It's OK to Not Be OK
We live in an age of image projection. Instagram gets over 95 million posts per day. You can find hundreds of thousands of pictures of engagement rings, new puppies, exotic dinners or washboard abs at any given moment. Even LinkedIn is probably sending you dozens of notifications each month reminding you to congratulate your high school acquaintances on their job-iversaries.
It's easy to get caught up in the general tendency of creating an illusion that we have our lives perfectly together. After all, people are watching. So, what happens when you are not OK? When depression sets in, when negative self-talk gets too loud or when you get let go, get dumped or lose a loved one. What do we do when we don't have a solution?
During hard times, most people want to skip past the moment of acknowledging that they aren't OK and go straight to working toward a resolution. Resolutions -- even tough ones -- make us feel in control. Admitting that you're struggling doesn't feel as manageable, or fit in with the sense of perfection that most people get blasted with on social media. But the ability to sit with a feeling of failure can be one of the most important skills you learn, both in life and in work.
The power of saying "I'm not OK"
Embracing tough moments, instead of swiftly moving past them, can be incredibly powerful when practiced correctly. Framing the situation correctly is validating; you acknowledge that your feelings are justified, and that even though your situation is not ideal, you accept there is nothing wrong with the fact that you're struggling. This is not about accepting and ignoring, this is accepting and moving through.
A study from Montana State University found that people who are authentic and honest with themselves can overcome feelings of shame -- which would otherwise cause them to devalue themselves.
Dwelling on a feeling of failure is paralyzing. It will keep you from asking for help when you need it or making good choices.
Understand that sometimes your emotions take precedence over finding a solution. We often discount the value of feelings -- especially in the workplace -- but you need to remember that in the end, emotions are simply information.They are facts of life like any other. Emotions exist, and when you're making decisions, you'll have to factor them in.
Everyone has points in their career where they make a major mistake or feel overwhelmed by their workload. Women in particular are usually taught not to talk about it. But according to the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, suppressing negative feelings can cause an "emotional load" that causes you to burn out faster, give up more easily and ultimately be less successful.
As an entrepreneur, professional woman and recovering perfectionist, I've realized I need to give myself permission to be not OK sometimes. I accept that there isn't a solution right now, and I tell myself that that's OK. That attitude is what has given me the stamina to accomplish everything that I have, even when times felt dark.
Four ways to ground yourself when you're feeling overwhelmed at work
Enduring uncertainty isn't easy. It's a professional skill that needs to be fostered like any other. I have four main tactics I personally use in order to stay centered during challenging times.
You may have heard it a hundred times from your yoga teachers, but it bears repeating: Breathing is the single best way to get yourself centered.
There are many different therapeutic ways to breathe, but here's a simple one I enjoy: If possible, lie on the floor, knees up but feet planted. Otherwise, find somewhere where you can be seated. Take one hand and put it on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale for three seconds breathing through your belly, then an additional two seconds filling the chest with air. Hold the breath for a moment and exhale through the mouth completely.
Breathing effectively can literally cure the physical aspects of anxiety. It's an underrated skill when we talk about what contributes to professional success, but it can make a huge difference.
2. Find a mantra.
You might not consider yourself a "mantra" kind of person, but positive affirmations have been consistently shown to make a major positive impact on confidence and performance.
That said, there's no need to start memorizing inspirational quotes or learning Buddhist scripture. Create your own mantras, ones that resonate for you. Figure out what it is that you need to hear in order to feel stronger. Some things I find comfort in saying are "I am whole. I am safe. I am here." Or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out." These are just simple sentences, but I find them to be powerful in their ability to bring me to my current state.
I am huge fan of going for walks when work gets hectic. It's a valuable way to let your body influence what your brain is doing, instead of the other way around. Try using the power of your steps to help calm your mind and reconnect with the immediate present, so you can keep things in perspective.
The way you hold and move your body can also legitimately influence your sense of person ability. In social scientist Amy Cuddy's famous TED Talk, she talks about how body language influences confidence. I teach the power of posture and a strong mind-body connection in the first part of my four-part workshop series, Developing Executive Presence. The goal is to help students develop their own authentic presence as a base necessity for the workshops that follow.
4. Talk about it.
Sometimes, you just need a third-party opinion in order to keep things in perspective. Reach out to your loved ones, friends or even coworkers.
Holistic psychotherapist Kat Dahlen deVos has some great thoughts on the subject: "Sometimes, when we are experiencing fear, sadness or any other painful emotion, our tendency is to feel very alone -- like no one understands or can relate to us. As a result, we isolate, which can actually increase the intensity of our suffering by activating our stress response (a.k.a 'fight or flight'). When we're talking to a loved one about what we're going through, we're doing two things that can actually help us to move through the difficulty: allowing our vulnerability to be witnessed, and building the capacity to tolerate painful experiences."
Other people might be able to make a point that you hadn't considered, or they might just listen and validate what you're feeling. Either way, talking honestly about how you're feeling will ground you, and it might even convince your listeners to be more genuine with themselves about their emotions, as well.
We're conditioned to think that we always need to give a sense of perfection, but in my experience, that hurts more than it helps us. Humans are flawed, and they struggle in their work life just like in their regular lives. The people who end up being the most successful aren't the ones who don't struggle. They're the ones who know it's OK to not be OK.