People carry with them a set of rules or beliefs about the way they feel the world should operate. These beliefs are shaped by your experiences, the way you were raised, your values, your friends, popular culture, and more. For many successful women, their deeply held beliefs about how they should live and work produce faulty assumptions or "crooked thinking" that underlie stress patterns. Dr. Harriet Braiker identified a number of faulty assumptions found in high-achieving women, and I've added strategies for breaking the stress cycle each creates. Here are seven of the most common:
1. I have to be perfect and do things perfectly. This faulty assumption can be blamed for procrastination, lack of wanting to hear feedback from others for fear of being criticized, and the tendency to judge yourself and others by very rigid standards.
• Stress less: Instead of aiming for perfection, which is unattainable, do as well as you possibly can and call it a day. Focus on achievement rather than perfection.
2. I should be able to manage it all and accomplish it all without feeling stressed or tired. This belief usually shows up when women examine their stress response - "I thought I'd be able to handle more;" or, "I feel so tired at the end of the day." This faulty assumption leads many women to think that they are the sole cause of their stress.
• Stress less: Pay attention to physical warning signs - digestive issues, headaches, muscle spasms, skin issues, and more. In addition, monitor your energy levels during the day. Take breaks when you need to. Eat regularly. Get some fresh air. Ask for help!
3. I have to prove myself to everyone. At work, women may question whether they are valued and accepted members of the team and as a result, load up their already busy schedules with extra projects. At home, a woman might think she has to cook homemade meals, keep a spotless house, and be the world's best romantic partner. As Dr. Braiker suggests, "The debilitating nature of holding this expectation lies in the lack of criteria for defining proof. If you always have to prove your value each time a new demand or opportunity arises, then, in fact, you have not proven your value at all" (Braiker, 2006, p. 169).
• Stress less. At work, schedule regular meetings with your boss to ensure you're meeting career objectives. At home, talk to your spouse or significant other about expectations for each other. You may learn that your significant other appreciates a home cooked meal once in awhile, but is perfectly happy to order take out several nights.
4. I can't relax until I finish what I have to do. I heard this one from my mom over Christmas as she was rushing around the kitchen and several of us were waiting for her to play cards. Many high-achievers feel that relaxation is a luxury that might happen someday; instead, it is a fundamental requirement for good health.
• Stress less: Find a way to relax each day that connects with who you are. I love sports, so I run and do physical activities. Some people garden. Others listen to music or cook. You can't be your fabulous, high-achieving self if your tank is always empty.
5. I should be able to accomplish more in a day. Busy women often have to-do lists that are so long they will never realistically be able to be completed; and, because of your high-achieving nature, you continually add new tasks.
• Stress less: Focus on quality rather than quantity. Did you finish several larger, more worthwhile tasks vs. twenty smaller ones? Also, keep track of what you actually accomplish instead of what you think you should have accomplished. When the focus shifts, many women are surprised by all they have completed.
6. I have to be a people pleaser. How many of you were told when you were growing up that "nice girls help others" or some variation of that phrase? Of course it's wonderful to help others, but to do so while putting your own needs aside sets you up for unhealthy stress.
• Stress less: Set limits and boundaries around your time and your schedule. Practice the art of saying "no."
7. I can handle it all on my own. Each year, my mom's side meets for a family reunion. There are generally twenty to twenty-five of us all gathered together under one roof as one family plays host. When my turn to host arrived, I refused to ask for help, wanting everyone to relax. I did all the menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning for twenty-two people for two days. I didn't enjoy myself, was tired the entire weekend, and was constantly doing something other than having fun with my family. I learned my lesson. The next time I hosted, I put each family in charge of a meal and asked them to bring their own pillows and blankets to cut down on laundry. And what a shock - I actually enjoyed myself and was less of a bundle of stress for my husband and family.
• Stress less. Build a network of people in your life who you can count on for help - and ask them to help. This network can include neighbors, family members, friends, and/or co-workers. Having this team ready when you need it will save you tons of stress and a few blood pressure points.
It's important to identify which of these flawed assumptions are present in your life. The "stress less" strategies above will help, but only if you really understand the belief system in place causing the crooked thinking. The next time you are stressed, identify and write down the beliefs or thoughts you have about the event and the emotions produced. As you become more aware of your crooked thinking patterns, you can break the cycle and prevent your body from shifting into stress mode.
Braiker, H. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc.
McClellan, S., & Hamilton, B. (2010). So stressed. New York: Free Press.