For all the perks and satisfactions of becoming more powerful in your company and more influential in your field, it can come at a cost: increased stress. The super-sized expectations and responsibilities require more from you, more of the time, in all directions.
And that’s more or less okay, even manageable with strong support systems and self-care habits - but the stress that professional women handle isn’t just about workload and big quarterly goals. It is the limitations and insecurities they generate within themselves.
Recently, a post in the Harvard Business Review peeled back a layer of stress unique to women in leadership. Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris, authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, call it the “stereotype threat.” Research has shown that when a woman senses an existing stereotype in the workplace about women’s poor performance - say, in negotiation or competition, she is more likely to perform badly simply as a result of that awareness. She will behave as if she believes the stereotype to be true.
You have probably experienced this stress, too. Think about it: that moment when you had to step up to a traditionally male task, and your subconscious, to put it in technical terms, freaked out, and you lived down to the poor expectations of your gender by whiffing the presentation, or deferring to your male colleagues on important matters. You did this even though you had the skills and smarts to do better!
The truth is, a great deal of your stress as a professional woman is going to come from your own head, whether as stereotype threats or deep-seated, unconscious beliefs that are in conflict with one another. This isn’t a fault by any means. It is, in fact, an opportunity to gain control of the thought patterns that keep you under exhausting stress.
Here are four ways to be the boss of your mind today
Flag negative self-talk. We all have the feeds running of what we can and cannot do, what we’re good and bad at, what’s possible, what will never happen. As meQuilibrium, an online stress management platform, notes, these thoughts run on a loop so frequently you may not even be aware of them—but they can keep you in a permanent state of stress.
Practice noting these thoughts each time they come up. Make a checkmark, or enter it in a spreadsheet, or put a quarter in a jar. Doing so brings them into full awareness, where you can more easily challenge their validity.
Make your body your ally. There’s a reason Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language has been viewed 35 million times. A researcher at Harvard University, Cuddy, discovered that two minutes of powerful poses, such as the Wonder Woman, with hands on hip and chip tilted slightly up, has a distinct, positive effect on the body’s hormones. In striking the pose, you literally become the pose and help neutralize the stress of insecurity and misogynistic stereotypes. You make yourself more powerful in the face of them.
Don’t fret. Laugh. Kramer and Harris believe that humor is perhaps the most potent tool for dissolving this kind of internal workplace stress. “When a woman can see the absurdity of gender stereotypes,” they write, “she can use humor to put emotional distance between herself and the threat.” The same goes for your own thoughts and beliefs. When you flag a downbeat thought about your work, really look at it in opposition to all you’ve achieved and can do. The thought becomes utterly absurd!
Of course, not everything stressor in the workplace should be treated with humor. If someone is being derogatory toward women and it’s affecting your performance or those under your supervision, that absurdity needs to be nipped in the bud. Similarly, if your thoughts are a source of unrelenting stress, you might need more support. But every time you challenge a stereotype or thought with humor, body language or awareness, you are getting freer to perform at your best. Now that’s lasting power.