Addressing the conversation around mental health and the pressure to be perfect.
In a recent Forbes article by Paula Davis, the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and author of “Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience,” addressed conversations around Simone Biles, mental health and the pressure to be perfect.
While many of us are not an Olympic athlete feeling the immense pressure of a perfect performance – among many things – that does not discredit the pressures many are currently feeling in the workforce and amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her article, Davis mentioned the skepticism some feel around mental health is because it’s essentially invisible. “We can’t see the struggle like we can see a broken bone or the pain of a pulled muscle,” she said. “Because it’s invisible, we feel entitled to judge it, to say nothing of the fact that we expect Olympic caliber athletes to simply suck it up and drive on. I work with many professionals who are under a great deal of pressure to be perfect – and whether this pressure is real or perceived, it eventually takes its toll.”
Whether you’re feeling the pressure, or concerned about another, Davis provided some ideas to help:
Process your emotions.
Davis mentioned Biles has been quoted in interviews saying she often bottles up her emotions and hates crying, something she can relate to herself that therapy and understanding the root cause has helped with. “The anxiety I sometimes feel gets amplified when I don’t regularly process my emotions,” she added.
Ask people how they are doing.
As mentioned before, mental health struggles are not always visible. Davis said authentically caring about another person and inviting a conversation is not viewed as nosey and can be a welcome relief to a person who is under intense pressure.
Replace judgment with humble curiosity.
To refrain from assumptions around mental health, Davis suggested the following sentences to invite a deeper conversation and empathy:
- I’m curious about…
- Tell me more/say more about that…
- Help me understand…
- Walk me through that…
- I’m wondering…
Play a mental game.
Perfectionists are often known for overthinking, something Davis said she can relate to as well. “One of my favorite strategies to break the mental looping is to play a mental game that a drill sergeant taught me,” she said. “He called it the alphabet game. Start with the letter A and create a sentence where every word starts with the letter A. Then go to letter B and proceed through the alphabet. I usually find that by letter H, I, or J, my brain has become so focused on creating silly sentences that the mental looping has stopped, and I can more easily fall asleep.”
Recognize your icebergs/rules.
Davis shared she first learned about the concept of icebergs at the University of Pennsylvania during training to teach resilience strategies to soldiers in the U.S. Army. Icebergs are your core values and beliefs about the way you think the world should operate.
“Your core values and beliefs often operate outside of your conscious awareness as you go about your day, but they can be triggered in certain circumstances,” said Davis. “I call icebergs your rules.”
Here are a few examples Davis provided:
- “I need to always be in charge or things will go wrong.”
- “I must have all the answers.”
- “If I can’t do something perfectly, then I shouldn’t do it at all.”
- “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
- “Failure is a sign of weakness.”
- “Strong people don’t ask for help.”
It’s important to surface your rules so you can evaluate them by asking these questions:
- Is this rule helping or harming? Is it getting me closer to, or further away from the goals I want to achieve? Is it too inflexible?
- How did the rule develop? Is it a core family value? Did your choice of career influence the rule? Is it linked to a societal expectation?
- What alternative rule might be more helpful?
Lastly, Davis addressed the common ideas around “resilience,” stating it isn’t about toughness at all, and it’s not about persevering at all costs. Rather, it’s about recharging and prioritizing your mental well-being and persevering with a purpose and recognizing when you need to pivot or take a step back.
“I think the bigger question that organizations need to ask is why is it acceptable for people to operate in an environment where they feel pushed to their breaking point and beyond?” said Davis. “Biles’ actions send a powerful message – your mental health and well-being come first, even on the world’s biggest stage.”