or will be!
Professional responsibility can be demanding
In an earlier incarnation, I had a reputation for taking on the tough projects – multiple constituencies, vested interests, and consequences for everyone involved. I loved that work. It took listening, carefully; it took discretion; and it took carefully working through details to find solutions that others had missed and being very clear about the consequences we asked each party to tolerate.
During most of the time I did this work, I also taught at the local university. Students were always surprised when I told them, usually to encourage them when they were losing heart over a project of their own, that there was a moment during every project when I felt the project was going to beat me. There was always a moment when I had felt that this would be the one.
Running a small business is a lot scarier
Starting a small business took anxiety to a whole new level, and the question I ask myself, is why? Why is worrying about cash flow so much more scary?
Is it because we are so much less in control?
Is it because the stakes are higher – if we mess up we may have to pack up the business?
Is it because running out of money assaults our middle class identity more severely than not acing a professional project that was regarded as difficult in the first place?
Is it because I have higher self-efficacy or self-belief in professional work?
Is it because professional work is for other people and I am less motivated to look after myself?
Psychological advice almost seems flippant
There is a lot of advice around for dealing with debilitating anxiety and I have dispensed a lot of it myself.
- I like to be well prepared so I have no reason to be anxious.
- I make sure I have a fall back position.
- I remind myself of good times.
- I value my social support – I know it helps.
- And I make sure I get exercise, sleep, and eat sensibly.
The truth is is when we feel deep anxiety, it detracts from anything else. We don’t feel prepared. We don’t have a fall back position. Good times in the past aren’t really relevant. We’re on our own. And now we, can’t sleep, can’t eat or eat too much, and exercise makes us feel like we will pass out. And if we are really lucky, we have a full scale anxiety attack that looks like a heart attack to anyone watching.
Lao Tzu might have better advice
I pondered this problem for a day and equally pondered the inadequacy of our advice. We are able to tell people how to deal with theoretical fear, not the real thing.
Then I stumbled on a saying on the Positive Psychology Daily News New Year blog (which is worth reading for itself – check out the Garbage Truck video and the Gratitude Chain). About four authors down, Kirsten quotes the Chinese Philosoper, Lao Tzu.
Seek not happiness too greedily and be not fearful of unhappiness.
This is very much like Franklin Rooseveldt”s “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”, but it says more. It does not suggest that we should dismiss negative emotions, or try to arrange our life to avoid them.
A full life includes the positive and the negative, all four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter, and we need to be competent in managing all of them. To think of winter as the absence or negative of summer, distracts us from learning how to deal with winter, and more importantly, how to enjoy it.
The idea of happiness promoted by Losada’s work on the dynamics of happiness makes us think of emotional space that includes joy and grieving, linked together on a trajectory shaped like a three dimensional butterfly. It is just as healthy to be in a place of grieving or fear, as one of joy and pleasure, provided it is a place we are passing through and approached in a spirit of inquiry, inclusion and emphasis on what works.
After reading the Lao Tzu quote, the mental trick I found useful was to think of myself inside fear – not looking at it, but being inside it, looking at it around me. That seems to restore a sense of what I am doing.
I have to get good at this!
It is not accepting unhappiness, which one reading of the quotation might suggest, but seeing myself dealing competently and effectively with negative situations.
I hope that this helps anyone else who faces perilous decisions this year!
UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.