Tag Archives: stress management

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

The Importance of Play

Where an apple a day might keep you out of the doctor’s office, doing something fun every 24 hours is a great rule of thumb when difficult times come your way.  Reviewing Richard Dowden’s new book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, author Pam Houston noted that by the mid 1990’s, 31 of Africa’s 53 countries had been ravaged by civil unrest or war, yet there is no word in most African languages for depression. Dowden adds, “Africa lives with death and suffering and grief every day, but to be alive is to talk and laugh, eat and drink — and dance.”

Remembering to play

Remembering to play

Finding time to play or do one fun activity feels counterintuitive when we are struggling. Often we’ll want to put our nose to the grindstone to dig ourselves out of our troubles, or just go back to bed. A Puritan work ethic makes adding something we love seem wrong or out of place especially when the economy is out of kilter.  

 “What brings you joy?” or  “What reminds you that no matter how bad the circumstances, this world is worth the effort?”  are the two questions I like to ask when coaching a client wading through tough times. When dealing with frustration or despair it can be hard to even recall what we enjoy, let alone add it to our day.  Often I’ll hear, “I don’t know what brings me joy. All I do is work and clean the house and neither is remotely fun.”

A way to remember our favorite activities is to consider how we might have spent a free day during the ages of 9 to 13. Harvard researcher Emily Hancock detailed in her book The Girl Within that the “in-between” years create a brief window where many are left to their own devices. Old enough to chart a course through a summer day, yet too young to be expected to work or take on major responsibilities, we were given the time to figure out what we enjoy. So, when figuring out your daily fun pill, note what you would have done as a pre-teen!

Make play a daily rule, like brushing your teeth, since when we are struggling joy seems impractical or inappropriate.  To justify a bit of play, I try to remember that by shifting our perspective to joy we move from a fight/flight adrenaline rich state into a calmer, higher brain region. We will not only cut our body a break (adrenaline is tough on the system), but also operate at a greater level of effectiveness as we move from reptilian brain to our neocortex. So, what might seem like frivolous activities can be the most grounded when life overwhelms.

Need suggestions? Here’s some gathered favorites: 1/2 hour in nature (or in the hot tub?), play Monopoly, watch dogs playing or the birds fighting at the feeder, sing in the shower really, really loud, roller skate, dance around your kitchen, go to an art museum, hang out with good friends, garden and practice woodworking.  And, of course, there is watching the Final Four! 

At a recent workshop, a young woman shared, “After our mother died, my sisters and I arrived home for the memorial service. She died way too young and we were all a mess. One night my siblings and I went to the high school football game and cheered like wild women. We whooped and hollered and laughed until we cried. I’m sure others thought that we were drunk, instead we were probably crazy with grief.  We didn’t act at all like grieving children should. But, we really needed that night and no one in the community said a thing.”


Powerful questions

Lately, I have been thinking that conversations work like doors. Sometimes conversations are “open” and through them we can see new possibilities. Other times you can feel a discussion closing down, locking out new information or diverse viewpoints.

Powerful questions have a great habit of re-opening constricted conversations. This week I ran across a short video from Thailand that asks two intriguing questions:  

  • What you are responsible for? 
  • What is your commitment?


Asking myself these questions has a centering effect when in stressful situations. They open my internal doorways. The two questions help me clarify what I can control and my appropriate next steps; I pause (a good thing in conflict) as I consider, “OK, what really am I responsible for in this situation?” and “What are my highest commitments?” And, as seen in the video, asking others can transform someone you believe you know well into a fascinating stranger. 

 I invite you to give them a try and welcome your insights!

Learning to Love the Mess

Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all. — Chuang Tzu

A dear friend recently shared a series of losses that he had suffered. As he explained how a terminally ill friend had become the “final straw” in breaking his foundational beliefs about death and his own mortality, I found myself strangely excited. In case you might find me a bit twisted, I hope you’ll understand that my enthusiasm rose from a deep belief in the power of confusion. 

I wouldn’t wish such tragedy on anyone, yet we don’t seem to become wiser when all is easy and understood. Really, why should we? If I have the world figured out, I don’t have much incentive to dig deeper. It’s as though crisis creates cracks that allows wisdom’s light to seep in. I trust that as my friend earnestly wrestles with how to deal with great loss and the inevitability of death, he is going to gather insight. Selfishly, I hope he’ll share his garnered prizes with us.

It feels like our core beliefs create a sort of scaffolding or something solid to stand on over the sea of uncertainty. “I am a mother,” “I am from Minnesota,” or “I live in a democracy,” might be some of the planks that support my identity or the lookout post I have built. But, with enough time, the wood gets worn. Tough times also have a habit of ripping up carefully lain floorboards, like the globally favorite, “The financial markets are secure.”     

When my core beliefs are battered and I can’t tie reality up with a nice bow, I can feel set adrift in that sea. Questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe? What should I do next?” become hard to answer. Life, or my interpretation of it, gets messy or confusing.

I’ve come to have an innate trust in this messiness. My perspective expands when life pushes me to move into a state of not knowing. The more I become comfortable hanging out in the confusion, the more clarity I bring back. Meanwhile, we all have a fundamental desire to get back to solid ground again; I like to know who I am, or pretend to anyway, and to believe that I know how this all works!

Hanging out in messiness as mediator has helped. Usually you will have two sides at the negotiation table that have completely different versions of what occurred in a dispute. A first impulse is to want to determine who is right and who is crazy. Yet, the mediator’s job isn’t to find the real truth, but instead to hold a confusing reality that is created by assuming that the opposing stories are equal. Allowing there to be irreconcilable differences opens the possibility of a third interpretation of the situation that the parties can create together.

Without firm footing on how the world works, or who I am, I notice that I slow down and better consider each step forward. It creates a rawness or necessary vulnerability, as I wonder what else I have been missing. It wakes up my compassion as I realize that we are all madly trying to piece together how to play well with very limited information. Also, if we take a cue from all the major religions, learning to love the mess is “right work” and one of our main life tasks.  So, I get hopeful when those I love dip into confusion, and look forward to the treasures my dear friend might uncover in that chaotic space.   

Repeat after me

Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant –Anthony J. D’Angelo

Eighteen women gathered last weekend for a  “Thriving through Tough Times” workshop I offered in Bozeman. Not the lightest topic, yet one that elicited lots of shared laughter from the group. Ranging in age from twenty-nine to timeless grandmas, everyone had valuable advice to contribute. When we spoke about first finding ourselves in difficult circumstances, one of group elders wryly added, “When times get tough I tell myself, ‘Things might get better (long pause)…or they might not.’”

The grounded optimism of these words summed up a workshop theme. Many of these women had overcome some very tough times. They explained how they had gathered fantastic opportunity and learning from their experiences, modeling how life can indeed improve through adversity. Yet they were realistic, when you lose a child, or your best friend at midlife, things might not get better.

The journey through personal challenges in the Buddhist tradition is sometimes referred to as a “little death.” Our current job/marriage/situation ends or “dies”, we enter into a dark time of transition, and if things get better…or not, a new career/relationship/life emerges. These little deaths are seen as valuable practice to prepare us for the big one at our physical end.

Around the world, we are counseled to be calm and focused on the path ahead whether meeting a little or big ending. Many cultures strive for a “good death,” or one that is conscious and peaceful, since they believe this will supports us getting to the best next destination possible.

Repeating phrases like Theresa of Avila’s, “All is well and all will be will,” is very common global technique to foster a good death and rebirth. We might chant prayers over and over to comfort the dying, reminding them of the life yet to come. For example, in the Catholic tradition, the prayer “Hail Mary…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” is repeated, while Hindus sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras throughout the process.

When we face little deaths, repeating favorite sayings can both calm and ready us for the adventure ahead. Another workshop participant offered her father’s favorite motto, “Everything happens for a reason.” Explaining how these words provide her solace and courage she said,  “By repeating this phrase I accept my circumstances and I figure I better start looking for that reason.”

Mantras are like a verbal opening bow to the opponent, “Tough Times.”  When this adversary appears I like to say,

  •  “Good teacher” – Borrowing the martial arts belief that our opponents are our best instructors. This reminds me that I can learn something and become wiser (a big personal selling point!).
  • “Opportunity, lots of opportunity” – That’s my version of “Things might get better…”
  • “I get to be here” – Recalling that this might be my only opportunity — in this body anyway — to have this experience.

In the above phrases, notice I invoke attitudes of learning, hope and gratitude. Interestingly, all three of these responses are processed in our neo-cortex or the two hemispheres residing on the top of our heads. This is the portion of our brains best equipped for complex problem solving. When the neo-cortex is engaged we have access to our creativity and can consider future implications of our actions.  We play best when this brain region is in charge. I am thus suspicious that the most effective mantras engage this highest cerebral region.

So, what might be your calming phrases or sayings?