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Managing Self-Inflicted Stress

by Jeremy McCarthy

A lot of the stress that I experience in life comes from an overwhelming sense that I have more to do than I will ever actually have time to complete. 

My inbox is overflowing, numerous projects with looming deadlines compete for my attention, and, both personally and professionally, people are constantly vying for my time. Of course I want to be able to respond to everyone in my inbox, complete all of my projects in a timely and efficient manner, and spend quality time with the people around me, but there is a constant and pervasive sense of time slipping away in a way that just doesn’t allow me to keep up with it all. 

This seems to be a common symptom of modern life. As the pace of change and technology has sped up, we can’t help but feel more and more time-compressed. And the faster we go, the more the world around us accelerates. Do a good job of responding to emails and more will come flying back into your inbox. Do a good job of multitasking projects and more projects will surely come your way. Do a good job of being present with the people around you, and more people will yearn for your time and attention. Going faster may be admirable, but it doesn’t alleviate the stress of trying to keep up with it all. 

I was thinking about this on a recent Monday morning on my hour-long bus commute to the office. I could already
feel the tightness in my chest from the anticipation of going into a busy week at the office where I would be “drinking from a fire hose,” trying to keep up with the literal torrent of meetings, emails, projects, etc. It is not a good sign to feel dread on your way into the office, but this is exactly how I felt, knowing I would spend the week running a marathon without ever getting any closer to the finish line. 

Normally in the mornings, I do some guided meditations on the Waking Up app, and that morning I tuned in to Tara Brach, a guest on the app who was talking about self-compassion. She introduced a meditation that she called RAIN, which encourages you to: 

R – Recognize what is happening

A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is

I – Investigate with interest and care

N – Nurture with self-compassion

I am not often motivated by ideas of self-compassion, but during the meditation, as I investigated these feelings of time compression, it occurred to me that much of this stress is self-inflicted. Many of my projects, for example, are projects that I have taken on because I alone feel they are important (i.e., no one asked me to do these things, they are just projects I believe in). In fact, much of my to-do list is entirely self- generated: articles I want to read, people I want to talk to, projects I want to complete, writing I want to do, the list goes on and on. I could simply stop doing about 60 percent of the things on my list and the only person who would care would be me! 

If you are also feeling the self-inflicted stress of wanting to do it all, consider the following questions to reflect on: 

1. How much of your stress is self- inflicted? Where are you the cause of your own suffering? 

2. What can you do to alleviate that stress? What would you have to let go of? 

3. Am I willing to endure the necessary stress to accomplish my goals? Can I be compassionate with myself if I can’t keep up with it all? 

Most often, we have two choices: do less or forgive yourself more. What do you choose? 

JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.

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