Last week I kicked off our Leading W.E.L.L. series with a personal story of the struggles I went through my first couple of years as a principal and how I dealt with the stress in ways that weren’t exactly healthy. I promised that in my next post I would dive deeper into the “W” of Wellness by sharing strategies and mental tools for carrying the “leadership load.”
The Spiritual Anchor
The first thing I challenged you to do was to identify your spiritual anchor. By this, I meant a practice you would do every morning to connect with God or your spirit. For me, this was a devotion, for others it might be meditation, yoga, prayer, or some combination of practices. Doing this will maximize any of the tools and strategies that mental health experts recommend. It might sound like I am suggesting that you use your spirituality to get what you want. Like control or manipulation…I am not suggesting that at all, but finding techniques to make my spirituality tangible has been essential to handling the stress of leadership.
Starting your day with a spiritual practice is nothing new, but it can be difficult to get in the habit of doing one consistently. This is where a morning routine comes in. Check out Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning, Michael Hyatt’s Daily Rituals for more on this. I found episode #33, Four Rituals That Make You Super Productive, in Hyatt’s Business Accelerator podcast incredibly helpful. This podcast addresses gives practical advice on how to make a morning routine work for any situation. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have to go into work as early as I did when I was a principal so I can go through a 30 minute routine when I first wake up. However, when I was a principal, I had to be in work by 7:00 and had a 30 minute commute. I wasn’t about to wake up any earlier than necessary and was able to incorporate a morning routine without sacrificing sleep. Let me show you how it worked for me…
So, when I was a principal, my morning routine happened after I got to work and was only about 10 minutes. I would listen to my devotion (through the First 15 Podcast) during my commute and then my goal was to go through the same 15 minute routine every morning when I hit my desk. (I combined what Hyatt refers to as a morning routine and a workday start up routine into one routine. Listen to episode #33 for more info on this). So, I would get to school, sit down at my desk and open up a “daily page.” At the time, I used a bullet journal format and wrote out my mission statement, an intention, and my 3 most important things (MITs) for the day in that journal. I would end the routine by writing a positive note to 3 staff members. I did all of this before I touched my email. I very intentionally planned actions for my routine that would start me in a positive mindset. Regardless of how you can fit this daily ritual in, having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.
Having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.
Once you have your morning routine in place, I caution against making the same mistake I did: As I struggled in difficult situations, I wondered why God wasn’t helping me after I “put in the time” that morning. I would encounter tough situations and would either react in ways that weren’t helpful or feel completely powerless and personally victimized by the situation. I eventually realized I needed some mental tools and strategies to reconnect me to my anchor in the moment so that I could get out of my “fight or flight” mode.
Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment
Reading The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein was a game-changer for me. Bernstein offered me practical tools for what to do in the midst of those intense moments and also a way to mentally frame what I was going through. While many would consider Gabby’s tools to be self-help or new age, I applied them to my Christian perspective and found them to be helpful in nudging me to pray in the moment. Here’s what I came up with from her book:
- If I got triggered–a stressful or irritating situation would happen and I would feel anxiety, anger, or overwhelm.
- First, I would stop. I would pause and slow down my breathing. Then I would pray. (I would stop and ask for help).
- Next, I would surrender the fear or negative feelings I had, and asked for help in responding with love.
I think the biggest challenge I had and still have is pausing–stopping myself in the moment and making myself use my tools, instead of just trying to escape the moment or making it end because it’s too uncomfortable or painful. Or lately, I don’t stop when I get triggered because I keep thinking I need to just “get the task done” and that I just need to push through, because I have too much to do.
I think that making yourself stop comes with practice. It’s like a muscle you need to exercise so that you create that muscle memory. Once you stop, you can use breathing exercises, get yourself regulated and then be open to returning in love. That’s my plan, anyway. Let’s see if I can put that into practice! Want to practice with me? Get your PAUSE Cheat Sheet HERE.
Adopting A Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework
I think there’s a lot of information available since the pandemic on self-regulation, breathing exercises, returning to the present, and getting out of fight or flight, but I still think that leaves the question, “Then what?? Once, I’ve calmed myself down, how do I get through it? Then, how do I keep from going home and comforting myself with food or alcohol to keep the worry at bay for what the next day would bring?”
This is where a way to mentally frame what I was going through came in. Bernstein teaches this as the universal lesson:
The world is your classroom and people are your assignments.
She writes, “The first step is to witness that what may seem to be a terribly uncomfortable situation is actually a Universal Assignment.” Just taking on this perspective allowed me to step back and ask myself, “What I am I learning through this?” Sometimes that was very difficult to answer. As I used this mental framework to consider situations, I changed the questions depending on the circumstance. It might be, “What am I learning about myself?” or “How can I show up as a good leader/listener/supporter in this situation?” My work in therapy also supported this thinking. My therapist encouraged me to think about the future and how I wanted to coach and help principals one day. She said to see these situations as field research and I was learning strategies for dealing with them so I could help others later.
Feeling Your Feelings
Here’s the part that was and still is the greatest challenge for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. I want to numb or comfort tough feelings with food or alcohol. I have a lot of theories about why I am like this including my Enneagram Type (7), family dynamics in childhood, yada, yada…but regardless, avoiding pain and tough emotions is my jam. Unfortunately, I am also concerned about my appearance so emotional eating and drinking do not serve me well.
I don’t have quick answers for this, because I still struggle with it. Recently, I thought I had gotten past those bad habits. My new position is much more supportive of employee wellness and has significantly less stress, so I thought that when the stress came, I would better be able to handle it without my old bad habits. However, I realized after I couple of stressful weeks, I still default back to my old patterns of stress-eating and drinking.
Here’s where I think the answer lies: I have to see the the strategies of Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment, and Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework as ways to feel my feelings, process them, and stay with them–NOT just get past them so that I can respond the the situation effectively and efficiently and move on. I think that when I feel the urge to turn to external sources of comfort, it’s a signal that I haven’t processed my feelings and need to stop. I think this involves tools like journaling, affirmations, self-talk, etc. Those aren’t always possible in the moment, but I need to incorporate some type of processing at some point, before I head to the kitchen–if I don’t want to engage in that behavior anymore.
Obviously, I haven’t mastered these tools. I had been posting and podcasting consistently once a week since the first week of January then the last two weeks of increased stress and busyness went by without a post or podcast — how ironic. I can blame my lack of publishing content on the busyness, but I think it was more about feeling imposter syndrome. Who am I to try to help people with something I haven’t mastered myself?
I had a little epiphany today.
As I went about my morning routine, I came across some content in The Fabulous App related to self-love…
“ Self-love creates space for you to be exactly who you are, rather than the carefully curated version of yourself you wish you were.”
I need to practice what I am preaching regarding Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework. I don’t need to wait until I have all this figured out. We can help each other by going through this together. I would like to adopt the supportive perspective that I can help others through my struggles and my journey, not by having all the answers. I don’t have to walk out front with the answers–we can walk alongside each other with the struggle.
So, to close this, I am extending an invitation. Let’s learn to carry the leadership load together. Let’s start a community of education leaders who are trying to thrive while doing hard things. I don’t have all the answers, but I am happy to share what I have learned and invite you to do the same. We can learn from our successes and missteps. If you want a partner on your journey, please follow me on Instagram: lizerwinimagine or on Facebook at Imagine Believe Achieve.