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Grey Hairs & Projected Stress


“I used to work at a nuclear power plant in my twenties. There I was involved in engineering work that would make most people go crazy and – wouldn’t you know it – I did.”

While attending college an old professor of mine shared with the class this same story that outlined a simple truth about the interactions of people under trying circumstances. Unlike some instructor tales, this one struck a claim in my memory. Since then, I have gone on to see the learned truth he shared play out in my own work life. Would you like to hear the tale?1

You’d be surprised how quickly saying, “I went crazy.”, gets the attention of some folks and perhaps this professor knew it. He continued, “Some people leave marks on our lives. These marks can be both good and bad experiences at the office and at home, which can lift us up and tear us down. This is largely due to those around you and the atmosphere, the miasma of wellness or blight, which they project. Therefore, in many endeavors within either arena your enjoyment and fulfillment is shaped by those around you who seek, often, to maximize their own experience through any means possible. This can lead to a conflict of interest between the two parties – that is you and other individuals’ desire for contentment.” 2

About here I’m sure the professor was losing many, as this was a capstone course and all some of the seniors could think about was getting past the last moral homily (that was starting to get deeper) and on to the final grade of many academic lives. “But what do I mean when I say conflict? Well in the case of my insanity, conflict drove it. Specifically, conflict between my needs for happiness and that same need of my supervisor drove me to break down and eventually resign from a place that was what I’d wanted to do since I was sitting where you are now.”

“You see, I had to quit, because my supervisor was projecting her anxiety and fears – her stress – onto me. How can one project their stress? Easily, stress can be and is projected through expectation setting, demeanor and tone, body language, and other communication channels as typically benign and hard to interpret as type. In so projecting her own stress, be it work or personal, she created a toxic environment that made me react in the only way I could as a young professional – I hunkered down and took it as right and true, and as a call to action to work harder. I was idealistically blind to the abuse that I was receiving. Like so many others, who in their youth and zest to contribute and succeed will stand tall and push forward, I weathered the storm for two years. Or so I thought.”

A few quizzical looks drove him to elaborate. “It was standing on a over-bright walkway alone at night at the plant that I realized I was a madman and that I had done it to myself. By seeking to succeed and to capitalize on my dream I allowed another person to place upon me external demands, fears and insecurities with myself, my competence. Worst of all I was swallowed by the overshadowing – and markedly false – importance of my work and the milestones we had in place to meet.”

In the first year out of college I reached back to this same professor and thanked him for the story as I had seen the very same thing at my job and was able to identify clearly the projected stress of my supervisor. The hardest part of recognizing these waves of stress is to not ignore all forms of exuded fears and emotions as many are valid reflections of priority in the workplace that need to be known. In a team, projected emotions and interests are wonderful signals for understanding one another and the things that supervisors and those under them want and need out of their work (be it internally or to please external forces like the “boss’s boss”).

For my purposes I began conceiving then of three types of projection at work: fear; emotion; and stress. Fear – the often external driver that pushes action or re-action in a specific direction [best utilized as “positive” fear which drives parties toward a constructive removal or resolution of that fear, often through achievement of some goal or task]; emotion – the positive and negative stance of an individual on a given topic, entity, or circumstance; stress – the result of over-burdensome fears and negative emotions.

Through this story that teacher solidified himself as a true mentor – even if a gruff one. I hope that by sharing you are able to reflect upon his experience.34

tl:dr 5

  1. Stress can be projected and not recognized by the receiver until it accumulates to dangerous levels.
  2. You need not bear the brunt of received stress. However, you must recognize projection to avoid accepting it.
  3. Not all projection in life is stress and may have value. Other types can be valuable in obtaining your attention – for things that put you at risk or endanger something important to your life or work.



  1. His, I promise. It’s a better story than mine.
  2. Paraphrasing quotes. After all, the mind will make a memory, and the retelling of a story, what it wants.
  3. I may have told this story before in a shorter post when I first started this blog – but I expect no one will ever read that version of the tale.
  4. Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/
  5. I plan to begin putting these in even though I strongly disagree with the simplification and abbreviation of learning and understanding of online news and posted articles. By providing this section certain readers may well draw some value from the content they didn’t read.