At work and in life, there’s always something going wrong—often horribly wrong. Unfortunately, for many, that’s ironically and exactly when their judgment or resolve about how to handle that kind of stress also goes horribly wrong—at the worst possible time.
Chief among those wrong responses is to react in ways that compound and exacerbate the problem, rather than solve, defer, or otherwise more constructively deal with it. Responding in ways that only make a problem or stress worse is what I call “adding your tears to the rain”.
Adding tears to the rain takes many forms, but always has the same result: Your problem or stress gets worse, persists or gets multiplied because of your response to it.
Fortunately, an understanding of the concept of adding tears to rain and of its forms is a strong first step toward stopping both the tears and the rain. That understanding begins with a central rule, one of the basic “commandments” of stress and problem management: “Don’t allow your understanding of or response to your stress and problem to perpetuate, intensify or become a part of it.”
Seven Ways of Mismanaging Problems and Stress
To fully understand this rule, look at the ways the commandment can be broken:
1. You replace your original problem or stress with an equally or more problematic or stressful response: In the process I have called “stress exchange”, one kind of stress is at least temporarily resolved, but at the cost of replacing it with a second kind of stress, sometimes as bad or worse than the original—which, like the original, can be psychological (emotional, cognitive, volitional), physiological, or, when the stress is viewed externally, as a replacement stressor situation.
Perhaps the most obvious example is that of smoking under stress—a response that, according to research, strongly correlates with or exacerbates stress among those with pre-existing poor stress-management skills or impedes coping. What can make the smoking response at least as stressful as the original stressor and problem is that smoking will, of course, among other things, stress your lungs, heart and other resources (including financial, for chain smokers on a limited budget) essential to keeping you alive and healthy, even if, in the short term, it makes you “feel better”.
A healthier response—in every sense of “healthier”—is to proactively and constructively address the original stressor by feeling and doing things that will really and not just temporarily, help reduce, eliminate or manage the original stressor.
2. You add a problematic or stressful response to your original problem or stress: Whenever you compound an awful problem and stress with awful feel-bad emotions about it, you are doubling your troubles. Something as simple and manageable as having to wait in line or in a traffic jam can become twice as miserable if you choose a miserable emotion as your response to it, e.g., ranting, threatening or otherwise getting agitated. Ditto for any office bottlenecks.
What makes that kind of response stupid as well as miserable is that it is totally unnecessary and useless. Insanely, incessantly honking like some lab pigeon pecking at a pellet-dispenser button on an empty tray will neither work nor be satisfying. All it will accomplish is to make your cortisol levels skyrocket and your arteries stiffen to pump all that extra oxygenated blood your overwrought state is demanding.
If simply staying calm is not an option, then a little contingency planning and preparation will do, e.g., being ready to multitask in any situation or to reframe it as an opportunity rather than as a crisis. For example, you can resume pecking at your smart phone while you are waiting.
Otherwise, it is absolutely critical to remember that although “negative emotions”, e.g., anger, impatience, irritation or sorrow have a positive place in our lives—as catalysts for corrective, adaptive, transitional or survival behavior, they should always be very temporary, never chronic.
Instead, feel-bad emotions should function very much like smoke alarms, whose main purpose is to either get you to turn them off by finding and putting out the fire or otherwise ending the smoke, or to turn them off after determining that the (emotional or smoke) alarm is malfunctioning and giving you the wrong signal and cue.
3. Your judgment fails in misdiagnosing the problem or stress: Clearly, if you misdiagnose what the stressor is or whether it necessarily is a stressor, you will be setting yourself up for tears to add to non-existent rain. For example, your boss hasn’t read your project report submitted weeks earlier, so you get antsy, crabby, very angry, hysterical and then very nasty—in that order, which devolves into mental disorder and tears that tear and shred it for you.
In fact, there is a problem—but only a problem with your perception of the problem. It’s quite possible that your boss lost track of the report, never saw it, has been overwhelmed with his own work, etc.—with zero negative implications for you or your efforts. The result: needless and potentially professionally dangerous tears (with “tears” pronounced either way).
4. Your will fails to act on your correct judgment: Even if you correctly identify and assess the severity, likely duration, etc., of a stressor or problem, you may experience a “volitional failure”—a failure of will to follow through on your correct awareness, understanding and feelings.
Your cognitive, perceptual and emotional responses may be perfect, but somehow your will fails you—and you fail to do what you know and feel is needed to resolve the problem and its associated stress. Such failure takes many forms: You may, like a frightened rabbit, simply freeze when that will accomplish much less for you in the office than for a rabbit in the bush. Or you may flee when your intellect and emotions tell you to stand your ground and fight.
Similarly, you may choose to fight, when it would be smarter to “reframe”—to reinterpret the problem in a way that makes it at least much less catastrophic, if not actually an opportunity in disguise. Such reframing is not a case of misdiagnosis; you actually validly identified the problem within certain terms of reference, but have an alternative, equally valid perspective that encourages a better stress response, much as seeing an ambiguous figure as a duck or as a rabbit allows that neither is a “wrong” interpretation.
5. You respond with chronic and demotivating feel-bad emotion, rather than temporary, motivating feel-bad emotion: Emotional “stewing”—allowing feel-bad feelings to persist and fester is a bad idea. On the “fire-alarm” model presented above, negative emotions, just like emergency surges in adrenalin, exist to cope with emergencies, not to persist indefinitely. When a negative, i.e., “feel-bad” emotion persists too long or is repeated too often, many of its benefits become catastrophic costs.
For example, elevated blood pressure (which, as a temporary acute response is invaluable in pumping oxygenated blood to the muscles that need it during an emergency) and stiffening of arteries (to increase arterial pressure and rate of blood flow during the emergency that requires it) can compound and create cardiovascular problems when they become chronic or too frequently triggered. Perhaps worst of all, when a chronic feel-bad emotion also chronically demotivates you, e.g., depression, it can result in a mindset of utter helplessness and futility in the face of a problem that won’t go away.
Two much better alternatives to adding adrenalin or despair-soaked tears to the rain pelting you are to switch from demotivating emotional and behavioral responses such as depression to motivating responses such as frustration, which, unlike depression, is a measure of the value of a goal that should be within reach and which remains worth pursuing. Being frustrated means adamantly believing that, despite obstacles, there is no reason that the objective should remain out of reach. Being depressed, on the other hand, means it is out of each and that any further effort, except a cry for help, is useless.
That’s the difference being tearing along a road to what you want and tearing up an eye because you see no road ahead.
6. You respond with delusional, complacent and demotivating feel-good emotions, ideas and behaviors: This will make you shed tears later, when you realize that you’ve been deluding and deluging yourself with cheerful, upbeat feelings and behavior that leave the problem, if not the psychological stress, unaddressed. “Ah, my lucky rabbit’s foot or ‘The Secret’,”—or preferred deity—”will get me through this and make it all right!”
Sure, until the renewed gale force of the problem blows and scatters your whistles in the dark deeper into the darkness.
7. You shift your focus from the rain to your tears: Through weird displacement, anxieties are shifted from anxiety about the stressor to the stress, and then to feelings about the stress.
The result is the illusion that, since our own feelings are theoretically easier to control than external circumstances, such as having lost a job or having a tyrannical boss, that provoke them, by focusing on our bad feelings, we stand a better change of controlling an internal problem and stressor than of controlling their external causes.
As a stress, pain or problem management technique, this is what seems to be involved in some instances of self-injury, e.g., “cutting”, in response to relentless trauma, e.g., abuse: Concentrate on a devil you can control in order to not think about the one you cannot.
A less dramatic, but equally possible office scenario is getting uncontrollably angry with that boss, expending a lot of energy analyzing and agonizing over your anger on lunch breaks with enabling and sympathetic workmates, and putting the boss’s tyranny on the back burner, for later or indefinitely.
Every one of the foregoing seven forms of “adding tears to rain”—of compounding, exacerbating or perpetuating a problem or stress—is the result of not following the fundamental “commandment” given above (which is worth re-reading now).
Of course, sometimes when it rains, it pours. Some problems and stresses can be utterly overwhelming.
But that’s no reason to expect that adding your tears to the downpour will make the rain stop.