I was chatting with my wife when she asked, “So what do you get stressed about?”
It’s a great question and it’s something I think I should reflect very hard on.
Of the top of my head, here are things that I get stressed about:
- Failing to meet work obligations – shipping blogposts late, not meeting my targets and so on. I feel like I failed as an adult, and as a team member – this part especially hurts because I feel like in my present configuration in life, I should be more grateful for the opportunity I have.
- Failing to meet National Service obligations – first because of the penalties and inconvenience, and second because of what that says to me about me as a person.
- Screwing up social obligations – being late for something, not doing a thing that I promised that I would do, having someone wait on me for something.
- Failing to meet “self” obligations – when I’ve gone too long without writing, without reading, without publishing, shipping, without working out.
In all of these cases, basically I get stressed when I owe people things (including myself), and when I haven’t delivered. I suppose I get stressed because I begin to suspect that I’m not all that great, that I’m weak and flawed and incapable, that I’m lousy, pathetic, incompetent, it gets worse as it goes on.
That’s probably a little melodramatic, and the drama is probably counter-productive to solving the problem. As I think about it now, it’s clear that some of the stress is inherited learned behavior – from being yelled at by teachers and parents for being a fuckup at school. For a period of time I thought that stuff didn’t faze me, but over the years I’ve learned that they have. I still occasionally have a bad dream that’s school related – that I didn’t do my homework or something like that – screwed up an exam, whatever. So that’s some shit that I have to deal with. It’s some sort of mild PTSD, maybe.
I think – even after all my ranting and anger and whatnot, I still haven’t fully gotten over my childhood. I mean, I’m blessed and lucky to be born in Singapore – there are kids in Syria etc right now who’ve seen their family and friends literally shredded to pieces by bombs and they’ll have to live with that until they die. So my problems ain’t all that bad. But they’re mine, and I have to live with them, face them, address them, transcend them if I want to do more, do better.
What will getting over mean, what will it look like? How must I accept it? I think I’ve never fully accepted it. I think I’m still angry, still frustrated, still upset somewhere deep down. I’ve had moments of acceptance – they were great, but they were fleeting. I need to dig deeper, be real with myself, and well and truly let that shit go. That doesn’t mean forgetting about it; I wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted to. But it means deeply forgiving, loving, accepting in some way that I still haven’t quite cracked.
Then it’s about unlearning the impulses that I have developed and accumulated and inherited. I instinctively know that unlearning these will require meditation, thoughtfulness, attentiveness – things that I have experimented with a little here and there, but I’m going to have to dive deeper. I’m going to have to make it a serious priority and treat it with some respect and reverence. First I have to believe that it’s possible – and I do. Next I have to be whole-hearted about making it happen.
I do think it’s good that I care about meeting my obligations. A man should fulfill his obligations. But it doesn’t make sense to get stressed and angry at upset with oneself at failing. One should calmly acknowledge what has happened, and gently rise to correct the situation. To make amends. The anger achieve nothing. The shame achieves nothing. They’re just feelings, they’re just background noise. Thunder and fury inherited from people who didn’t know better, from a tradition that didn’t know better.
I think part of the pattern – part of the ‘game’ – is this sort of self-validation circle. “Look, I’m angry and upset and ashamed, this is evidence that I care!” – but if you really cared, Visa, you’d have taken more steps towards fixing the situation. Perhaps you have taken as many as you possibly could’ve. So be it. Either way, it remains true that any energy expended being angry, stressed, upset or ashamed is energy that is NOT spent addressing the issues.
It’s obvious that we’re not going to be able to change ourselves completely overnight just by deciding that we’ve changed – old habits die hard and return and are persistent. But we can try and strike a deal – let’s try to not to sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff) for the remainder of the year. If I’ve failed or made a mistake,
I know better. I will do better.
What’s curious is – it seems like the guilt and shame and whatnot aren’t just a sort of unwanted, unintended, negative consequence – they seem to be the currency that’s in play. I mean – subconsciously, below the layers that I’m normally able to address, it seems like I’m using the guilt and shame as a way of proving to myself that I care. I care, therefore I feel stressed when things go bad. The stress is PROOF that I care! You can’t accuse me of not caring enough, I wouldn’t be stressed otherwise!
But that’s silly. That’s pointless self-flagellation that achieves nothing. That’s unnecessary heat, sound, fury. If something goes wrong, I should fix it. Any energy spent in anger or frustration is energy that’s NOT spent fixing the problem. So clearly there’s this sort of dysfunctional system going on here. If I want to continue to grow as a person, I’m going to have to untangle this mess and rearrange it in a way that makes sense.
So let’s try this, subconscious. For the remainder of the year, let’s not get stressed about anything. If we mess something up, if we fail at it, so be it. Let’s smile. Let’s not sweat the small stuff, and let’s recognize that it’s all small stuff. I’m going to die, everyone I love is going to die, the universe itself is going to die. Everything is just this grand cosmic game, and the stress and fear and anxiety is a way of holding on. It’s a form of attachment.
Breathe out. Let go.
PS: Looking above – yes, there are serious consequences to me screwing up on #2 – I would have to face severe penalties and so on. But the point isn’t to take action so that it doesn’t happen! I’m going to bed now, tomorrow I’m going to wake up early and I’m going to run. There’s nothing to be stressed about if I take action accordingly, in advance.