Ben Norris

🧠 #110: Hierarchy of stress

I was reminded this week of the possibility and importance of allowing seemingly contradictory ideas to both be true. I can be struggling AND doing well at the same time.

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.

In my update last week, I shared my experience of learning that I was more struggling than I realized. A few days ago, I was discussing the experience with my brother, to whom I had been marveling at how well I was doing.

We talked about the nature of the stress I was feeling, and how different it seemed from the stress I was having a couple months ago. Back then, I was freelancing and the biggest source of concern was finding enough clients.

My brother pointed out that my worry then was essentially whether I would be able to provide for my family, pay my mortgage, and feed my children. Now, I was worried about hitting deadlines, building relationships, and helping my team improve processes.

The nature of my stress had fundamentally changed.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that your focus and attention will be taken up by the lowest level on the hierarchy that is not met.

One interesting observation my brother made is that taking a cross-section of the pyramid at a lower level results in a larger and heavier slice than at a higher level. That provided a helpful visual of the impact of having concerns from different levels weighing on me.

This also illustrates a trap that can be easy to fall into—comparing suffering. I wrote about this a few years ago in a short article called “Relative suffering.” If we are not careful, we can easily dismiss our own stress, or that of others, just because it is at a higher level on the pyramid.

The truth is that stress is hard. Recognizing the blessings that we do have, or how things could be worse is often helpful, but should not lead us to disallow our emotions. Let’s celebrate where we are, and grieve where needed as well.

One of the most difficult skills I have learned over the past few years is to hold opposing emotions simultaneously, honoring each and invalidating neither.

This experience was a great reminder of how important that skill is.

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