Stressed about work. Stressed about kids, parents, and partners. Stressed about money, stressed about health. Stressed about politics and war. Stressed about climate change and the future. Overwhelmed. Checked-out. Angry. Crying. Unable to sleep.
Are you feeling stressed-out after reading that paragraph? Me too!
We’re not alone. Almost all my coaching clients arrive at our sessions stressed out, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes they come wanting to address their stress directly, and other times stress is getting in the way of what they want. Either way, they often beat themselves up for being stressed, and they want tips on how to better “manage stress.”
First, I normalize my client’s stress. When I reflect back to them all the challenges, problems, and emotions they’re having, it’s clear they’re not being overly sensitive and dramatic. In fact, I sometimes say (only partially joking), “Wow! And on top of all that you still got up this morning, put on clothes, made it to this session, and are putting words together? That’s incredible, good for you!”
I’m not being condescending, or overly praising basic life skills. I’m championing my client’s resilience and commitment in the midst of chaos. I’m calling attention to how modern humans live in ways that are completely foreign to our species’ 300,000 year existence — and for which our bodies and brains are ill-equipped. I’m celebrating the beautiful genius of my client’s healthy nervous system that’s letting them know it’s too much. They are overwhelmed.
Second, I sometimes name the unhelpful ways “stress” is framed and talked about in the industrialized west, especially the United States. As a hyper individualistic culture, we tend to center problems, and therefore solutions, solely in the individual. However, as one of the most social species on Earth, that’s not reality — it’s harmful BS.
Here’s the truth: human beings are profoundly affected by multiple influences beyond our control. These include the institutions, systems, beliefs, history, and norms of our birth culture and where we reside. They include the geography, climate, and built environment around us. They include the zip code where we grew up, our mother’s emotional state when we were in utero, and the experiences of all our ancestors encoded in our DNA.
The vast majority of what “stresses us out” doesn’t come from us. We feel “stressed out” not because we’re weak, lack character, or haven’t figured out the perfect way to organize our calendar. In fairness, those things might need some attention. But the root cause usually goes beyond our individual choices: harmful relationships, insane cultural expectations for parenting and family life, inhumane societal ideas about working hours and “productivity”, not being paid enough to meet basic needs, crumbling institutions and organizations, capitalistic notions about the worth and purpose of human beings, and a civilization that gives humans too little or too much of what we’re wired to need to thrive.
Pausing to reflect on the broader origins of their stress, my client rarely feels disempowered. They feel empowered. They see clearly that it’s not all their fault, and also not all up to them. They feel lighter, and able to let go of some shame and self-blame.
From that broader, more accurate perspective, my client is better equipped to think creatively about what to do next. They’re more resourced to act in alignment with what’s most important to them.
If they need to brainstorm, I sometimes introduce the concept of “the bowl.” Each of us is a bowl, and our life force (or energy) is the water in the bowl. People have bowls of different sizes and types, and different amounts of water (or other liquid!) in them.
Life pokes holes in our bowls, and our water drains out. That’s just how life works. And sometimes we choose to pour our water into various people and activities. But when our water level is low, it’s low. When our bowl is empty, it’s empty. That’s when we feel stressed and overwhelmed.
There are only two ways to maintain enough water in our bowls: (1) fill it up, and (2) plug the holes.
So I ask my clients:
- What fills your bowl? What brings you joy, or re-energizes you? What gives you a sense of purpose and meaning?
- Then I ask — what most drains your bowl? Who and what saps your energy? Takes your life force? Makes you weary, dry, fragile, or crusty?
- Finally, I ask: What will you commit to do in the next week to fill your bowl? What will you do to plug the holes or reduce the flow?
These questions yield answers that bring more curiosity, joy, movement, and tolerable levels of stress than any generic tips to “manage stress”.
Blaming people for their stress is BS, because it comes from so many places outside our control. However, once we right-size our expectations for ourselves, we can better handle what we can control — the water level in our bowls.
Being honest about our bowls and where our “yeses” (fill) and our “no’s” (drain) lie can bring up fear, anger, and grief. Those emotions need to be held, attended to, and worked through. And while our culture supposedly celebrates “authenticity” and “living your truth”, the no-BS reality is that living more aligned with our values can provoke backlash — especially from those closest to us. Women and BIPOC face extra backlash because we’re most expected to comply with the status quo and make others comfortable. Because of this, living closer to our “yes” and “no” isn’t the right choice for everyone, nor always right at every moment or life stage.
But when we do, there’s a force multiplying effect, because expecting people to get rid of stress on their own is also BS. Once our individual bowl is sufficiently filled, we then have the capacity to tackle the real sources of our collective stress. Only then can we co-create solutions with others that get to the heart of the problem. Only then can we defy insane expectations, change norms, disrupt systems, enact laws, and transform cultures into something that works better for more of us.
Once people start to fill their “bowls”, choose more consciously how they give out their “water”, and plug the “holes”, they tend to live better lives that suit them better. And they also shift our collective field with their new energy, capacity, and example. Everyone benefits.
And that’s no-BS stress management.