Like many people out there, I'd been struggling with a lot of stress at the workplace. Dealing with all sorts of demands, working 50-60-hour weeks, multitasking, you name it. All in the name of a paycheck that would pay the bills.
But for me, everything started to go downhill, professionally, after I took on a new corporate job in Germany in June 2005. It was an offer I couldn't refuse in an international setting where, as a seasoned expat, I always felt in my element.
In my career, I have been blessed to meet and work with some great folks whom I now call friends. I also dealt with disrespect from my superiors (rarely) and being undermined by co-workers (a little more often than rarely). Besides that, I was doing a job I hated. I put up with all of that, telling myself this was the norm. At the end of the day, the corporate world isn't a bed of roses. So, I had to take it "like a man."
By August 2008, I'd burned out. I'd been ignoring my symptoms for quite a while: I could no longer focus, I was exhausted, demotivated and unproductive. The closer I would get to my office building every morning, the more I'd become nauseous at the thought of having to go through the same routine all over again.
My doctor recommended that I just take some time off. I did. After three weeks, I was good to go, but I got back into the same vicious cycle.
My nightmare ended a year later when my employer had to cut costs and, like many of my co-workers, I was laid off. I went through the gamut of emotions everyone experiences when going through a similar situation. It took me a few good months, though, to understand that my employer did me a massive favor. This experience taught me a few things about myself as a human being I didn't know, benefitting for me in the long run.
If I were to write a letter now to the person I was five years ago, this is what I would say to myself:
1. Find your purpose
Easier said than done, I know. Some people find their purpose early on in life. Others struggle for a lifetime, looking for it and eventually giving up for the sake of staying in their comfort zone.
When I was between jobs, I started blogging. At first, I did this to maintain my sanity amidst the sea of uncertainty I was in. It took me about a year to decide blogging is something I really want to pursue as a new career. And it's something I most definitely wouldn't have taken on if I hadn't been laid-off.
2. Stop putting yourself down
-- others are doing it already. I was pretty good at that, and sometimes, I still am. Even when I should have taken credit for something that I did right, or when my efforts were acknowledged, I was way too humble to brag.
3. Avoid multitasking
I was never a good multi-tasker. In time, I learned how bad multitasking is for the brain. Dividing your attention on doing too many things in the same time was something that never led me anywhere good. To me, multitasking is the synonym of chaos. So, I pushed myself to start working on one project at a time and break it down into smaller tasks (e.g.: as a writer, I research a topic first, then outline it, write about it, edit it, post it).
4. Learn to say 'no'
I didn't have it in me to say 'no' to people. Most of the time, I would try to please everyone -- saying 'no' was not an option. While I was doing my apparently shiny job in Germany, the sh*t hit the fan. I had to say 'no' on several occasions to a demanding and disrespectful boss with whom I had the most acrimonious work relationship ever. He just never took no for an answer. Even though I had to deal with a lot of anger and frustration back then, I don't regret the experience. Later, I understood this was one of the many lessons life had in store for me. It had to happen so that I would learn to stand up for myself instead of being someone else's doormat.
5. Stop being a perfectionist
You think you could still improve the report you just finished the other day, or the article you wrote for one of your clients. Isn't the thought of that killing you? You could still tweak it here and there. You know you could have made it sound so much better. Putting too much pressure on yourself is a sure recipe towards burnout.
6. Practice gratitude
Stop focusing on what you don't have in your life and be grateful for what you have. I started a gratitude journal where every day, I would write down five things I was grateful for. When was the last time you did nothing but watch the sky? Or smell a flower? Or be mindful that you live and breathe? Find happiness in the little things and pay attention to the here and now.
7. Never compare yourself to other people
You are doing yourself a huge disservice if you think you are lesser than people around you: less smart, less pretty, less secure and good at what you do. There's no reason in the world you should undermine yourself.
No anti-stress pill will ever make you feel any better. Soul-searching helps you get to the bottom of how you feel when you're under pressure. Treat the root cause instead of the effect. Spend some alone time. Change the words you use to express your thoughts and feelings. Make a habit of using fewer words with negative connotations and take a more positive approach to life.
Don't let stress take over your life! You can't avoid it, but at least try to mitigate the negative effects it has on your well-being. You have only one life to live, so you better not waste it.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.
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