Moving Away from Stress

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke

Moving Away from Stress

Recently I needed solace when I was stressing about something that I could find no satisfying way to influence. I was in the midst of a mess that involved me and those I care for directly. It was at a critical decision-making point, yet I had no input on the impending decision that would have a significant impact on us. It was a challenging situation; surely I could do something.

What?

I explored the situation with my usual list of “good questions”: clarifying questions; questions to consider the situation from many viewpoints and scales; and questions seeking details that might bring more predictability into view. I value being in inquiry. It helps me avoid fear and judgment, especially when challenged.

However, in this instance, such questions kept me stuck and frustrated because they stayed unresolved. There were many dead ends with no answers. I noticed a subtle pattern emerge: when I ask questions, I look for answers. HSD has taught me that answers have a short shelf life, yet even short-term answers can feel better than none at times. In this situation, the unresolved questions and lack of certainty when I had no influence left me more stuck than usual. I realized I needed to try something different to get out of the anxious state I was in .

So what did I consider?

I reframed the situation from the externalities I could not change to focus on my own struggle within the mess. I knew the external mess was causing me internal stress, so I named it a Stress Mess. In naming it, I also came up with a working definition: “a looming, complex situation of great significance and impact to me (or those close to me), over which I have little or no control.”

I realized that a Stress Mess is a type of sticky issue. Similar to a sticky issue, this overall situation had me stuck without any meaningful action. However, by zooming into my own stress in being stuck, I could explore, via internal inquiry, elements where I do have influence. This reframing helped me explore two fundamental characteristics of my experience: how I perceive time, and how I navigate my relationship to the situation.

So how was I able to de-stress while facing an extreme challenge?

First, I considered how I perceived time in relation to this situation. In this instance, I was awaiting a decision. A waiting period can seem endless, yet there is an endpoint - once a decision is made, the waiting period is over. The stressful part for me was not only in the waiting itself, but also that the finality of the decision could be quite disruptive for me and those I care about.

Considering finite/infinite games helped me think about where my Mess sat in relationship to time. I imagined a slider depicting a timescale with “immediate” or finite on the left side, and “future-oriented” or infinite on the right side. Using such a slider helped me to better understand my Mess and opened up choices. Here are two examples of playing with a time-orientation slider:

  • Is the issue immediate yet there is nothing useful I can do? That would place my Stress Mess more on the left side of the slider. That was my stuck place of the moment. So what can I do? I can shift my orientation further to the right side of the slider - I can focus on something more future-oriented, realizing my time is better spent on something I can influence.
  • Is the issue further out into the future but the reality too uncertain for me to take wise action directly? This was not where I was stuck, but I could imagine such a situation. That situation would place a Stress Mess more to the right side of the slider. If so, perhaps I should work on something in the here and now, something that may even give me a new insight or capacity to deal with the Mess better later.

My second consideration in this Stress Mess is about my relationship to the Mess itself. For example, I considered how close I feel to this Mess - is it close to me, or far from me? I modified another useful HSD tool for this mapping exercise as seen below - combining the time and relationship aspects into one diagram.

When laying out these two factors, I could see that my Stress Mess was in the lower left corner.

If I distance myself from the Mess, might I find new questions and better possible options for action? For example:

  • Is this issue swirling around me, perhaps involving me directly? If so, how urgent is an intervention from me? If I take time to de-stress I may come back refreshed and ready for the challenge with new ideas. This would require a different time perspective than where I was.
  • Is this issue, although urgent, something I can step back from? If so, perhaps talking to someone neutral can help me examine my own role in the Mess. Perhaps there are different, less-directly-involved roles I can play that would be more useful to me and to the issue at hand. This would require a different relationship perspective than where I was.

In this recent situation, the stress came from feeling constrained, but that might not be the case for every situation. However, once I located my stress place, I could see ways to move to a different part of the landscape. Of the two parameters of time and relationship, I had more flexibility to move from thinking about the immediate term towards a future point. So that was the internal shift I made. I began thinking about the decision I was waiting for as just a moment in time. From there, I could see what might happen beyond the decision. Having so much anxiety about the decision had kept me stuck. Once I realized there was plenty of room for adaptation, regardless of how the decision went, I felt less stress.

Now what?

My finite, immediate conclusion to the way of dealing with stress was relief. I calmed down and let go of the notion of controlling anything. My infinite quest is to keep practicing releasing internal tension, using this methodology to become more fluid as I stay calmer, exploring better options. Exploring a Stress Mess on a landscape like this gives me a broader context to do so.

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