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Why You Feel Like You're Hanging By a Thread

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By Jan Bruce

If you asked 1,000 American women of diverse ages, careers, and family configurations if they were worried about their well-being, how many do you think would say yes?

Author and career consultant Megan Dalla-Camina asked the question, and here's the answer she got: 700. Seventy percent of all surveyed said that they struggled with well-being. Dalla-Camina also found that 40 percent said they were hanging by a thread, and only 16 percent were very satisfied with their lives overall.

These results corroborate what we've known at meQuilibrium for a long time. Our medical experts and our own research both point to an overwhelming surge in stress-related struggles for women with careers and families. Our most popular blog post in 200-plus posts? "4 Red Flags that You're Headed for Burnout."

But the story doesn't end there -- and thank goodness for that. While your to-do lists and obligations and family pressures may be intractable, the sheer quantity of things you have to do isn't the root problem. When I see a "40 percent say they are hanging by a thread" statistic, what I really see is a problem of colliding beliefs.

When Career Goals Met Caregiving...

It's hard to feel good about "having it all" when you've got incompatible sets of expectations and beliefs knocking around in your head. For women striving both professionally and as mothers, the trouble usually comes down to two ideas:

1. Success only comes from hard work. I must work hard to get ahead.

2. Family comes first. I always need to be there for my family.

These are biggies, with roots likely going back to childhood. And they are in conflict with each other, drawing in equal and opposite directions on your physical, mental, and emotional resources. Of course you feel like you're hanging by a thread! All your other threads are wrapped around living up to the expectations of your deepest beliefs. (Read more on why differing belief systems create more stress for women than men.)

The trick is to learn to modify or steer around these beliefs and expectations so they don't make you feel like you're constantly on the verge of collapse. Here are two approaches.

Modify It

Belief: Success only comes from hard work. I must work hard to get ahead.

When a belief and its expectations are a core part of your identity, and reflect something you like about yourself, embrace them. Acknowledge the value and then redefine it to create less emotional pain.

Try this: I'm proud of being a hard worker. I need to take measures to tend to my personal needs so that I can work more effectively.

Modifying a deep belief can feel both scary and superficial, as if you're just rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. You're going down with the ship anyway, right? In the face of this resistance to change, I am reminded of a story a colleague told about a car cartoon her young son loved. In the show, a car would holler, "Modify!" and a brigade of other cars would swarm with paint and parts. Slam-whiz-bang, a brilliant, tricked-out car would appear, looking fabulous and bursting with pride.

Modification takes some work. It might just feel like a coat of paint. But out of that work comes a new confidence to elevates the old you.

Steer Around It

Belief: Family comes first. I always need to be there for my family.

The truth is that the tug-of-war between work and family demands isn't going away, especially if you are driven to give 100 percent to both. Once you bring your belief into conscious awareness, however, you are in better position to chart a course around it.

Try this: Sometimes I am going to need to pay attention to my job and not to my family. These are the workplace demands that take precedence over time with my family. These are the workplace demands that do not.

The belief is intact, but now the expectations around it won't drive you crazy with guilt and resentment. Here's another example: Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium, once had a client with a mantra at the ready when she felt obliged to stay at work when she wanted to be with her family, which took into account her central financial role in their lives -- "Sometimes 'being there' for my kids means being at work." (Read more on how to shift deep-seated beliefs.)

When you do the work of shifting beliefs and expectations, you throw yourself a lifeline out of overstressed despair and into an oasis of calm, where you can sew up the ragged ends of your well-being before you launch out into your work and your family again.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

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