focusing only on what you can control sounds great in theory, but it is harder to do in reality, especially for people who struggle with it.
Focusing or spending time on things you cannot control takes energy and resources away from you that you should be using to spend on things you can control. It’s exhausting and stressful as well. Furthermore, identifying and then focusing on things you can control also helps you prioritize where to spend your time and ultimately channels your energies to the most important things.
Change Your Thoughts
When all of the above didn’t work, I simply practiced changing my thoughts. We often think thoughts and feelings aren’t something that we can control, but they are. I practiced daily to focus on what I was thinking, what I was feeling and why I was feeling it, and then tried to replace it with happier thoughts. These are things you already know, but sometimes you need the reminder that when times are tough, this is exactly the opportunity when you get to practice this skill. In fact, when times are not tough, you cannot practice this skill.
Research shows that people who practice gratitude tend to experience more positive and happy emotions. These emotions can be especially helpful during stressful or difficult times.
I had a gratitude journal that I wrote in just to remind myself of things that I was thankful for. If you can master your own mind, if you can learn how to make the best of any situation, how to be yourself when you don’t feel like yourself, how to find yourself when you don’t feel like you’re on the right path, you will come back to this skill again and again throughout your life in every bad or hard time, and it will make you not just a successful person but an extremely happy person.
One way to break away from your stress or concerns is to channel them towards helping other people. Find a way to help someone at some point throughout the day. You can do simple things. Call a friend and give them advice on something that is on their mind, forward a new idea or website to a colleague that is relevant to them, or hold the door open for everyone you see during the day. I find when you focus your energy on helping someone else, it A) makes you feel like you’re contributing to someone else which makes you feel positive and B) takes your mind off of whatever stress or concerns that are on your mind.
Debrief when it’s done
One thing you can do when it’s over is to ask yourself, “What just happened?” Before you move on from this experience, take the time to ask yourself what you did, what you learned, and what you can take from this moving forward.
Doing a mini debrief or reflection will help you understand what you just went through and experienced. Furthermore, it will shed light on the skills you gained and the lessons that you learned. Yes, sometimes the experience can be so bad that all you want to do is forget about it, but I’ve found doing a simple reflection/debrief exercise can also be helpful and cathartic, and in some cases, it can help you find the positives in a shitty situation.
Stress at work and shitty work situations will never go away, so if you plan on working for many more years, it’s worthwhile to spend time thinking about how to best navigate them when they arise. The good news is that there are things you can do to navigate these tough situations and thrive in them while maintaining some semblance of balance in your life. We can’t always control what will happen to us, but we do have control on how we respond, and I’m confident that if you use some of these tips next time you’re in a stressful situation at work, you’ll be on your way to overcoming whatever comes your way.