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The Mood of Hysterical Industriousness
By Alan Sieler
The purpose of this article is to alert you to the likely existence of a pervasive yet deeply subtle mood that we can easily fall prey to. Before looking at the notion of hysterical industriousness let us first look at the notion of moods.
Moods are an inevitable part of life and we know from personal experience that we can be in good moods and bad moods. However, there is much more to moods than being in good or bad moods.
Moods are a crucial part of the ontological approach to coaching, leadership improvement, team development and culture change. They are a largely invisible and pervasive part of our emotional lives, living in the background of our awareness yet often exerting powerful affects of our perception and behavior without us being aware of them. Moods are enduring emotional experiences, lasting from approximately an hour through to decades, literally making themselves at home in our biology.
Our moods can be very helpful and they can be very unhelpful, sometimes destructive. Readers familiar with the ontological approach will recognise such basic moods as resentment, resignation, anxiety, acceptance, ambition and wonder, which can occur in different combinations with each other.
One aspect of moods that is important to emphasise is that they aren’t just individual experiences, as they can be collective or social. Therefore there can be a mood of a family, a community, a division of a company, as well as a region and a nation.
The expression “hysterical industriousness” is attributed to contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. It refers to our tendency to be habituated to a continual fast pace of life, endeavouring to cope with demands and pressures with no time for anything like casual idleness. “We are in a hurry. We have many tasks, many e-mails, many needed conversations, endless practices to do, books to read, movies to see, trips to take, projects to complete, plans to make—so we nearly worship efficiency.” (James Flaherty, New Ventures West newsletter, December 2016.)
Without realising it we can “fall into” living at a hectic pace that becomes normal, fearing that if we do not keep up we will fall behind, be compared negatively with others and regarded as “not being up to it”. We can live in a constant state of always being “on the job”, being biologically unbalanced by over stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and insufficiently activating with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with calmness, peace and relaxation. Let us consider how hysterical industriousness can develop and what we can choose to do about it.
Not too many years ago a coaching client who lived a busy life combining being a mother with a full time senior management role wanted to work on reducing her growing impatience with many aspects of her family and working life. She recognised that she was constantly irritated and dissatisfied, even acknowledging that she was impatient to “find a solution to my impatience” in the coaching. At the beginning of the second session she shared that she had made an important discovery in her reflections of the first session in which there was exploration of some of her basic moods and related assessments about how others and the world “should be”. “My discovery is that I realise I have hurry sickness”.
Hurry sickness is an integral aspect of hysterical industriousness. After exploring with her the significance of her discovery, the analogy of an illness becoming a disease was used to suggest that her discovery may have prevented herself from falling prey to “busyness disorder”. She replied, “Oh no, I think I have managed to develop that as well.”
Wanting to be optimistic the coach said, “Well, I think you may have made these discoveries just in time before you developed what is probably the greatest undiagnosed disease in the Westernised world.” “Which is?” she asked, checking her impatience. “This is the disease of seriosity, where everything is a big deal, super-important and has to be done immediately or better still by yesterday, heavily infected with a mood of heaviness and solemness. When we combine hurry sickness, busyness disorder and seriosity we have the mood of hysterical industriousness.” “Oh”, replied the client. “I am afraid I have developed that as well.”
The coach went on to explain that there is a rightful place for seriousness in life, because many things are important, however there are two forms of seriousness that can be confused. The first form of seriousness is a deep underlying intent to be thorough and rigorous about what we do. The second form of seriousness is being solemn and excessively serious in the manner in which we go about things, making everything a big deal, and not having the ability to be light and occasionally laugh at ourselves. This mood can be associated with an almost permanent furrowing of the forehead.
The client responded that she would definitely like to have more lightness in her life while still being committed to her family and working roles. “I simply want to have some sense of peace and calmness in my life and more enjoyment but how can I get that?” she asked in a tone of voice that now had more curiosity than impatience in it. The coach responded, “Very gradually in an unhurried manner.”
Cultivating a mood of lightness
The coach said “I want to pose a number questions to you.”
The client responded, “I am” to each question.
The coach then asked, “Many things we do in life are important and would you agree that when they don’t go well it is very rarely a train wreck?” He continued, “So how come we make so many things such a big deal like it is as if the sky is going to fall in if they don’t go as we want?” Next he asked, “What would it be like if we held the events in life we experience lightly, with an underlying seriousness that does not produce seriosity? Good God we could even make meditation a heavy big deal if we wanted to!”
Realising he had said a lot and was in danger of going into his own agenda the coach paused and said, “Sorry, I got a bit wound up. What do you make of what I said?” After a discussion in which the client shared how liberating it would be to have a lighter approach to life the coach gained permission to tell a story. “Let me tell you about Rule Number 6."
“This is a story about two prime ministers who are sitting in a room, discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a cabinet minister bursts through the door, screaming and shouting. The prime minister who's hosting the meeting says to the man, ‘Peter, please remember Rule Number Six.’ Peter is immediately restored to calm. He apologises, bows, and walks out. About 20 minutes later, another cabinet minister comes flying in. She's beside herself. The prime minister says, ‘Maria, please remember Rule Number Six.’ Maria apologises and walks out.
“The visiting prime minister can't contain his curiosity: ‘My dear colleague, what is this Rule Number Six?’ The host prime minister says, ‘Very simple: Don't take yourself so goddamn seriously.’ The visitor replies, ‘That's a nice rule. What, may I ask, are the other rules?’ The prime minister answers, "There aren't any." (From Ben Zander, The Art of Possibility.)
After a lengthy silence the coach then invited the client to identify some small things she could begin to do to live more lightly and slower, such as list some situations in which she could reduce seriosity, breath slower and deeper, move more slowly and pause for longer before speaking. He then ensured that she was willing to commit to experiment with the small changes she had identified that would be manageable as a starting point. The coach concluded, “From little things, big things grow.” “I really like that song – that will help me”, responded the client. She added, “You know what I’ve realised? I have always been trying to make the world conform to my schedule, which is like try to push against a river. What a relief to realise that.”
** What are some little things you will definitely begin to do to live more lightly and begin to build your own antidotes to being trapped in a mood of hysterical industriousness?
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