What were you doing at 3 a.m. last night?
I read recently that more people than ever are dealing with anxiety-related sleep issues. Given the state of the world right now I guess this isn’t a surprise.
Probably all of us remember being scared during the night at one time or another when we were kids. Back then we feared the “boogie man” under the bed. The monster in the closet. The clap of thunder. The flash of lightning. The things that go bump in the night.
As adults we know there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed (although I confess to having second thoughts after watching “Stranger Things”). For many people the boogie man is stress about our jobs and careers.
What if the project I’m leading fails?
What if I don’t make my sales goal this year?
Why doesn’t my boss like me?
What if I don’t get promoted?
What if I lose my job?
It’s these and all the other “what ifs” of our disaster fantasies that feed our deepest professional fears.
In one sense there is no avoiding the things that go bump in the night. To be scared is to be human, something all of us feel at some point, whether we like to admit it or not. Nighttime fears are a primal instinct hard-wired into our brains thousands of years ago to protect us from predators when we foraged for food in small groups and slept outdoors. For all our social, cultural, and technological advancements, in many important ways our basic programming is no different than our ancient ancestors.
Feeling scared at times can be a good thing, it helps us avoid real dangers in life. But there is a big difference between feeling scared and living in fear.
Living in fear is a conscious choice to allow our anxieties and disaster fantasies to irrationally guide our decision making. Living in fear totally discounts rational thought at the expense of unchecked emotion. When we choose to let our fears drive our decision making, we close the door on new possibilities and ultimately diminish ourselves.
Like any emotional response, fear can be counterbalanced and overcome by rational thinking.
When approached rationally, there are practical solutions for our worst disaster fantasies – overcoming the loss of a job, being passed over for promotion or dealing with an impossible boss. Even if you don’t have any experience with these situations, almost certainly someone in your network does. God knows there are more books on these topics than one could read in a lifetime.
I got some great advice from an executive coach years ago. He recommended when I got caught in the grip of fear that I take the time to write them down. Once I catalogued my disaster fantasies he suggested that I identify options for how I could deal with them. Rationally we know that there are options for managing any of these situations. Granted some are better than others, but I found the act of writing a plan to very liberating. It points a way forward out of the muck.
Basically, the advice is to approach our personal challenges the same way we would any problem that arises at work. Surely each of us have experience managing a crisis at the office. When handled this way, you begin to realize that whatever career issues you are dealing with can be overcome. The boogie man wants you to think that the problem is too big for you to handle, but that’s just not true.
Having said that, another critical part of this process is being honest with ourselves about the underlying fear that permeates our career nightmares. The most terrifying thing that goes bump in the night for us is less the event itself and more the judgment of others. The embarrassment or perceived loss of status if our failures are exposed to the world.
It is important to remember that just as the night demons can exaggerate the impact of losing a job or not closing a deal, they also are very good at distracting us from two important truths about the judgment of others.
#1 people don’t care as much as you think, and #2 you can’t control it anyway.
No one cares about our problems as much as we do. The fact is the people whose judgement we fear will spend very little time thinking about our circumstances. All of us are the center of our professional universes and in times of stress we forget that other people have their own lives to worry about. Said simply, most people are too busy thinking about themselves to get hung up on your shit.
Moreover, in the end you can’t control it anyway. People are going to think what they think. Accept it and move on. All of us know that worrying about things we can’t control is a waste of time and energy, especially when it comes to the opinions of others. So don’t give into it.
If something bad does happen, look at as a great opportunity to find out who your real friends are. I guarantee there will be some surprises. That in and of itself can be an invaluable lesson that will make you stronger and better.
None of us can afford to let irrational fear keep us awake. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to performing at your best. So, tonight, if there’s a noise in the closet or a stirring under the bed, roll over and don’t give into fear. After all, there are better things to do at 3 a.m. than wrestle with the boogie man.