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Thriving in Uncertainty: First Know When You Are Not

It was 2011, I was relatively new to my job as head of the performance psychology team at the Australian Institute of Sport, and things were not going well, as least not to my mind. My family and I had relocated from the USA in order for me to take this job, and the move was harder on all of us than we’d anticipated. My then 11-year old daughter was profoundly unhappy, having felt out-voted in the relocation decision-making, and as was her right, let us know about that daily. My husband was finding it harder than expected to find work. I was struggling in my own work: learning the new job, how to work in a government bureaucracy, and adjusting to my team, some of whom were less than pleased with the change in team leadership.

My worries piling up, I stopped sleeping. But rather than ruminate pointlessly in bed, I gave in to my cortisol-fueled sleeplessness and simply got back to work. Problem-solving, or at least leaning into the things that were worrying me, seemed a good idea at the time. The first clue that I was suffering should have been the responses from the people who were receiving my middle-of-the-night emails. “What are you doing up working at 2:00 am for goodness sake?” The fact that these did not seem like reasonable questions was another.

But things got worse the less I slept. I would start to cry in the office, while still working. Even then, I just made sure that my office door was shut, and carried on like nothing was happening. This went on for a few weeks. The thing about losing sleep is that I did not recognize that anything was really wrong, even though it clearly was. Sleep researchers note adverse cognitive effects of sleep deprivation that include diminished self-awareness and poor decision-making. I was depressed, anxious, emotionally unregulated, and didn’t even know it.

Thankfully, my team’s administrative manager alerted my supervisor to my (poorly disguised) plight. I was ushered to his office where I finally broke down and admitted what, to me, was my shameful lack of competence. Once I got things out of my own head and watched my supervisor’s compassionate reaction to the telling of my story, it finally hit home that what was really happening was that I. Was. Not. Thriving.

My supervisor sent me home for some rest and made an appointment with my GP for me. There, I was prescribed sleeping medication to reset my sleep patterns, and put on some anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication. EAP also became my friend as I learned to better manage my worry, and I was put in touch with an excellent executive coach who supported my leadership journey. It took several weeks to feel normal again but even more important, I learned to pay attention to my own symptoms of distress and do something about them. That I am a psychologist is an irony not lost on me. Such is the insidiousness of suffering.

The thing is, I see this happening to others all the time now. Friends who wonder where their mojo went as they attempt to balance a day full of urgent work responsibilities and, oh yeah, homeschooling their young children. People like me who have made a habit of skimping on sleep so as to fit everything into their lives, and wonder why they are not able to lift themselves up for working on their “side-project” MBA degree. We either miss our symptoms entirely, or misinterpret our symptoms for something else — not trying hard enough or lacking self-discipline. Okay, maybe it’s all that, but maybe you are just exhausted.

Times like those we are in now — uncertainty, shifting priorities and demands, the blurry boundaries that come from working where we live rather than the office — demand that we pay closer than ever attention to our own well-being. How are you feeling, really? Listening to others, and heeding their advice to stop emailing them at 2:00 am, or really taking it in when they tell you that you have been acting differently lately. Talking things out with your partner or friend rather than bottling it up or thinking that “this too shall pass.” In times like these, we need to get great at treating ourselves with the kindness and respect we each deserve.

This coming weekend, 13–14 June, 2020, I am hosting a free online learning event entitled, “Thriving in Uncertainty: Insights from Elite Performance Psychologists.” If this column resonated with you, I encourage you to register for the event and check out the collective wisdom of 20 elite performance psychologists as they share how they help performers, athletes, and professionals thrive through uncertainty.

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