How can high-achieving women reach the heights of career success and preserve their most important relationships (romantic or otherwise) in the process? This was the question a fellow high-achiever and I were mulling over at lunch this week. She shared that she recently received feedback from her boss indicating that certain co-workers had become less willing to talk to her due to her intense style. I told her that I consistently hear many high-achieving women described as "intimidating." Being intense and intimidating can help you achieve work goals, but they generally aren't adjectives that foster positive, long-term relationships.
High-achieving women are often under a great deal of pressure and stress, and unfortunately, emotions can come out sideways even with the best of intentions. While stress and pressure can't be totally eliminated, you must figure out how to manage your high-achieving ways so they do not negatively interfere with your relationships.
Human beings are not designed to exist in isolation, and relationships with others are too important to your overall well-being to be cast aside. Social support not only is good for your health but also increases your longevity. One study tracked high school graduates for forty years and found a link between positive social experiences and lower allostatic load (the cumulative wear and tear your body experiences with chronic stress) for both men and women. Conversely, having a high degree of loneliness is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease in women after controlling for age, income, physical activity, alcohol use and cholesterol levels (Singer, 2010).
If you are struggling to build or keep long-lasting relationships, or want to preserve existing ones, these five tips can help.
1. Reach out to other high-achieving women. I remember days when I would look outside my 33rd floor window and wonder whether anyone else was feeling as stressed out as I was. Instead of reaching out, I kept the stress bottled up and just vowed to put my head down and keep moving forward. I've since realized that I was not alone; but, so many high-achieving women feel like they're the only one. You are each other's best resource. Coming together with like-minded women will help to keep you from feeling isolated and will give you an opportunity to hear about others' experiences.
2. Bag it, barter it, or better it. If you are dealing with a relationship issue that has you frustrated, ask yourself, can you eliminate it from your life (bag it)? If no, can you have someone else handle it (barter it)? If the answer is no to both questions, figure out how you can make the situation as good as possible (better it).
3. Increase your diet of positive emotions. I never thought that positive emotions were all that important, but having studied the science behind positive emotions as part of my master's degree and resilience training, I have changed my tune. Not only do positive emotions build your resilience, they promote creativity (increasing your likelihood of finding meaningful solutions to problems), are contagious (do you want to be around a grump?), and return your heart rate to baseline quicker after stressful events (like a fight with a significant other). Flourishing marriages have a ratio of positive to negative emotions of 5:1; for flourishing work teams, it's even higher at 6:1 (Fredrickson, 2009).
4. Communicate more supportively. Many high-achievers I know (myself included) think that there is a right answer, and it's theirs. Always being right hurts not only your relationships, but also sends a flood of stress chemicals into your body. Kim Cameron outlines a model of supportive communication inhis book, Positive Leadership, which is as follows: First, provide an objective description of the event or the behavior that needs to be modified. Report "just the facts" and minimize exaggeration. Second, describe feelings and consequences without placing blame ("I'm concerned about our relationship"). Finally, suggest a more acceptable alternative that is workable (and realistic) for both parties.
5. Help others savor good news. Shelly Gable's research shows that how you respond to a person's good news actually does more for building a relationship than how you respond to bad news. This applies across the board from personal relationships to business interactions. Responding in an active and constructive way; that is, helping the bearer of good news savor it, is the only response that builds good relationships. Killing the conversation by offering a terse response or hijacking the conversation by making it about you are quick ways to weaken a relationship.
Many high-achieving women worry about preserving meaningful relationships as they work toward their lofty goals. Having good, strong relationships is too important to your well-being to put them in jeopardy.
Paula Davis-Laack is a lawyer turned positive psychology practitioner, writer, resilience educator, and work/life expert specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women. Connect with Paula via:
Her website: www.marieelizbethcompany.com
Cameron, K. (2008). Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.
Gable, S.L., Gonzaga, G.C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go
right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 91(5), 904-917.
Singer, T. (2010). Stress less: The new science that shows women how to rejuvenate the body and the mind. New York: Hudson Street Press.