How do we learn to live with a stress response without living in a stress response? Over my thirty-plus years in counseling, I’ve seen people become stressed over every imaginable thing or situation under the sun. We are, after all, highly inventive and creative people. But even with all of those variations, I’ve found that people respond to stress in two basic but different ways: they’re either go-getters and stay-putters.
Go-getters respond to stress by adjusting to its rules, trying to find ways through sheer determination to triumph over stress by getting everything done. They have great plans to do just that. But when they are unable to pull off the impossible, they feel like failures, which increases their stress.
Peter was a classic go-getter. He couldn’t remember a life without stress, even from childhood. At an early age, he learned to juggle school, homework, sports, youth groups, volunteer work—whatever came his way. Energetic and perfectionistic, Peter had energy and stamina that sustained him in a life overcommitted and overscheduled.
Peter knew from an early age that he wanted to be a pilot, and he strove to meet all of the academic and physical requirements for that career. Today was never enough for Peter; he was always reaching, always striving for tomorrow. When he reached one goal, he substituted another, then another.
For Peter, life became less about living and more about accomplishing the goals on his list. People— including his family—were less about relationships and more about contributors to Peter’s goals in life. Peter expected life to happen a certain way and doggedly insisted that it did.
When life stopped happening the way it was supposed to, Peter didn’t know what to do. When his teenage son didn’t listen and became addicted to drugs, Peter didn’t know what to do. When Peter’s wife threatened to leave him, Peter didn’t know what to do. When Peter developed a heart condition, Peter didn’t know what to do.
All along, Peter had not realized the stress he had been under or the toll that stress had been taking on his family and his health. Peter had spent his life thinking he could work his way out of any obstacle. The higher the obstacle, the harder he’d had to try. Success was supposed to be a function of how hard he had worked. Now Peter found he was working his way out of his family and working himself to death.
Are you a Go-Getter?
- What are the various responsibilities you’re juggling?
- Of the responsibilities you’re juggling, which are the ones you must attend to? Which are responsibilities you’ve put on yourself?
- In what ways is your hard work unable to control the things happening in your life?
Bill was a classic stay-putter. Almost thirty, he’d never kept a job for more than a year. In between episodes of work, he found friends to take him in or crashed in his parents’ basement. By doing that, Bill was wearing out his welcome just about everywhere, including the basement.
For almost a decade, Bill managed to avoid responsibility by stringing together a series of unrelated online college courses. First he was going to get this degree, then a different degree. As long as he kept changing his major, he avoided questions about graduation. But now he was getting older and the questions wouldn’t go away.
If only he could get a degree in online gaming, Bill would be happy. Unable to maintain the discipline to show up for a job, Bill was religious about game time. Only in the virtual world could Bill show any sign of success. There had to be some way to work some money out of his online prowess. He thought about entering a competition, but he waited too long to sign up. He hadn’t even made it to the exhibition hall to watch those who had; instead, he just stayed in the basement and played online games by himself.
Bill was finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. The stress of each day was becoming too much. He’d always dealt with that stress by not acknowledging it existed and distracting himself with other things. Now those distractions weren’t working, and Bill had no idea what he was going to do.
Are you a Stay-Putter?
- What responsibilities are you trying to avoid?
- Put the responsibilities you’re avoiding in order of priority so you can focus on them one at a time.
- What distractions are you using to put off making the changes you need to make in your life?
Recommended Treatment Page: Stress Reduction Treatment
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