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Doing This One Thing Keeps Work Stress From Sabotaging Your Career

We can’t always control job pressures, but we can control our reactions to them and prevent them from undermining our careers.

There’s one thing that adds insult to injury and can put the skids on your career. Have you ever noticed the more you scratch a spot that itches, the more it itches? And the scratching just makes it worse? The good news is, while we typically can’t prevent the itch (the first zinger), we can resist the scratch (the second zinger). If we apply this strategy to job stress, we must distinguish between first and second zingers that come our way in the workplace. The first zinger is the inevitable stressful or upsetting work situation we can’t control. The second zinger is the added stress of how we react that we can control.

When work pressure zings us (the first zinger), a negative reaction (the second zinger) layers stress on top of stress. One thing we can count on is pressure at work in one form or another. Although we can’t always control it, we can control our second zinger reactions—the ones we sting ourselves with. The first zinger is unpleasant and stressful, but sometimes the worse stress comes from second-zinger reactions instead of the event itself. When we avoid reacting negatively when stress zings us, we can reduce our stress.

Stop Doing This One Thing to Advance Your Career

We’ve all had the experience of a career disappointment or colleague setting us off. A manager makes a rude comment, a co-worker talks over us in a meeting, we have a computer glitch or a unexpected deadline looms, and we lose our temper.

When we experience work stressors, two zingers fly our way. With the second zinger comes the possibility of our ability to choose our actions, but we often zing ourselves anyway, causing self-inflicted stress. Suppose your boss takes credit for your idea. You react by lowering the boom on her. The second zinger—while your upset is perfectly understandable—only adds insult to injury, making you say or do something you might later regret.

Self-judgment can also act as a second zinger. When you fail at something, make a mistake or have a setback, judging yourself creates a second layer of stress, making you more likely to give up. Self-judgment throws you into a cycle of setbacks: “I ate a piece of carrot cake” spirals into, “I’ve already blown my diet now, so I might as well eat a second piece” which turns into, “I’m such a loser; I’ll never get this weight off.” The second zinger (the stress you put yourself through) makes you feel bad, not eating the cake. The stress throws you into a cycle of seeking comfort in the very behaviour you’re trying to conquer.

Facing an upsetting situation with impartiality reduces the intensity of your stress. When you remove the second layer of condemnation, you feel an ease in dealing with the real stressors.

Practice Recognizing the Distinction

When stress zings us, mindfulness meditation helps us to recognize the difference between first and second zingers and to cultivate the ability to stay calm in the middle of a stressful situation. As we develop the skill to see them as separate, we realize we don’t have to react every time we get zinged.

This recognition is good medicine for reducing work stress because it softens our reactions. In other words, we’re able to be present with our internal reactions without losing our cool. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Pulling it off is as difficult as resisting the urge to scratch an itch. And it takes practice.

If you’re like most people, you identify with your stream of thoughts that make you think the second zinger is your only choice. After you pay attention to your first and second zingers for a while, though, it gives you an inner sense of separation from the urge to react. It lets you feel disappointment without stressing out or frustration without acting out. It keeps you from adding more stress on top of stress.

Substitute Self-Compassion for Self-Judgment

As we start to notice and practice bringing self-compassion to bear when we face second zingers, we can greatly reduce work stress. Comforting self-talk can help in such stressful situations as job interviews, the aftermath of a job loss, racing against a deadline or falling flat on our face in a presentation.

Self-compassion can soothe job stressors, not because you replace negative feelings with positive affirmations, but because as you embrace your negative feelings, new positive emotions rise up within you. When you’re kinder to yourself and accept your shortcomings and limitations with compassion, you’re better able to deal with the stressful situation, not the added negative feelings from self-judgment.

Give this mindfulness exercise a shot: Next time work stress zings you, pay attention to your second zinger without judgment. A first zinger can be a stress-related body pain, an upsetting thought about your job or a high-pressured work situation. Note how many times you have a strong reaction such as smouldering resentment, lashing out or both. If you’re able to practice calm in the storm, note those times, too.

See if you’re able to observe yourself without judgment. If you discover that you did judge, see if you can refrain from judging yourself for judging.

Watching our inner reactions without judgment gives us an inner feeling of separation, allowing us to be present with second zingers without blowing up on those around us. It lets us feel disappointment or frustration without the stress of exploding. In other words, it keeps us from adding insult to injury.

Once we become mindful of first and second zingers and observe them on the inside with curiosity instead of judgment, we start to notice we’re calmer, more clearheaded, less stressful and more productive.

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