#LetsGetPersonal: Paralyzing pressure

After a hiatus of almost 6 months (not that I was super consistent in posting before, but still) I want to share the main reason why I was not blogging. I also want to share some tips (to my future self and possibly others) to prevent this from happening again.

What happened?

Sometimes, I take on too much work, and I don’t even realize that I’m doing this, while I’m doing it. It’s only after a while, when tasks or commitments become clearer, that I understand the impact this has on me, and with community commitments specifically my spare time. At this point, it’s very difficult to go back on promises made. Especially when you really, really, really want to do the thing you’ve committed to. What happens in my mind then, is that I feel a huge pressure to perform/deliver/show up/etc. This “pressure” can become overwhelming, and often I don’t even realize this is happening until it’s too late.

What then happens is one of two things:

  • I break down crying in public, probably in front of my manager (this has happened in the past and their reaction can make or break your professional relationship) – this is often the case when it’s work commitments that are building up
  • I am completely paralyzed mentally and every action takes such a huge amount of (mental) energy that nothing much happens anymore for any of my commitments apart from what absolutely needs to happen – this is usually for non-work commitments

The first one is pretty obvious, but it can take a while for the second one to become apparent. I can personally identify this is happening when

  • Tasks keep getting postponed
  • I put things on the calendar yet always find an excuse to do something else instead
  • I don’t do anything that does not have someone waiting for my output (e.g. blogging)
  • I often say (or think) “I didn’t have time for that”
  • I go to bed at night thinking “tomorrow I will do better” but tomorrow ends up being more of the same

Why this is a problem

Obviously, I’m not getting anything done this way. Which, if you decide to do that, is fine – there is nothing wrong with taking a break. The problem is that this happens unconsciously, which causes a vicious cycle:

  • I feel overwhelmed by the pressure (real or self-imposed)
  • I don’t get anything done
  • I feel guilty for not getting anything done
  • I blame myself for procrastinating/not making time/etc.
  • This causes more negative feelings which increases the stress I put myself under
  • I feel even more overwhelmed
  • Etc.

In my experience, feelings of guilt and blame don’t result in positive change. Instead, these are catalysts for negative feelings, which I don’t believe can have positive effects.

While this is happening, this is often not visible to others as it is an internal struggle. And for me, this is very difficult to talk about as this feels like I failed.

How to move forward?

Simply understanding and explaining what happens is not enough, this is not a solution. So I want to share how I am moving past the feelings of pressure that are paralyzing my, so that they can help you and future me if this happens.

1. Take a break

Instead of trying to do all the things on your list, or some of them, do nothing. And decide to do nothing for a couple of days. The different with doing nothing because you’re overwhelmed is that this time, it’s a decision. You take a break, a holiday, time off, however you want to call it, you don’t do anything about your tasks, and you decide not to feel guilty about it. This breaks the cycle and will lower your stress levels, allowing you to come back to your task list afterwards with less pressure.

2. Start small

When you come back to it, don’t immediately tackle the big things. Instead, go for some quick wins. Things that don’t take more than a couple of minutes or an hour tops. If need be, divide the tasks into smaller chunks and spread it over several days. It might take longer to get back into it the next day, but you will achieve even less by trying to tackle too much at once and ending back up to getting nothing done.

3. Communicate

If you feel comfortable, talk to people waiting on your input or feedback about the fact that you’re overwhelmed and that it will take some more time to get back to them. Everyone is human and most likely knows what this feels like, so they might be more understanding than you expect them to be. This one is very difficult for me, but when I do it, I’m always pleasantly surprised.

4. Slowly grow what you’re doing

Don’t try to go too fast. Gradually grow the size of your daily or weekly to do list to the level you feel comfortable with. Remember this can differ from day to day or week to week! Be realistic about what you can and want to do in any given period and try not to put too much pressure on yourself.

5. Remove guilt and blame from your vocabulary

Guilt and (self-)blame are negative emotions, which don’t create positive outcomes. When you find yourself overwhelmed and perhaps paralyzed again, don’t blame yourself, instead accept that not every day can be a success and forgive yourself. Be kind, to yourself as well as others. Positive emotions will lead to positive outcomes.

In conclusion

Life and work can be overwhelming. I hope that the behaviours, identifiers and especially steps to take can help you if you also experience this.

What has helped me unfreeze the last time has been taking a 3-week vacation from both work and community, starting small and releasing feelings of guilt over doing less for a time. Especially the last one is a game-changer! Good luck, and remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint.

You got this! 💜

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