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Guest Author, Jeanne Malnati on Stress Management

28 April 2020
Jeanne Malnati, The Culture Group

Continuing our focus on stress management in the time of Covid-19 as part of Stress Awareness Month, we are featuring a guest author, Jeanne Malnati. Jeanne, a Clinical Social Worker for over 20 years, now runs a business called The Culture Group, which specializes in “the business of conversation” and has been Focus’ culture consultant for over 5 years.

Jeanne has been a cornerstone in the shaping of the intentional culture at Focus. Over the years she has taught our team how to hone our interpersonal skills including stress management and effective conflict resolution.

So, when we started to think about Stress Awareness Month, in the context of a world thrown into chaos during an unprecedented pandemic, she was the expert at the top of the list.

Her response to us is below, a personal story with some insightful takeaways about how effective communication, whether in personal or professional relationships, can be the key to a healthier personal well-being.

Jeanne Malnati, The Culture Group 2

Chicago. Mid-April. Covid-19 lockdown.

Newly fallen snow (Did I say April 15th??)

As I sat down with my morning coffee my daughter forwards me a link about a 50-car pile-up on the Kennedy Expressway due to black ice!

That was it. That’s what put me over the edge last week.

I knew it when tears began streaming down my face. All of a sudden the world seemed dark. In that moment “everything” was wrong. I text my husband in the next room. “Honey, I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” He’s not dumb. He came and found me right away.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”

“I don’t know”… I blubbered. “I think I just need to cry. Can I put my head on your lap, and talk?”

“Sure.”

“And Marc, I don’t want any one-liners to try and make me feel better.”

Yes, it took a pile-up of cars and trucks for me to tune into the pile-up of unexpressed thoughts and feelings inside of me.

I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who, for over 20 years, provided a space for clients to express their feelings…to identify what was really going on. 8 years ago I started a business called, The Culture Group….the business of conversation. I now work with leadership teams. We sit together in a circle for hours, where I teach them the art of self-awareness, the importance of personal growth….in their professional life. I guide them to open themselves to one another’s emotions. And here I am, the one in a lump snuggled next to my husband.

In processing that moment, that single, 30-minute time period, that literally changed the course of my morning, day, and week, I share with you a list of learns and grows:

  • I wondered. I got curious. I paused and took the time to check-in with myself “What in the world is going on with me?”
  • I acknowledged. “Ok, I gotta be running from something. I think I’m pretending all is well, when, in reality, unthinkable stuff is happening in our world right now.”
  • I reached out. Sitting alone and being with my feelings/grieving is healthy to do. For a bit. Yet, I felt myself sinking, wallowing, and from experience, not much good comes from that. There then comes a time (preferably sooner than later) to reach out for help. “I’m not sure what’s going on with me. Would you be willing to just hold space while I talk? So I can hear myself speak?” (And for another human being to witness me, and hear me, in my confusion and pain).
  • I blurted. I just started talking. Blabbering. Expressing myself. Which turned into blubbering. I sobbed. I don’t like to sob. I’m not a sobber. I prefer to express passionately; I prefer to scrap. I’m a scrapper. But not this time. My defenses quickly dropped.
  • Thus, I allowed myself to be vulnerable. To take my protective wall down. And finally, (thank God) my tears turned to laughter. Giggling actually. Processing feelings through to laughter and lightness- is a really good thing. It’s freeing. My load was slowly lifted.
  • I was gentle with myself. And gentle with how I asked for attention.
  • I gave myself grace. (vs. internally shaming myself, “Get a grip!” Or, beating myself up.)
  • I connected emotionally. To myself. To another human being.
  • I took a risk and asked for what I wanted. “Can I talk? Express? Would you just listen?” and just hold me?”

I had not realized how badly I needed to walk through these steps myself. I teach it to clients. I preach it when I speak to groups. I believe deeply in the power of full expression. Yet, I had not done it myself, even though a close friend’s husband had just died from Covid-19. Another friend’s brother-in-law had taken his own life this week. I had spent hours on the phone tuning in to others. Clients were distressed and scared. Being quarantined, and unable to see my grandkids. My mom is old and by herself. Etc..etc.

I had bottled up my emotions, and they were screaming to be released.

Often we focus on our roles and believe we (this applies to both women and men) must be strong and carry on. Yes, even in this hard to describe world of Covid-19. We erroneously tell ourselves that we need to tune in to the job at hand. Stay in step with other people’s agendas. Other people’s needs. We often don’t notice how many disparate things are tugging on us simultaneously.

Once I allowed the laughter to peak its way through, I started to breath more deeply. Not shallow as I was before.

I could tangibly feel the internal storm clouds disappear.

I thanked God.

Within less than a half hour, I felt much better.

Yes. And. There was more I needed to express. I waited a few hours. Marc and I, being married for over 40 years, hold high values in our relationship. To be connected in a trusting, loving, full-hearted, integrity-filled way, I believed a face-to-face share-time would be wise.

  • I cleared with my husband. I was withholding some judgements and hurt. He once again listened and held space for me.
  • I checked out a story I was making up about him. My story was far from the truth. I let it go. Peace and good-will came over me. I knew it would.
  • I took responsibility. I wanted to blame some of my upset on him. Instead, I looked at the log in my own eye and where I could have acted/reacted differently. Being a victim. Living in a villain stance. Neither are pretty. I desire intimacy over being right. I desire peace and caring connection over winning.
  • I counted my blessings. Oh so many.
  • I appreciated him. I thanked him for holding space for me; for not getting defensive. I appreciated myself too.
  • I grounded myself. I took deep breaths.
  • I prayed. For so many.

Why do I share my personal story with you, when the request was to discuss stress in the workplace?

Here’s why:

When we are not intentional about taking care of ourselves and the health of our relationships in our personal world, staying in tune to the pressure of carrying unexpressed feelings, we can’t help but to bring a “half-full tank” to the workplace. Half-full tank, meaning lack of focus on the work to be done, a short-temper, low energy, low-grade fear, lack of good-will and grace for others/for ourselves. Mistakes are more easily made. Important details overlooked. There is an edge to our voice. We can be just downright nasty. Or insincerely nice. We gossip. We blame. Our leadership and ability to make clear-headed decisions is impaired.

“Half-full tank” work is not what a boss is paying you for. Partial-tank leadership is not what your team expects or needs from you. Especially during this time of Covid-19. Partial tanks turn to empty tanks.

This is not good.

If an organization is willing to adopt a Relational Leadership model, which involves each team member being committed to their own personal growth focusing on self-awareness, and, choosing to come together as a team to navigate their emotional/relational roadblocks with one another, a healthy and frankly, a beautiful, caring, authentic culture of community can be created. When relational issues are handled well, when clean and clear communication with honest, face to face conversations happen regularly, which includes full expression of feelings, business issues have a greater chance to go smoothly. When the relational health of a team is neglected, the business challenges they face become ten times harder to solve. Creating a safe environment to deal with our stress is paramount in our lives and in our careers.

It took a 50-car pile-up for me to remind myself that I do not have to stay stuck in having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I’ve got tools. And when used, the sun will come out tomorrow. And it will for you too.


Jeanne L. Malnati, MSW, LCSW

The Culture Group

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