How to Stay Resilient (And Keep Your Sanity) as You Face Pressure

I&CO
I&CO
Mar 20, 2019 · 11 min read

The following was written by product designer, Amanda Poh, and presented at the Touchpoint IxD Conference 2019 hosted by the School of Interactive Arts + Technology in Vancouver, Canada.

You can download the slides to the presentation here.

CW: The following contains mention of suicide.

Rewind to 2017 — I’m a senior design student trying to navigate what I hope might be my last internship. While my classmates are leaving left and right to pursue their dream jobs in Silicon Valley, my fears of getting left behind are starting to feel more real. I feel the pressure to deliver and perfect my skills. I feel like I need to be constantly adding value to my work and teams, but I don’t quite know how. I know these pressures are constructive, but I struggle with the idea of failure and start taking it out on myself when I’m not successful. My negative self-talk gets louder as I continue to make mistakes and feel like I’m not being productive enough.

I slowly fall into another depressive episode, but this time it feels like my career and future are on the line.

“What if I don’t get a full-time offer?”

This time, it’s not failure that I’m afraid of, but the fear that maybe I’m never going to amount to the person I thought I’d be.

“What if I’m not cut out for this industry?”

This time, I go as far as planning out my own suicide. And it’s not friends or family that hold me back — but rather the thought, “what if I’m not even successful at that?”

As students, we spend so much time thinking that everything will magically get better once we graduate. We tell ourselves “I just have to push through this one thing, but that one thing leads to the next. Thing is, we’re going to face pressure continuously throughout our lives.

Your skills can take you to certain lengths, but it’s your reaction to pressure that determines your success.

It takes a level of resilience and grit to pick yourself back up and keep fighting. But let’s be clear. It’s not about pushing through because doing that on its own can lead to larger problems like burnout. It’s about developing your coping strategies to help you manage under pressure. In order to do this, we need to first recognize the different sources of pressure and how they influence our behaviors.

There are three different sources of pressure: self-pressure, peer pressure, and authority pressure.

  1. Self-Pressure: This is when we tie our self-worth to our success. It manifests as behaviors like negative self-talk and can be made worse by conditions we live with, like anxiety, depression, and so on.
  2. Peer Pressure: This isn’t pressure from your peers, but rather the pressure you feel to conform to your peer group by changing your attitudes, values, or behaviors. It’s also the fear of not being good enough and being left behind. It manifests as making decisions because of others instead of making decisions for yourself, like applying to an internship because the rest of your friends did too.
  3. Authority Pressure: This could be your prof, faculty members, or eventually your boss. It’s the pressure to meet their expectations, but can also be the fear of letting them down. It manifests as the need for approval, like making changes to a project based on your prof’s feedback, not because you believe they’re the right changes, but because you want to make them happy.

Ultimately, I think one of the contributing factors to my break down was the fact that I didn’t have the proper coping strategies in place to help me through these pressures.

What I’ve learned since then, and what I want to share with you today are 5 strategies that I currently practice to cope with pressure.

1. Unpack Your Emotions

The first strategy I want to talk about is the importance of moving through your emotions.

“It’s okay to not feel good. It doesn’t mean I’m bad. It doesn’t mean that I’m never going to succeed. It just means that I don’t feel right, right now, and I need to address that. [I think] The worst thing you can do is not address it.”

– Dani Balenson in an interview with 99U

A common example we see at school or in the workplace is when someone says, “I’m stressed.” But is it stress? Or are you overwhelmed because of the amount of work on your plate? Are you feeling defensive because of something that upset you during the day? Or is it dread because you’re not getting the kind of work that you want to be doing?

What is the actual emotion you are feeling, and why are you feeling it?

Researcher, Susan David, explains:

“Emotional agility is more than just an acceptance of emotions. We also know that accuracy matters. When we label our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings. And what scientists call the readiness potential in our brain is activated, allowing us to take concrete steps forward.”

At work, sometimes I find myself thinking, “Get it together. I can’t be anxious, right now. I shouldn’t feel this way.” And instead of working through what I was feeling, I’d end up spending way more time and energy trying to disassociate myself from my emotions.

In order to identify the problem, give yourself the permission to feel and move through your emotions.

The next time you feel pressure, take a second to show up and sit with yourself. Think of it as a Q+A session with yourself:

What feelings do I notice?
What do I think caused it?
What actions do I need to take to move forward?
Do I need to reach out for support?

It’s also helpful to write out your thoughts or talk it out with a friend when you’re having a hard time processing your emotions on your own. It acts as a sounding board to help you better understand what you’re feeling and why.

2. Set Your Intentions

The second strategy is getting in the habit of evaluating the intentions behind your goals. It’s important to be able to distinguish between:

A healthy-striving goal that focuses on your growth and self-improvement.
An unhealthy goal that is driven by perfectionism and the approval of others.

Case in point–it’s easy to get in the habit of approval seeking when it comes to delivering work to an authority figure. In school, you might have a habit of catering your work to your professor because you know that if you do x, y, and z, you’ll get a good grade. Instead of continuing that habit of approval seeking, what if you picked a healthy striving goal?

When I first started working in the design industry, a mistake I used to make was centering my goals around the approval of others on my team. I used to ask myself things like: How can I impress my boss? How can I be recognized for my skills? How can I make my coworkers like me?

What I failed to recognize at the time, was that these goals were ultimately tying my self-worth to the approval of others.

Author, researcher, and psychologist, Brené Brown, explains it like this:

“If the goal is being liked and they don’t like me, I’m in trouble. But if the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, I’m okay. I get going by making authenticity the priority.”

Now, I try to set goals that are rooted in personal growth. Instead, I ask myself:

̶H̶o̶w̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶I̶ ̶i̶m̶p̶r̶e̶s̶s̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶b̶o̶s̶s̶?̶
How can I do work that I’m most proud of?

̶H̶o̶w̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶I̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶c̶o̶g̶n̶i̶z̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶s̶k̶i̶l̶l̶s̶?̶
How can I continue to master my skills and create value for my team?

H̶o̶w̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶I̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶c̶o̶w̶o̶r̶k̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶l̶i̶k̶e̶ ̶m̶e̶?̶
How can I create meaningful connections with my coworkers while expressing my authentic self?

3. Plan Not Only for Success, but for Failure

When it comes to mapping your goals, it’s important to consider the potential obstacles you might face to prepare yourself for the mistakes and roadblocks ahead. After all, you’re human.

In an activity known as “fear-setting,” author Tim Ferriss outlines a series of exercises to help plan for failure:

1. Think of a goal you want to achieve. This could be a small task, a deliverable, or even as big as picking up an entirely new skill.

2. Define the obstacles to your goal. What are some of the worst things that could happen?

3. How might you prevent those obstacles? Or at the very least, decrease their likelihood. What actions would you need to take? From here, you’ll start to develop a list of steps that’ll help prevent those fears or obstacles from happening.

4. How might you repair the situation? Consider the steps you might take to move forward if you came face to face with that fear or obstacle. Who could you ask for help?

By going through these four steps, you’ll get a better understanding of the immediate obstacles and start preparing an emergency list of steps to take to even during your worst-case scenario.

4. Stay Grounded

Now, sometimes things don’t always work out as planned. You might make a mistake, and sometimes that mistake can trigger self-criticism.

Maybe you applied to an internship and didn’t get it, triggering the thought, “I’m not good enough. Nobody wants me. I’m getting left behind.”

The best thing you can do in that moment is to counter your negative self-talk with grounded statements that bring you back to reality.

But I don’t mean overly positive statements like, “It’s ok, you’re amazing!” because in those moments, you’re going to find it hard to believe. In order to rationalize with yourself, these statements need to be realistic and grounded in facts (not to say you’re not amazing).

For example, you might think a negative, self-critical statement like:

“I didn’t get the job. I’m not good enough.”

In that moment, reflect on the facts, and reframe your thoughts:

“I didn’t get the job, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good enough. Just last week, I got positive feedback on an assignment that I was really proud of.”

“I showed up and did the best I could and that’s something to be proud of.”

But what about the times you know you made a mistake? It’s important to make a clear distinction between when you’re feeling guilt and feeling shame because it makes all the difference in how you move forward.

Guilt is when you recognize that you made a mistake or did something bad; it has to do with your actions. Guilt helps you identify where you need to improve and motivates you to be better.

Shame, on the other hand, is when you believe that you are inherently bad. Shame pushes you into a dark place and tells you that you’re incapable of achieving your goals. And when you believe that, it’s almost impossible to move forward.

Instead of shaming yourself, focus on the facts. Be kind, but hold yourself accountable.

What could I have done better?
What do I think needs improvement?
What steps do I need to take to get there?

By making the shift from self-shaming, to self-improvement, we’re able to cultivate a more sustainable relationship with ourselves.

5. Communicate Your Needs

The fifth and final strategy is to build your support system and communicate your needs. Because you can’t do it all on your own.

It’s important to build a support system of allies–people that will listen to you, care about you, and support you. This can be family, friends, coworkers, mentors, and managers. But it’s important to make sure that you’re not solely depending on one person for support. Not only is that unfair, but it’s also unrealistic. No single person can provide all the different types of support you’ll need.

For example, there are people that I love to turn to for really specific and actionable advice. But when it comes to providing caring and reassuring forms of support, they fall short. No one’s perfect.

You can start to build a well-rounded support system by recognizing the strengths and skills of each individual.

In order to build these relationships, allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for what you need. You might ask a friend:

“Hey, this is something I’m struggling with, how have you faced it?”

Or share with a mentor:

“This is something I’m really interested in. I really admire what you do and I’d love to learn from you.”

But sometimes, it’s not always easy communicating what you need in the heat of the moment. An easy formula that I follow is:

“I feel [emotion], and I need [form of support or action you feel you need to take to move forward].”

The trick here is to focus on what you’re feeling instead of pointing fingers at another person’s actions. No one can argue what you’re feeling.

An example might sound something like:

“I feel flustered and I need to take a walk to clear my mind.”
“I feel overwhelmed with this deadline and I need more time to complete it.”
“I feel upset right now and I need you to listen.”
“I don’t feel well, I need to go home.”

Part of your responsibility is to communicate how you’re feeling and how you need to be supported, otherwise, you can’t be heard. Having the courage to show up and ask for support not only helps you be more successful, but it paves the way for the next person who needs it and helps your friend, professor, or manager understand what they need to do in order to provide better support.

And that’s it! These are the 5 strategies that I practice to help me cope with pressure. By no means is it a formula or a to-do list. It’s about showing up and putting in the effort to build a more sustainable relationship with yourself. I wish I could say that I’ve overcome these pressures and mastered these strategies, but the truth is, I’m still working on it. As writer Audre Lorde puts it, “We are all in the process of becoming.”

Whether you’re navigating through school, your career, or the next stage of your life–invest in yourself the same way you invest in your work.

When you invest yourself, your work will be better, because you’re taking care of the most important element of your work — and that’s you.

Thank you to the people in my life who have shown me what support looks like, and a very big thank you to my mentor, Chelsea Garber, for supporting me in writing this talk.

Amanda Poh is a product designer at Inamoto & Co., a Brooklyn based studio. She is a graduate of School of Interactive Arts + Technology program and specializes in UX/Interaction Design. On the side, she likes to read self-help books and is a mental health advocate.

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