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Women Who Do Too Much

How HardiCoping helped Beth to regain her health and happiness.

Are you working to exhaustion, giving too much of yourself to everyone and everything? Is there little time to reflect upon what you want---what you need to stay well? Do you feel at times, like you are just around to make sure the lives of your loved ones run smoothly?

If this describes you, you are a Woman Who Does Too Much; this is the popular phrase for women who wear so many job hats daily that they forget about the person who is beneath them. You may think from this term that women who do too much is a contemporary phenomenon, rather than--a condition of womanhood that has existed through time. It's only now that we give ourselves permission to consider the problem and do something about it.

There are books, seminars, and numerous online articles and websites that speak to this particular topic. Some recommend that you manage your time better and delegate chores to family members. Essentially, they are suggesting that you get better at being busy. While others suggest that you schedule time for yourself to rest and relax, or start to live your life more spontaneously.

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Both types of suggestions can be quite helpful, as doing more than you can handle has negative effects on your physical and mental health. Heart attacks amongst women have increased in rate to almost that of men. Poorly managed stress is thought to be related to this phenomenon. Research also shows that women who do too much have depression. The relationship between the stress of doing too much and depression is no surprise. Without enough ways to lessen your physical and mental strain, you are apt to exhaust your body of the nerve chemicals that influence mood.

You can free up time, get better organized, learn how to delegate chores, and take time out for yourself, to start to turn your stress-reaction around. However, there's more to the stress of having too much to do that contributes to the pressure and unhappiness that you feel.

There is an acute and chronic aspect to stress. You need to have adequate time-management, stress-reduction, and organization skills to successfully juggle your responsibilities. Acute stress results, if you lack skill in any of these areas or if the pressure you have outweighs the strength of the stress-management skills that you possess.

Acute stress comes in the form of physical and mental symptoms, like fatigue, irritability, anxiety and tension, depression, headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia, disorganization and short-term memory problems. If it is a skill-deficit that makes your daily responsibilities hard to handle, then the mental and behavioral stress-management recommendations mentioned above will do much to alleviate the symptoms you feel.

Though, things are rarely that simple, right? There are often emotional conflicts that add to your stress, affecting how you feel about the activities that you carry out daily. This chronic form of stress stokes the fires of your acute pressures. Together acute and chronic stress adds up! The stress, frustration, and anger over the responsibilities that you have are often worsened by this emotional conflict.

This conflict usually involves some aspect of your life that you want to change, or get rid of completely, but that you cannot without disturbing the routine or happiness of your loved ones. Now, everything you have to do each day is affected by this emotional problem. And, your effort to manage your acute stress will be less effective, if this emotional conflict persists. Chronic conflicts tend to shade everything else going on in our lives, so that we are apt to mistake everything as more hard and unsatisfying.

Take my patient Beth, for example.

It was a morning like any morning; Beth a 33-year old divorced woman, raising two children, rises before her kids, to walk on her treadmill. She goes back-and-forth trying to wake her children, as she starts to make their breakfast. Beth finally gets her children to sit down and eat their food. Then, her ex-husband calls to say that he needs to change his weekend with the kids, because of work responsibilities. Beth mentally puts this on her to do list telling him she'd get back to him later, once she looks over her schedule. She's got exactly one hour to get the kids dressed, in the car, and ready to go to school, so Beth can get to her full-time job. She's half-way to the kids' school and remembers that, today, it's her turn to bring cookies for her daughter's school party. She pulls in to the nearest grocery store, to pick up a tray of cookies and gets her kids safely to school.

Beth takes off her mother, chef, and chauffeur hat, and for just a minute or two, takes a breather. She remembers that the online preparation course to get her accountant license begins tonight. Just a few minutes before 8:30 am, Beth rolls into the parking lot at her workplace and catches a look at herself in her car's mirror. Beth starts to cry. She sees a tired, stressed woman, older than her actual years, looking back at her.

Later that afternoon, I get a phone call. "Dr. Khoshaba, I'm Beth. I got your name from a friend of mine. I'm a single parent, you see, and trying my best to make everyone happy, to give everyone what they need. Well, it started this morning. I should have baked the cookies for the party at my daughter's school; that's what the other mother's do. I know I'm not making sense. I don't know why I am suddenly having a hard time (she cries). I feel like I'm losing it. I think I need to talk to someone, Can I make an appointment to see you?"

Something in Beth's life had to give, to feel healthy and happy again. Beth likes her job, loves her kids, and generally enjoys the role of mother, housewife and employee. She is also pleased that she is pursuing the personal and professional goals that she put on hold when she got married.

So, why is Beth so stressed, so unhappy? I put Beth through HardiCoping, a hardiness coping technique that helps you to flesh-out and reflect upon the sources of your stress. This is an abbreviated part of her coping process.

  1. Increases your ability to take perspective, by opening up new ways of thinking about the problem.
  2. Opens you to more flexible, imaginative and innovative thinking. Your solutions to problems, thus, grow you emotionally.
  3. Helps you to evaluate better consequences of action through enhanced judgment, planning, and implementaiton of behavior, and
  4. Teaches you how to analyze what is possible in a sitution versus what is a given.

Step 1, I asked Beth to fully describe her problem. Who is involved and what about the problem is stressful to her. This is what she said.

I have a lot of daily responsibilities, taking care of my kids, getting them off to school, making meals, helping them with homework and working full time. It's a lot to handle, sometimes. And, just when I think I've got everything organized, my husband calls to change his weekend with the kids. It's either a work event or romantic getaway-but, he does this quite frequently to me and the kids. I'm expected to change my schedule to meet his requests.

The most stressful part of my problem is really negotiating childcare with my ex-husband. I accomodate his needs. I've taken responsiblity for his work and romance schedule, as if it were mine.

Steps 2 and 3: Which way could your problem be worse? Which way could your problem be better? Here, it is important for Beth to come up with realistic ways, so that she come up with solutions that are unrealistic.

Worse Scenario (Step 2): The situation could be worse, if I had no husband helping me out, at all. He does love his children. He's just selfish. He also knows how to ask me to change my schedule. He never argues or bullies me. He's quite the sweet talker. I don't know if this is good or bad. It would be worse, if Bill were nasty to me.

Better Scenario (Step 3):It would be better, if Bill kept to our childcare arrangements. But, that's unrealistic. Sometimes, things in both of our lives change that require us to be flexible. It would be better, if Bill was more sensitive to how I feel when he switches a childcare weekend to fly to Paris for a romantic weekend with his girlfriend.

Step 4: What has to change in the situation, or in you, for the better scenario to come about? Remember, relate this answer tightly to your response in Step 3 and be realistic, so that solutions to your problem are possible to bring about.

Well, Bill could become more sensitive and make sure that his romantic getaways don't interfere with his childcare schedule. But, I know that's not going to happen. I could talk with Bill, tell him how I feel.

Step 5: What specifically can you do to bring about the better version of your problem.

I have to talk with Bill. This is hard for me, because I don't want to appear jealous or vindictive. I'm a peacemaker-type person. I don't like any kind of confrontation. Bill is great becasue he's not aggressive. Bill just thinks he's asking a question. He doesn't consider the emotional issue for me.

Step 6: On what you have learned so far, how do you understand the situation?

Much of the stress that I have felt about this situation comes from me. Bill is just being Bill. He could be more sensitive--but, he's not. I know this about him. I'm really mad at myself. I make Bill's schedule conflicts my responsibility. This was a problem in our marriage. I dropped a lot of my personal desires and needs to make sure Bill's life was stress-free. He didn't ask me to do this.

I still don't know how to set boundaries--for myself. I pride myself on being agreeable. It's a trap, you know, that I set for myself. So, when it's a "war worth fighting" as they say, I can't do it. No, I don't do it.

Step 7: Is there a resolution in sight?

Yes, I will ask Bill to not disclose his romantic getaways with me. Overtime, I won't care. I need to start putting in time to get a social life, so I don't feel resentful of Bill's love life. But, most importantly, I'm going to learn how to set boundaries. I see better now that it's my investment in being so agreeable that causes me so much stress.

Beth did a lot of good therapy work with me in months that followed. She was able to turn this stressful situation to her advantage, when she understood what the stressor was really all about, for her. Beth set out to cut the chronic stressor off "by its head, rather than its tail", as they say.

With renewed energy and happiness, Beth started to date, learned how to be more assertive and to set boundaries, and was now armed with a powerful coping process to help her better understand her stress.

If you like my post today, please say so by selecting the "Like" button that immediately follows. I welcome your experiences, thoughts and comments. Warm regards, Deborah

Deborah Khoshaba, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Training and Development for the Hardiness Institute, Inc., Irvine, California, since 1989.

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