Staying Sane Under Pressure

Knowing your habitual pattern of response when challenged, pressured or even threatened is as useful as knowing about the basic building blocks of your personality. If you don’t want to live on autopilot or to become the victim of your own destructive drivers, this area of self-knowledge is essential. Even better if you can collect some data from what other people say they see you doing when you are really up against it! The more you know about what you actually do as opposed to what you would like to think you do, the better.

But if you are going to stay really sane at work, you need to go one step beyond self-awareness. You need to understand where the more dysfunctional elements of your personality under pressure come from.

The reason why therapists and psychologists are so interested in your formative years is because of the profound impact that they have. The life scripts that are formed early on run the risk of being repeated forever. Not all of these scripts are positive and empowering.

When you were growing up, you received a number of “parental” messages about how you should be, and you incorporated these into your own mind without questioning them. Some of this programming was complete before you could even speak. Some came later. If you didn’t have parents, then the messages would have come from your primary carers or other important attachment figures. During your teenage years you inevitably rejected some of this material as you formed your own identity, but you kept a surprising amount in your mental attic and what you kept has helped shape who you are.

More than at any other time, this programming plays out when you are under pressure. Before you feel like blaming your parents or caregivers by the way, it’s best to realise that a lot of what was passed on to you was done unintentionally or even unconsciously.

So, what exactly were you exposed to?

Back in the 1960s two therapists called Bob and Mary Goulding described twelve themes that occurred time and time again as the basis for early negative decisions that people made about their lives. For each “Don’t” statement, they asserted that a child would create an “OK-if” response.

It is these responses that we see being played out so frequently at work and which are brought into sharpest relief when you are under pressure or out of sorts.

  • Don’t Exist – not all of us were born into families where our place was secure, where we were welcomed, nurtured and nourished. A surprisingly large number of very successful people we meet had quite a rough start to their lives; many cope very well, for some there remain significant scars. Staying sane seems to us to be very much about accepting your fundamental right to exist and not to have to justify this existence.
  • Don’t Be You – this could have been the result of your parents wanting you to be the opposite sex to that which you are; sometimes it’s about comparison with a sibling or another person. Either way, you grow up with the idea that it is better to be like someone else than to be you.
  • Don’t Be a Child – this parental message could have been given to you by adults who are not comfortable with small children or who were never properly allowed to be children themselves. You could also consider this message as “don’t have fun” or “don’t enjoy yourself”. In some families fun is not rewarded and is confused with sin or laziness. Being a child, as opposed to being childish, is incredibly important at times. Without permission to be a child it is very hard to be creative.
  • Don’t Grow Up – it is often the youngest child who gets this message. Maybe one or both your parents placed great emphasis on being a good mother or good father. Sometimes caregivers who are afraid of being left give this message. Perhaps one of your parents found your growing sexuality as an adolescent disturbing and became distant. You could have interpreted this as it not being OK to be an adult.
  • Don’t Make It – some parents seem to live their lives vicariously, celebrating every success of their children as if it were their own. Some become jealous though. All parents have a child locked inside them just as you do. That child is capable of feeling jealous even as the adult part of the parent celebrates his or her offspring’s success. This confusing message from a parent might make you subconsciously sabotage your own success later in life.
  • Don’t (Do Anything) – this is all about fear. It’s the message that says keep your head down, stay safe and make sure you always have a grown-up looking over you. As a result you might be waiting for someone to give you permission at work when, in fact, you should be taking action.
  • Don’t Be Important – if you received this message, you might find it tough when you are called upon to be a leader, when you are promoted and when people start to defer to you. Your response might be to do yourself down, to use a lot of self-deprecating humour or to even make a mess of more senior jobs so you can return to the safety of relative anonymity.
  • Don’t Belong – perhaps you grew up feeling different from the children around you and your parents reinforced this. Perhaps this was connected with race, religion or assumed social status. As a result, you might now find being in certain groups a challenge.
  • Don’t Be Close – this could have been modeled to you by parents who rarely touched each other or who didn’t display physically affectionate behaviour to you. Or perhaps you come from a family where feelings are not spoken about. If this was the case, maybe you now feel suspicious of the motives of others or you feel inclined to destruction- test your relationships to make sure the bonds are real.
  • Don’t Be Well – there’s a secondary benefit with illness; it gets you attention. Maybe you were starved of real love or at least your parents were distracted and unavailable. If you noticed that being unwell got you the much-needed affection that you were craving, maybe you settled on this as a lifelong tactic?
  • Don’t Think – if one or more or your parents consistently belittled your thinking, this is the message that you might have received. Your adult response to a pressurised situation that you need to figure your way out of might be to become confused or to substitute feeling for thinking.
  • Don’t Feel – if your parents bottled up their feelings, this might be the message that you took on board. Clearly this one has played out a lot for men – “big boys don’t cry” is still commonly heard!

These statements can look a bit stark when viewed in isolation, so it’s best to remember they are based on the primitive thinking patterns of very small children. For the most part, you will have inferred them, and very few will have actually been articulated.

The problem is that, at some level, you remember them, and they come into play without you really being aware of the impact that they have. The more aware you are of what is secretly driving at least some of your behaviour at work, the more resilient you become.

If you would like to read more on this topic and many more then please have a look at more great material that we have collected and put on sane.works or browse our flagship book – Staying Sane in Business

One Response to “Staying Sane Under Pressure”

  1. Andrew Adams says:

    Really interesting article, appreciate the insights Chris

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