Coping with tension

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Tension can be constructive, if we learn to manage it.  Photo by Nicole Geri on Unsplash

Tension is often treated as an enemy: premenstrual tension, hypertension, marital tension… these are treated as bad things, to be made better by drugs, doctors, counsellors.

What is it about tension that we don’t like?

DIFFERENCE AND PRESSURE

Frequently, when we think of a situation as causing tension, there are two ingredients: difference, and pressure.

Firstly, to have tension, a person or a system, has to be set against the direction of another person or system.  This is difference, a precursor to conflict.  Examples include:

  • one person wants the UK to leave the European Union (EU), and another person does not
  • one person wants to leave a marriage, and the other person does not
  • a person’s unconscious adrenal system wants to keep their body ready for action, and the person’s conscious mind wants the body to rest
Secondly, to have tension, two directions have to be pressurised against each other.  Difference in direction is not in itself an issue.  It is only when pressure is generated between the differences, that negative energy can ensue.  The pressure stoking the tension can be internal (emotional) or external (situational).  Examples include:

  • an electoral and legal battle, stoked by media and passion, in which two sides fight out whether the UK will leave the EU
  • a personal and legal battle, stoked by defensiveness and fear, in which two people fight through a divorce
  • an internal personal battle, stoked by frustration and fear, in which a person’s desperation to rest, and their adrenal system, fight it out through the night
VALIDATION OF BOTH SIDES

A key improvement in the management of tension can come about when we realise, to our core, that both sides have a point.  This is the wisdom that sees all perspectives.  It does not mean that one hops to the other side of the argument; but it does mean that we spend time on the other side of the argument, empathising with the opposing system or force, and seeing what it wants.

THE MIDDLE WAY

Always, where there is a tension, there is potential to influence things for the better through enlarging the middle ground.

To prevent political differences erupting into war, there has to be an enlarged forum in which matters are debated with respect, and in which participants feel given a voice and listened to.  Otherwise they will carry on throwing missiles over conceptual fences.

To prevent relationship differences erupting into interpersonal conflict, there has to be a language of conciliation and humour with which differences can be explored with respect.  Each person needs to feel they have a voice, and have been heard and responded to.  Otherwise they will keep fighting indirectly through insults, gossip, defensiveness and evasion.

To prevent cycles of anxiety descending into panic, a person has to hear what their anxious self is trying to communicate to them, and they may have to teach their conscious, wilful self a few negotiating tricks.  For instance, the planning self may negotiate with the anxious self to plan a more peaceful and less threatening environment.  Otherwise a person may stay locked in internal tension and conflict.

I don’t pretend it is easy, but I do know that where there is tension, there is always a middle way to be found.  For every dam there can be a sluice.  For every threat there can be a disarming compromise.  For every difference, there can be a reconciling act of creativity.

AN EXERCISE

Just for today, maybe look at an area of tension in your life.  Get it clear in your mind who or what the opposing forces are.  Then see if you are unfairly aligning yourself on one particular side.  If you are, then perhaps investigate the opposing force, seeing where it comes from and what it wants.  Treat both sides, while you are investigating, as equally valid.  You aim is to understand, not to judge.

Given the knowledge you have, I wonder if there is a concession, a creative accommodation, a new architecture, which can use the tension creatively, and make it work for you, not against you.  I hope so.

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SUMMARY

Humans don’t like tension.

Difference alone does not create tension.  We are all different, we know that.

But when difference meets pressure, either internal or external, tension or conflict results.

To counteract the pressures that stoke tension, we can try to become wiser.  We can become investigators, exploring both sides of an argument, or a political divide, or a personal conflict.

It may be that, if we do this, we can find a middle way, in a spirit of conciliation and humour.  Negotiation may be possible.

If so, pressure can be disarmed a little.  What remains will still be difference, but without the active negative energy that creates tension.

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