Tag Archives: stress management


I believe people want to be of service. As the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz once said, “The nectar of life is sweet only when shared with others.” You may not buy my hypothesis when you think of others whom appear very self-centered, but I believe that this comes not from their desire, but their ability to give. I am suspicious that a key component in the ability to serve is tied to what I like to call the Bucket Theory.

 Derived from a common cross-cultural belief, we can think of each of us containing an internal water bucket. When it is full, this “water” can be used to nurture, give life to new projects or to brighten another’s day. The water is the good stuff that we give to the world.

 Yet, giving empties the bucket. Ask a new mother about her internal reserves to get a sense of how giving drains us. Tough times also empty the bucket. When my own needs become greater, for example recovering from the loss of a loved one, I’m going to going to be dipping the ladle in my own bucket much more often just to survive.

 When there is nothing in the bucket, there is nothing left to give.  If my can is dry, it’s hard to be a helpful employee, wife, mother or friend. If I am really parched, I may be coming after your bucket too! At an extreme in this state, we become like vampires sucking the life out of our victims.  It is thus critical as parents, leaders and coworkers that we keep our own internal reservoirs in tact. Yet, how is that done? 

We fill our buckets through physical, emotional, creative and intellectual sustenance or activities that feed our bodies, our hearts and minds. These are usually fun, bring us joy or make us ultimately feel better – they “fill” us! It is not the activity, but how it makes you feel. We are not looking for a short term pleasure hit like escaping into a television show or eating ice cream…feels good for a half an hour but then leaves us in the same drained state.  We are looking for activities that are truly good for us. Activities might include:


  • Healthy food
  • Sustainable exercise
  • Sleep


  • Fun times with friends and family
  • Silence
  • Time in nature


  • Favorite artistic activities
  • Inspirational reading or film


  • An interesting class
  • Thought-provoking book
  • Engaging discussion

Gallup researcher Tom Rath suggests in How Full Is Your Bucket?  it is positive remarks received at work and home that can fill our bucket. Regardless, what sustains each of us will be unique.  Visiting with friends can be fun, nurturing or at times stressful. Exercise can be energizing or terribly draining. In general, when filling the bucket we want to include activities that replenish rather than require an outflow.

And so, some questions to consider:

  • What sustains you?
  • Are you including sustaining activities each day?
  • How are you providing sustenance to your physical, emotional, creative and intellectual nature?


And I say hello…

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival…Rumi

Last Sunday, I found myself employing delay tactics. I hung out in bed for an extra ½ hour and then skimmed a book found at my mom’s bedside instead of taking a shower. When I investigated a new route from my mother’s house near San Francisco to the Mills Peninsula Acute Rehabilitation Center where my father-in-law is recovering from a head injury, I realized I was still dragging my feet.

This surprised me since up to that point I had been welcoming the time to hang out with Peter T. Combs.  His brilliance and sense of humor were passed down well among his children and grandchildren. As the progenitor, it was fun to watch Peter T. still able to creatively analyze a problem, joke with a service provider and then wonder if could tip him.

I had been in CA for four days, but that morning sadness caught me and slowed my progress. I couldn’t relieve his confusion about his whereabouts — amnesia around the fall and the days following makes being in California, instead of his winter home in Mexico, hard for him to comprehend. I also can not solve his periodic wish to “get going and head home.” That day I needed to return to Bozeman for three days and I didn’t like that my absence might add to his disorientation. Away, I wouldn’t be able to make things a little easier.

I know I can’t save him from this challenge. Yet, we are in a time when he suffers, if I show up and pay attention, I too feel pain. I worry about his loss of memory, self-determination and potential companionship. I wonder how long will we all get to practice this form of descent into tough times. 

I don’t initially welcome these uncomfortable emotions. I’d much rather feel happiness, thank you very much! Yet, when my aversion to these feeling, and thus to the situation, has me wanting to run for cover, I know it is time once again to practice “saying hello.” 

Pushing against or turning away from our struggles will not cure them. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions are clear, an aversion to what we don’t like actually causes more suffering. From the Christian tradition we are told to “love your enemies,” even if they happen to be emotions like helplessness or grief. Confusion or sadness do not just go away because we pretend they are not there.

Instead, we are counseled cross-culturally to just notice and be with tough emotions when they appear. From the Islamic Sufi tradition, the twelfth century poet Jelaluddin Rumi suggests we see our interior as a home where every emotion is welcomed as an honored guest. We invite everyone in, whether my favorite buddy Joy or that strange character Insecurity. They visit and keep an eye on them as we might if were to host a dinner party. 

We are wired to try to run from pain. Remembering this, I have developed a habit of acknowledging awkward internal visitors with an unspoken, “Hello Fear,” or “Hi there Frustration.” Strangely, by recognizing I’m nervous, sad, or afraid, I calm down. When I don’t resist the new arrival, both the emotion and I seem to ease. I have to giggle when I find myself saying, “Hi anxiety.” Ain’t that the truth at times!

So this week, as we figure out how to support my father-in-law, I am saying hello regularly to Confusion. Fear drops by from time to time and I’m glad that Happiness and I were able to spend many hours together over those four California days. But, when you see her, do say hi to Sadness for me. She sure has a knack for reminding us of all the good that has come our way.


I can’t hear you…

A monk asked Shigui, “What is the first principle?”

Shigui said, “What you just asked is the second principle.”

 — from Zen’s Chinese Heritage

A few weeks ago, I was trying to pass along some information to a friend that I hoped would help resolve a conflict with which she was struggling. She was angry and, no matter what data I provided, I could tell it wasn’t getting through. Every point I tried to make, my friend got more defensive. She wanted out of the conversation and I was ready to give up.

There were clear signs that I needed change my approach. A “fight” (anger/attack) – “flight” (let me out of this conversation) reaction was a blaring indication that she was scared. Fear sits right underneath anger and avoidance.

When we are afraid, we are focused more on surviving than gathering new information. When the adrenaline kicks in, our brain screams, “Get yourself out” and is not much interested in sticking around to learn. So in this state, we don’t hear so well.

Trying to convince another is highly ineffective when she is worried about losing something dear to her. I know this, yet had forgotten as I laid out my well-developed argument…ah yes, teaching what I continue to integrate! After a few tries, I remembered an important cross-cultural rule of thumb, “Ask Questions.”

Asking open-ended questions calms and opens thinking. From a brain perspective, when I need to consider and answer a question, I move from my survival-focused brain stem up into more contemplative neocortex. In that portion of our heads, we can consider past, present and future, be creative, and are more willing to learn.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” The better the question, the more it slows the listener to consider it. That might be confusing, but our best inquiries stop others in their tracks.

Favorite questions include:

  • What would you have liked to have been different?
  • What could I do differently?
  • When you have been in your opponent’s situation, what would you have appreciated or needed?
  • Best of all possible worlds, what would you like to happen in the future?
  • What should our next steps?
  • How could I best support you? 

Our conversation shifted when I remembered to ask a question, in my case, the third above. Instead of striving to present positions, I became privy to my friend’s wisdom on practical ways to support another through tough times. We both listened better while she considered her next steps and I provided the information I thought might help. Our conversation, and later her conflict, were transformed.

Ask questions…A remembered mantra in my litany.


Fortifying Ourselves

“Well, Blogger Girl,” my husband Bruce teased me last week, “how are you going to sum up the year? Tie up the details in 300 words or less?”  Bruce offered a fair challenge that I doubt I can conquer succinctly, yet his words impel me to write about a topic I have mulling for months…hoar frost.

A strange hook to keep you reading I know, but hoar frost (my children still don’t believe that is its real name) is the northern equivalent of winter dew. When temperatures play around freezing, and the snow becomes colder than the surrounding air, intricate complex crystals form to sit vertically on its back as the humidity fluctuates high enough to squeeze water from air.

Hoar frost in Montana

Hoar frost in Montana

Hoar frost hasn’t ceased to captivate me in the past sixteen years of walking down the driveway to grab the newspaper. Its magical, ridiculous beauty in the middle of tire ruts catches and stops me when all I’m expecting are headlines. These front yard photos show the glittering results of early morning variations. Hoar frost is my winter reminder that any change can bring out the absolute best of us.

Front yard Hoar Frost

Front yard Hoar Frost



For humans, change brings disruption. It creates conflict when we are asked to let go of money, people, beliefs, jobs, favorite habits…and the list goes on. Change requires us to adjust and adapt, not a favorite human endeavor. It heightens fear and anxiety and can naturally bring out our worst.

Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women has spent most of her days over the past fifteen years assisting women and children in war torn countries like Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia. Asking her how she bears it, she told me that conflict brings out not only the absolute worst but also the very best of humankind. The good fortifies her to cope with the bad.

Like Zainab, I look for the human equivalent of hoar frost. For example, last fall friends threw a “hat party” for our buddy Dawn who is going through chemotherapy. It was a marvelous evening of food, wine and about two-dozen women gifting chic hats to ease the transition to baldness. It was a joy to watch those in the room love up our dear friend as she modeled each new hat and talked about her experience with breast cancer. With somehow perfect timing, Dawn began to lose her hair the next day. 

The financial markets changes are naturally creating fear, anxiety and conflict. I am not surprised that many of my community are battling with spouses, siblings and coworkers as they worry about paying mortgages and job security. These are tough times. Yet, over the holidays I also happily took in stories of authentic, transformative conversations. These were delicious, give-you-goosebumps tales of healing relationships and deepening friendships. During their telling, I was reminded that we are paradoxically lucky to be in the middle of these global messes; they are affording us the unique opportunity to create dazzling displays of compassion and kindness. Big change creates unique openings that are not present during stability.

I have missed a lot of front yard beauty over the past decade when I quickly drove off to work or was late to a child’s event. That thought fills me with regret. Be it hoar frost, a hat party or a transcendent conversation, I really don’t want to miss any of it. So, that will be an overarching New Year’s resolution for 2009 — try to catch everyone, Nature and me included, at their very best.

I leave you with three questions to reflect upon as we complete 2008:

·     What could be your “dazzling display” in the coming weeks or months?

·     How can you support your wellbeing so you might bring forward your best? 

·     How can you encourage the good of others during this chaotic period as a leader, parent, family member or friend? 

May the coming year serve up ample beauty to fortify you through any struggle. Happy New Year!


Christmas is coming and…

I’ve been wondering if the goose’s weight fluctuation was a result of stress eating. Normally, this is the “Oh-when-will-I-wrap-ship-buy-cook-decorate-call-address-stamp-clean-and-even-celebrate” time of year. It’s about now I start cursing cultural traditions and hope my friends can wait another year to see a photo of our children.

To make the season extra interesting, let’s add a recession. I’ve noticed that not only are folks struggling with budgeting the financial outlays, but also with determining the appropriateness of their actions. Traditions can be comforting in that we do the same thing every year. But this year, do you hang lights outside and spend that extra cash on electricity? Do you make cookies for all your friends or will that put them in an uncomfortable situation? My family is now laughing since I have never pulled off either of the above in good times…but you get the drift of the internal questioning. We’ve added the stress of asking “what’s right?” to “how do I get this all done?” 

About ten years ago, Angeles Arrien shared an analogy upon which I rely. She said, when we are under stress, tired or otherwise preoccupied we should see ourselves as standing on one foot. Precariously balanced we can easily be pushed over and so, in these instances, we must pay careful attention.

Given the season and the current climate, I propose that many people will be standing on one foot during holiday meals. They may be dressed up and putting on the best face possible, but may also be wishing they could be hiding at home. So, how do we enjoy the holidays and the people with whom we are gathered?

First, I’d assume that everyone is emulating a flamingo. Don’t expect others to be ready for anything. I’d treat everyone, including you, gently. These are not ordinary times, so if someone loses it, we might want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next, look for telltale signs of stress and don’t take others personally. In  The Way of Conflict I describe four default conflict styles. Each displays unique and often unsavory characteristics when afraid. So, if someone:

  1. Gets really quiet or stubborn
  2. Becomes passive/aggressive or negative
  3. Impatiently barks at you, or
  4. Regales you with “the real facts,” and your stupidity,

 …recognize that person is struggling. Your dinner party partner is teetering on her one standing leg. As the person falls you might want to give her some room, or get out of the way!

Last, create the right frame of mind.  When we are stressed or terrified we gravitate to the fight/flight portion of our brains. There in our reptilian brain, we lash out as described in the previous paragraph. However, we can trick ourselves into using the calmer and more rational neo-cortex by focusing on learning, gratitude or play.  See my “Tips for Turkey Day” for applying mind shifting to a holiday meal.

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah is here. I hope the holiday season brings you all its best along with some time to regroup and recover.