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Coaches Diary: Doing it All


Coach Olivia Stefanino looks at the stress of the "superwoman" syndrome.

Weary from nearly a decade of running her own consultancy practice, Sue knew that something had to change – fast!

Not only was Sue putting in long hours during the week – but she often found herself working at weekends too. Years of tiredness were beginning to catch up with her and worse, Sue’s husband had issued her with an ultimatum: “Spend more time with me, or I’m off!”

Sue admitted that witnessing her husband’s anger and distress at the weekend had made her stop and think about her life – and as she had played back the last 10 years in her mind, she realised that she hadn’t actually had much “life” at all.

Caught up in the “superwoman” syndrome, Sue not only spent little quality time with her husband but never took time out for herself. Sue felt that she was on a treadmill – giving her time and energy to everyone who asked, but receiving little payback herself.

I asked Sue why she was so busy. Opening her mouth to speak, she looked at me – and then after a few moments of silence, she suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobs.

Grabbing a tissue from the table next to her, she spluttered: “I’m afraid. I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t put the hours in. I’m worried that my business will fail – and then I’ll be a failure too. “

I suggested to Sue that she was confusing her own identity with that of her role as a consultant. “Even if you were to go out of business, that wouldn’t make you a failure as a person. It’s the difficulties in life which strengthen our characters – and if you read many so-called ‘successful’ people’s autobiographies, you’ll find that they all experienced their own fair share of ‘failures’ too.

“In reality, there is no such thing as failure – as everything that happens in life teaches us and prepares us better for the future. Events that seemed dire at the time often later reveal themselves to have been opportunities in the making. Time gives us a different perspective on things – and the trick is to be able to sense the opportunity at the time rather than only with the benefit of hindsight!” I added.

Sue gave me a weak smile between sniffs, and I asked her if she had only been praised as a child if she worked hard. “Oh yes,” she had replied. “My parents were always on at me to study more. Even when I was quite young, my mother insisted that homework came first – and that playing outside with my friends came second. My mother’s disciplinarian approach meant that my classmates saw me as ‘different’ – and after a while they began to tease me and I felt very left out.

“Actually, I was quite lonely at school, with the result that I increasingly threw myself into my school work for solace – much to my parents’ delight!”

As Sue began to reflect on her childhood, the reasons for her “overwork” were becoming obvious. While Sue had learned to work hard, she had never learned to have fun. We both agreed that it was now time for her to change those childhood patterns.

Together we spent the rest of Sue’s session looking at areas in which she could delegate tasks and free up some precious fun time. Employing a cleaner and someone to do the ironing was top of Sue’s list – as was finding a bookkeeper so that she could delegate a task that she loathed.

I knew that we had made the final breakthrough when Sue said to me, “You know, I’m a grown up now – and I really don’t have to do it all myself, do I?”

* Olivia Stefanino is a leadership development consultant and executive coach. For more information on Olivia's work and to download your free e-booklet “128 ways to harness your personal power”, visit


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