I’m behind the counter, sorting through some of my CDs from the backroom.
“Where’d you put it?”
It’s my first job at retail, and I can’t find what I’m looking for. My coworker Richard’s played a couple of pranks on me before, taking things and hiding them.
“What?” Richard said.
“Where’d you put it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I knew you took it. Where did you put it?”
He face turned tomato red and he laughed. I thought it meant he was lying. I got more angry at him, more flustered… and then found the CD had fallen behind some other junk in the back room.
Oops. I started getting angry and needlessly stressing myself out… over something I had zero proof of. On top of that, I made myself feel really ashamed and look very petty.
Definitely not a shining moment in my life, and I hope you’ve never done something like that… but you might have done something that’s needlessly stressed you out.
If you want to lower your stress level, getting rid of the unintentional things you’re doing is a good place to start. Here are seven ways you’re stressing yourself out without realizing it.
1. When You Assume You Make an…
Have you heard this phrase before? “When you assume you make an ass out of you and me.”
That’s exactly what I did and it caused a needless amount of stress for both Richard and myself (Sorry, Richard).
Assumptions are very easy to make, but the problem is they’re not necessarily true. They’re often completely imaginary.
I make assumptions in traffic all the time. If a guy cuts me off or is swerving in and out of lanes, I tend to think something along the lines of “What an idiot,” or if he almost hits me it’s probably closer to “F****** moron.”
These snap judgments are made-up. I don’t know anything about the guy. Could his intelligence be equivalent to a brain-dead monkey? Sure.
But is it really? No.
He could be racing to get his pregnant wife to the hospital, or maybe his kid was in an accident at school.
For yourself, maybe the performance of an employee or coworker of yours is dropping. They’re just not turning in good work anymore.
It’s easy to assume they’re slacking, but maybe there’s a deeper reason like a loved one has passed away.
We tend to do this a lot when someone else hurts us. It’s easy to feel slighted by someone else, and it can hurt a lot when they’re a close friend.
We often don’t know why a person is acting a certain way – but if they suddenly do something to hurt us it’s probably because of something else in their life.
In situations like this, the best thing to do is be empathetic. Look for those deeper reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing.
This can be really hard if it’s someone you don’t like (and you don’t have to like them even after), but it’s not for the other person’s well being – it’s for your own.
But then there’s a bigger kind of assumption that’s even worse…
2. My Life is Over!
“My life is over!”
Is that quote from…
A) A person dying from terminal cancer.
B) A fan reacting to news that boy band One Direction is breaking up.
If you guessed B, you’re right. If you want to cause yourself a huge amount of needless stress, this is an amazing way to do it.
It’s called catastrophizing. When something happens, we blow it out of proportion.
We have a setback and we turn it into, “I’m a failure!” Talk like that implies that you’re currently a failure, you’ve been a failure, and you always will be a failure.
Car breaks down? “The world’s over!”
Make a mistake at work? “They’ll fire me this time for sure.”
Can’t get to the Justin Bieber concert next month? “My life is basically over.”
Ok, you’re probably not lamenting you can’t get to that Beiber concert like that person on Twitter (at least, I hope not), but when we blow things out of proportion, we cut ourselves off from looking for a solution or using that stress energy to refocus our efforts.
Pay attention to your thoughts and what you say to start catching the assumptions and catastrophes you make. The best question to ask is, “Is this true?”
Anything beyond the basic facts of the event are our emotions and assumptions we’re putting onto it. A lot of this involves changing our self-talk. It can be tough! But it’s worthwhile.
Stick to the facts, and instead of reacting to an event, acknowledge how you feel and decide to respond to it instead.
3. I Know I’m Going to Get that Promotion…
What happens when you don’t? How much stress does that cause?
I’ve heard that the greatest source of unhappiness is the gap of where we are vs. where we feel we should be.
Those expectations can be harmful, and we can set ourselves up for huge disappointment.
“Should I not have any expectations?”
The best expectations are the realistic ones you have for yourself. You should always try and do your best and stick to your own values.
If the expectation you set for yourself is, “I’m going to work my hardest for that promotion,” is a lot easier to take pride in that and keep doing your best to increase your chances next time.
Keep in mind that “your best” changes from day to day. It depends on your energy level, your mood, and other things.
But the magic of “doing your best” is that no matter what your best is, if you keep doing it it gets better.
Do your best, stick to your values, and avoid placing expectations on situations you can’t control.
Speaking of unrealistic expectations…
4. Everything I Do Has to Be…
Did you finish that sentence with “perfect?”
If you want to cause yourself loads of unnecessary stress, this is one of the easiest ways to do it. Make sure everything you do has to be absolutely perfect, each and every time.
I used to write a lot of fiction, and in college wrote and finished six novels. That’s a lot for a college student, and when this got brought up with other writers, they would sometimes tell me:
“I can’t do that.”
“I’m always writing down sentences and going back over them to make sure they’re perfect.”
In trying to be perfect, they never got anything done.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in the quality of your work. But there’s a huge difference between sloppy work and work done well.
There’s an even bigger difference between work that’s not perfect and work that actually gets finished.
Our inner critic can be very loud when it comes to letting go of “being perfect.” It can take practice.
If you have trouble with it, consider asking yourself, “Is the extra time and energy it takes for me to be perfect worth the cost?” and “What would I achieve if I dialed back my standards just a tad?”
5. I Can’t Let…
This usually goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism.
“I can’t let anyone else take care of this.”
It’s the belief of, “I have to do everything myself,” or, “No one can do this as well as I can.”
This often results in our plate being much too full. It’s ok to ask for help, and it’s ok to delegate.
But what if those other people actually can’t do it as well as you can?
Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich has a great solution for this called The 80% Rule.
If someone else can do it at least 80% as well as you can, hand it off.
I think this holds especially true if the task is something you don’t enjoy doing.
For myself, I don’t enjoy doing yard work or shoveling snow. Neither does my girlfriend. It’s one of the reasons we were excited to buy a condo with an HOA: we wouldn’t have to do that. If we had moved into a house, we would be paying a service to do it for us.
If it drains your energy and there’s someone else who can do it at least 80% as well as you can, hand it off and focus on the tasks you enjoy more.
6. Can You Do Me a Favor?
This is the other great way to overload your plate and cause yourself a lot of extra stress.
When someone asks you to do something, always say, “Yes.”
Saying “No” is just as important. Without “No,” your “yesses” don’t mean much. And worse, if you always say yes others will abuse it… even without meaning to.
They’ll eat away at your time and energy and won’t think anything of it. And you might not say anything, but you’ll start to resent others who take advantage of your good nature.
But it’s not really their fault. You teach people how to treat you. If you’re always willing and available, they’ll treat you as such.
Become more protective of your time and energy. Not every project is worth it. Not every request is worth it.
Deep down we’re sometimes afraid of being rejected by others so we feel we can never tell them no. And yes, it’s possible you might lose a few friends if you start saying no to them.
But are friends who abuse your time the kind of friends you want to have around?
“No” is how you start creating stronger boundaries. And when you set up stronger boundaries, you’ll start bringing people into your life who have stronger boundaries as well.
Where in your life do you need to start saying “No?”
7. What’s Your Vice?
I’d like to say we’re all perfect human beings who only do things that really benefit us, but we all have “that one thing” we do that doesn’t help us… but it might be really fun.
There are helpful ways to relax when we’re stressed out and there are ways that aren’t.
When we start feeling stressed, maybe because of something like, “I had a bad day at work,” we might ignore it when we get home and plop down in front of the TV for a few hours, or browse the internet for the rest of the night.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved playing video games. They’re a lot of fun for me, but do they help when I’m really stressed out? No! Especially when it turns into playing for hours on end.
To make it worse, I like playing games where you compete against others online. That can be fun, but can get really tense and be even more stressful.
That’s my vice. What’s yours?
Maybe you go out drinking. Shopping. Eat stuff you know you shouldn’t. Or Watch a couple of hours of TV shows.
Those things can be fun, but they don’t help relax us. Instead, if you need to relax, give your brain a break.
A few activities the American Psychological Association recommends to actually help reduce your stress level are things like exercising, meditating, and spending time with a friend. My personal favorite is going for a good walk, and taking a break with a good book is also helpful.
Next time you feel like indulging your vice when you’re stressed out, choose one of the more helpful activities instead.
How are you adding extra stress into your life?
It might be completely unintentional! But you can avoid the stress mistakes I’ve made.
Where do you need to start?