We Have Been Lied To

Written by Laurie Hillis

Hi, I’m Laurie Hillis, I love what I do: the learning, the process, and above all, seeing how my clients grow as leaders.

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January 26, 2023

Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you

“Wellness is not a state of mind, but a state of action. It is the freedom to move through the innate cycles and oscillations of being human – from effort to rest and back, from connection to autonomy and back, from adventure to homecoming and back. But we have been lied to our whole lives about what wellness “should” look like, and rejecting that lie, all those myths about “having it all” and “finally achieving lasting peace” is how we create space in our lives for that free action through the cycle of being human.”

I was struck by this idea – presented by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, identical twin sisters and authors, in their book, Burnout. I had to read it a few times before it really made sense. I had never thought about burnout or wellness in this way before. Up to this point, I had thought of burnout as being the fragile breaking point at which we can’t handle anymore. An image of a thin piece of yellow straw falling onto a camel’s strong back, causing the huge animal to crumble, often came to mind.

Another statement offered by the authors that explains this further is: “To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.”

The Nagoski sisters’ fresh insights about burnout, or rather what might be considered its opposite – wellness – paints a different picture for me – a more fluid ebb and flow between two poles, like an infinity loop, where we move between two seemingly opposite states, never staying too long at one. The movement between them is necessary and the perpetual state of calm that many of us seek might actually be what is burning us out . . . talk about NOT what we are aiming for!

The idea that wellness is achieved when we are able to move fluidly between opposing states (from adventure to calm and back again), fills me with a sense of calm, which is somewhat ironic. It means that I can seek adventure, risk, even stress, as long as I also allow myself to return to a state of safety, calm, and rest, and I’m going to be okay. In fact, I’m going to be “well!”

I wonder how it makes you feel. Does it allow you to drop your shoulders and find patience in your endless pursuit of ‘wellness’ and avoidance of stress? How does it make you feel in the context of your work?

Here are three very strong assumptions I have about organizations today: 1) Burnout and wellness are hot topics. 2) Stress is part of most jobs. 3) Too much stress is unhealthy. So, does that mean that every job is unhealthy? I don’t think so. Rather, perhaps it’s necessary to accept the reality that we will all experience some stress – or pressure – in our jobs, and that as long as it’s temporary and connected to doing good work, we can also enjoy periods of low stress and pressure from time to time. This balance over time is key. It doesn’t mean every day has to be a perfect 50/50 mix of stress and rest, but that the mixture of these opposite periods of time are somewhat balanced in the long run.

How does your organization expect people to process their stress? Is it acceptable to ebb and flow between stress and rest, or are employees expected to manage their responses to peaks in pressure “on their own time?”

It’s interesting to envision an organization that recognizes the human need to flow between periods of high pressure (stress) and recovery (rest), as well as an employee community that expects the same. It seems to me, this would be a pretty healthy and motivating place to work.

As a leader, how do you perceive stress and rest on the job for yourself? What about when it comes to your employees? Peers? Superiors? Do you extend the same grace to yourself as you do to them?

For more insight into this refreshing take on burnout and ways to manage it, listen to Brené Brown interviewing the Nagoski sisters on her Dare to Lead podcast about what causes burnout, what it does to our bodies, and how we can move through the emotional exhaustion. She credits it as a “game changer.”

Let’s connect:

If you want to know more about Megatrain and how we can work together, drop me a line:

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