By Leo Babauta
There isn’t a working person among us who doesn’t deal with stress.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a freelancer, working for a struggling startup, or clocking in working for a company, work stress is inevitable. But where does this stress originate, and how do we deal with it?
Most guides to alleviating stress will give you some actions to take: exercise, sleep well, eat right, meditate and do some yoga at your desk. These are all amazing, and you should do them.
However, I’m more interested in getting at the root of stress. Dig down, ferret out the cause and work with that directly, rather than treating the symptoms. Only once you deal with the cause of stress can you truly be a master of it.
Cause of Stress
Let’s take a look at some things you might be stressed about at work:
- Hard deadlines
- Difficult co-workers or boss
- Uncertainty about your job
- Uncertainty about whether you can succeed at this project
- Competition, office politics, interpersonal conflicts
- Not having enough time for family or personal life
- Being overwhelmed by too much to do
There are many more possibilities, but these are a good sampling. In all these examples, the cause is really the same thing:
We are attached to how we want things to be. We have an ideal about how each of these situations should be, and our clinging to this ideal is causing the stress.
Let’s take the uncertainty about the job. Of course, that’s not ideal, we would rather have a stable job that we don’t have to worry about. So reality is not matching our ideal (a stable job), and that causes us stress. We don’t like the present situation, and this not wanting uncertainty is causing us to stress out.
The same is true of each of the above examples—when a co-worker is not meeting our ideal, when we have an ideal that we won’t have too much to do, when our ideal of having easy-to-meet deadlines isn’t being met, we get stressed.
Unfortunately, this happens all day long, every day. Our ideals about reality are constantly not being met, and so we stress out. It builds up. It becomes a health problem.
So what’s the way to deal with this? Let’s take a look.
Dealing with the Cause of Stress
If our attachment to an ideal is the cause of our stress, then can we just not have ideals? Well, that would be ideal, perhaps, but no, I’ve found it impossible to not have ideals. The ideals come up, unbidden, in our active and ever hopeful minds.
The way to deal with the cause of stress is to 1) notice that you’re feeling stress or frustration, 2) mindfully notice your attachment to an ideal, and 3) loosen the attachment, finding love for the actual reality of the present moment.
Let’s look at these in turn.
First, you have to notice the stress. Learn to see your frustration or worry about something as a signpost, a flag that tells you what’s going on. In this way, stress becomes a positive thing, because it’s letting you know that something is going on. It’s like a notification system on your phone; instead of ignoring the notifications, as we usually do (we don’t like to think about stress), we can mindfully drop into ourselves and deal with it.
Next, you have to mindfully notice your attachment to the ideal. That means dropping in and saying, “Hey, things are meeting my ideal and it’s stressing me out. What’s my ideal?” It’s probably something that is more secure, stable, comfortable and controlled than what you’re currently experiencing.
For example, if you’re overwhelmed by too much work, your ideal is probably that you have a very controlled, comfortable amount of work, and that you’re on top of it all. That would feel much more secure, stable, comfortable to you.
Unfortunately, comfort and control and security aren’t what life provides us. It mostly provides us the very opposite—something chaotic, unpredictable, uncomfortable and unstable. And we can be upset by this, or we can embrace it. We can hate all of this about life, or we can love it. This is a choice.
Finally, we can loosen our attachment to this expectation or ideal. We can say, “This ideal is not helping me. Clinging to wanting things this way is actually harming me. I hereby open my heart to many more possibilities.”
That means we can be open to a less-than-ideal co-worker, who isn’t perfect and is struggling with his issues. We can be open to loving having too much work, more than we can possibly do, and having to prioritize and just focus on the important stuff for now. We can be open to the possibility that we’ll do poorly, or lose our jobs, because even then we’ll figure something out and life will be just fine.
Loosening our attachments is about realizing that life doesn’t have to be one way—our way—but that we can be open to life’s way.
It’s about learning to love everything, shit and all. It’s about being curious about life, about others, instead of judging life and other people as bad. And then it’s about working from this place of peace and love. Have too much to do? Pick one task, and do your best with it. Have an annoying co-worker? Find compassion for her struggles, and be curious about what she’s going through, and talk to her compassionately and empathetically about your conflict with her.
Worried about losing your job? Focus on doing your best, while preparing yourself for the possibility that you might need to find another job.
Many people won’t like this solution, because it means that they don’t get the ideals they want. Most of us want to control life to be the way we want. And that’s fine, if it works for you.
What I’m suggesting is being open to the many other possibilities, opening your heart to what life offers instead of what you want it to offer, being curious about what’s really in front of you rather than judgmental, and learning to love everything as it is.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
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