All of us get stressed–just not the same way or at the same things. The way we react to that stress is unique to each of us as well. But when I read about one key aspect of all these differences, an insight formed that has helped reduce the anxiety my sweetheart and I were feeling about a particularly stressful situation considerably.
Much as I mention this in the context of a primary relationship, being aware of this difference can help you get through tough situations with kids, coworkers, parents, or friends–anyone with whom you’re trying to get something difficult done.
The key distinction? Whether we over-rev or pull back when things get tense.
Brene’ Brown marked this difference in her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection. The book is about other things. (Its subtitle is Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are). However, she includes the observation that there are two ways to deal with stress in terms of taking action: Some of us kick it into an extra gear, working to get far more done than is reasonable. Some of us pull back and attempt far less because of the emotional onslaught.
Let’s make something clear here. Neither way is better. They are just both ways people deal with a situation that feels out of control.
The situation that my sweetheart and I found ourselves in was a practical one. We weren’t worrying about the deep issues of coupledom. We were trying to get a house ready to put it up for sale. Anyone who’s sold real estate knows this process is a bit like a negative version of the parable of The Loaves and the Fishes. For every task you get done, two more pop up that must be done to make the place look presentable.
I usually “rise” to such occasions by revving at a faster and faster rate to get it all done. I don’t do other things that also need attention. I short myself on sleep. I drive myself past the point of physical exhaustion.
My guy goes in the other direction. He pulls back–to regroup or just plain rest. He takes longer breaks, has long talks with the neighbors, and runs trivial errands. Until I realized this is part of our differences in coping style, it was the source of a substantial amount of frustration. I was in the the fast lane, moving toward outright resentment at well above the legal speed limit. Why was I working so hard if he was going to take a break and watch TV? Especially since it was his house we were getting ready for the market!
I was working that hard because that’s how I have always dealt with this kind of stress. He was watching TV because that was how he deals with this kind of stress. Let me reiterate. Neither way is better. They are just very different.
Knowing that, we were able to begin talking about what each of us was doing–and able to laugh a bit about how odd it must look to each other. From there we could start to move toward a more common approach–mostly because a lot of the stress went away once we saw how much each other’s coping style was affecting the process.
Is this difference entering into something you’re trying to get done? (I now realize one of my kids is like this as well–and over the years we butted heads more than a few times because of it.) The best way to deal with stress is to get rid of it. And sometimes, just recognizing that the person you’re in it with is not like you in how they are dealing with it is a great start.