Your Stress Is Talking and It’s Not Saying What You Think

When you get a diagnosis in which stress is a major player, it can feel like you’re getting blamed for something out of your control. You enter into relationship with your doctors and practitioners to find support for symptoms that seem inscrutably physical only to find yourself at a loss when they take their distance and encourage you to make healthy lifestyle changes.

It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of hopelessness when your schedule is not entirely in your control. Your work, family, and basics take every bit of your time and attention—not to mention that gratitude journal reminding you that even though you feel terrible, you’re not stuck in a place where parasites are consuming your eyeballs, or war is destroying your country.

Why, then, are so many of us exhausted, in pain, and struggling?

I can’t help but wonder if we feel this way, not because we’re sick, but because we’re very careful about separating our personal lives from our public personnas. We look so good on the outside and feel so bad on the inside that we’re almost unrecognizable to ourselves, even in this highly confessional culture. When we look at the literally hundreds of ads for self-improvement products, the endless messaging around diet and exercise, and the countless acts of self-care we’re supposed to perform, it seems clear something is wrong.

It’s as though we are living our lives like actors in front of a green screen. We could literally be anywhere in any context and still be expected to consistently perform. Jetlag doesn’t matter. Sick kids don’t matter. Unemployment doesn’t matter. Betrayal doesn’t matter. No matter the circumstances, we are expected to rise with the same ease, grace, and gratitude as if none of that were happening. As if climate change didn’t exist, and fires weren’t raging.

But what happens when we retreat back into our private lives, where we are scared, stressed, and hurt? There we are untrained to stop performing and instead embody who and what we are. It’s shocking to be so developed in our outer lives yet have so little experience with how to be ourselves within ourselves.

We can blame social media for this, but this devolution has been going on for a long time.

All of the transactions that further our position, our image, our roles without regard for our wellbeing are, in fact, a performance and one that is stressing us to the point of illness. We talk the language of yoga and meditation but feel pressure to wear certain clothes and go to certain places to do those things. That’s performance. We try to eat healthily but don’t enjoy what we ingest. That’s performance. We have friends but they all straddle dual roles in our lives relating to our livelihood. That’s performance. Our kids are acting out in all kinds of ways and we wonder what is wrong with them when they are expressing many of our own deeply buried feelings. That’s performance.

To find our way out of this paradigm takes a tremendous amount of courage. But I believe we can learn to live differently.

We can be in tune with ourselves and also be brilliant, which in turn reduces our stress. I call this path Embodied Leadership and it’s a way of being that brings the best of our personal and professional lives together. Instead of bifurcating our messier selves from our performative selves, I am suggesting that we combine them--that we allow ourselves to feel the complexity of our lives as inspiration. Instead of walling off energy to make sure no one sees our vulnerabilities, we intuitively understand that everyone has them. They are not to be feared. They are a source of intelligence, inventiveness and connection.

When we can face ourselves and our colleagues, clients and friends with an acknowledgement that we are going through stuff at most times, we can stop expending the precious energy required to leave things at the door. We can instead look to where we are able to offer real relief, creativity, and care. The stress that we now experience has a channel in which to exist. Like the Zen masters say, our outer lives didn’t necessarily change, our responsibilities didn’t necessarily ease, but our inner experience has deepened to include our stressors as well as our competencies. We are not free because we seem well: we are free because we are whole.

When we become embodied we don’t stop performing--we stop pretending. And suddenly, what felt confining and impossible becomes a point of radical departure.