Stress as a Collision of your Values

Most self-help books on stress focus on managing the symptoms of stress. Sounds reasonable, yes? You may indeed manage the symptoms, but know that management treats only the symptoms. Fever, congestion, body aches, all represent signs of infection. You may not be able to rid yourself of the infection, but you can reduce your physical discomfort with aspirin and decongestants. But…as with any disease process, symptoms are just surface manifestations.

Would it not be better to treat, and potentially cure, the disease?

Accordingly, we present the following conceptualization: Stress represents incompatible priorities in life, a collision between your core values. When “I should work hard” does battle with “I should be a good parent,” the result is stress. And since we define ourselves through our core values, stress becomes a battle between incompatible self-definitions. To eliminate stress, increase self-knowledge. You should understand and systematically clarify your values. When you connect your stress to values, you are answering the question “Why exactly am I stressing myself?” Are you learning courage, perseverance, devotion to family, devotion to the highest principles of your career? Exactly what values are you refining within yourself? Answering such questions increases your consciousness and prepares you to make smarter choices. All growth that’s worthwhile creates growing pains, so reconnect stress to values and convert stress to growth.

In addition, choice implies detachment from at least one alternative choice (alternative future), so detachment requires acceptance. Even the smartest choice requires something to be given up. That’s the nature of choice. Accordingly, stress represents the universe clarifying and refining within you a hierarchy of values and your ability to navigate this hierarchy. Your values determine your priorities, so a collision of values means that one value becomes priority, and the other value becomes secondary. The universe sets values in opposition and we must choose. If I choose to maximize maximize time spent with my children, I cannot also be maximally effective at a career that requires me to invest every waking moment. If I experience such choices as loss, then all such choices can only bring me to grief. But choice is not about loss, it’s about learning.

Case example: Daniel inherited a business his parents had worked very hard to develop. The employees were happy, and the business seemed to be thriving. The local community admired the business as one of their success stories. But as he got deeper into it, Daniel discovered that the business was slowly failing. So Daniel jumped in headfirst. He invested enormous time, energy, and even some of his own money, all part of an honest and earnest effort to keep the business going. No matter how hard he worked, though, the business continued to lose money. Daniel deeply wanted the business to succeed. He saw his parents blood, sweat, and tears in the business. So he persevered. But inside it was killing him. Intellectually, Daniel knew he ought to walk away. He was not responsible for starting the business. Closing the business was no verdict on his worth. But he felt frozen, unable to act. Why?

Eventually, he began to conceptualize his internal struggles as a clash of values. Daniel wanted to protect the reputation of the parents in the community. But he also wanted more free time with his own wife and children. Daniel realized that every human being has a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. Daniel was burning the midnight oil, waking up exhausted every day. He knew something had to give.

As he pondered the situation, Daniel finally realized that by keeping the business alive, he was trying to keep his parents alive. He framed his choices as being between people he loved, his nuclear family versus his parents. To have a chance at saving the business, he would need to neglect his family. To spend time with his family, he would need to accept that his parents were gone, and that he could not control the flow of events that threatened the survival of the business.

So Daniel let go. He closed the business and began spending more time with his family again. Rather than chastise himself for giving up, he chose to affirm himself for finally accepting reality—the death of his parents. He viewed his struggle with the business not as a failure, but as evidence of his enormous love for them. Daniel gave himself credit for choosing to undertake such a struggle. And finally, he affirmed himself for having the courage to let go, and to reinvest his energy where it belonged, with his own family. The day he closed the business was also the day he stopped grieving.

Stress Management Techniques

Reading the above paragraphs probably did not immediately change your life. Practical wisdom is what happens when the intellect encounters experience. Any existential truth worth knowing takes time to sink in. Until you come around to this philosophy, there’s stress management. Stress management represents your attempt to hold on to both sides of the dilemma, to have it both ways, to give up nothing. Sometimes you can get away with it, at least for awhile. This doesn’t expand your consciousness, so you don’t accumulate any practical wisdom this way, but at least stress management sometimes succeeds in reducing your stress.