These 3 questions below could be asked from calm curiosity. In that case, the questions simply express open-mindedness.
However, when there is a background of distress (anxiety), the same questions can be used to forms dilemmas (rather than to launch exploration and brainstorming). After creating a dilemma of a rigid “either/or” pre-occupation, that fixation is the foundation that can be built on to eventually spark an avalanche of agonizing. After we review these 3 questions briefly, we will then explore the root issue underneath all 3 common forms of distressed agonizing.
What I should do?
Who should I trust?
How I should be?
Here, we could review some specific patterns of how people use those kinds of questions to cultivate distress. The short version is that they rehearse “fantasy” scenarios that frighten them.
(Note that the “fantasy” scenarios typically begin by rehearsing actual memories that trigger a distressed “brainstorming.” I use the term “fantasy” scenarios because they are not being directly observed in that moment, but are being pondered or recalled or invented. This can be a very frightening way of brainstorming.)
So, rehearsing the scenarios that are frightening then justifies a state of near-paralysis (or explosive hysterias). In an ideal circumstance, that can lead to a very isolated “cry for help” toward someone perceived to be capable of helping and willing to help discretely.
In moderate distress, there will need to be an expectation of receiving help before someone will display their distress signal. Because that is often not the case, the distress can be crippling.
However, in the most extreme distress, the typical resistance to drawing attention will be irrelevant. Help will be directly and explicitly invited from most any possible source of assistance.
Am I safe?
If someone is in distress, then their perception is that they either are not safe or might not be safe and cannot easily find out if they are safe. That creates an urgent dilemma.
So, in an extreme case of perceived threat, they do not perceive fleeing or fighting as attractive methods for coping with the perceived threat. Instead of the more active responses of fight or flight, they freeze and fake (which are relatively passive responses to a possible threat).
The specific kind of faking includes an attempt to block the display of facial expressions and gestures that could be interpreted as signalling distress. That requires physical tension. That tension can be held chronically (locked in).
They maintain the frozen physical state of locked muscular tensions. They may cling to their familiar routine and habits (so as not to do anything unusual that might draw unsafe attention to them). Not only do they “lock in” their own routine, but they also may begin to lean toward activities that are extremely common within their social setting. They seek to blend in. They hide not by being literally invisible, but by being as unremarkable as possible.
Desperate dependency on the familiarSo, how well does that actually work? In some cases, locking in a routine can be very functional as a method of simplifying everyday life. However, when major circumstances change while there is a rigid, anxious clinging to old familiar routines, that can create ineffectiveness or at least inefficiency. Results may be consistently produced, but they are just not the results that are now relevant.
That naturally leads to disappointment with the results of the familiar methods, but when there is a reflexive suppression of the display of all disappointment, that means no talking about it directly. Instead, in moderate states of distress, people tend to keep doing the same old habits that used to work effectively. They may complain that they are not getting the results they expected or they may complain that they are getting the results that they expected, but they just do not value those results as much anymore.
Before they would say anything so direct and clear, they will likely experience frustration. The bigger the chronic tension or pretense in the background, the bigger the frustration will need to get in order for them to independently recognize the real source of the dilemma.
In many cases, people may seem blind to their own familiar presumptions as being presumptive. They are creating dilemmas and distress out of habit (inattentively). They are not calm and clear. They are not focused.
They are approaching panic, but hiding it. They are desperate. The root of desperation is despair, as in hopelessness. Instead of hope, they may be growing a terror.
Again, they are not just making careful, calm measurements of safety. They are operating from distressed presumptions of idealism. They are preserving their idealism at the expense of admitting that any of their presumptions might be presumptive. They may furiously dismiss the idea that they have any participation in
They may attack suggestions that they have authority as threatening. They may deny that their panic attacks involve any habitual interpretations or practices.
Instead of thinking about how to assess their own methods and revise them, they think about how to retreat from distress. Retreating certainly may be favorable and satisfying on occasion.
However, in actuality, there may be no dilemma between either retreating from some trigger (such as a person or a job) or changing one’s own methods. Often, people simply brainstorm about how to best flee (while maintaining the “holding pattern” of maintaining familiar routines). Or, people may crumble in to shameful agonizing over identifying the perfect method before taking any new action.
Again, either of those extreme responses could be valuable in a particular circumstance. But they often are ineffective.
Plus, when there is a distress and a chronic tension to hide the distress, then people may not relax on their own to the point of exploring how they can BOTH alter their own thought process AND explore moderate levels of withdrawing (rather than total retreat). When a possible threat is sensed, then caution can be increased, momentum can be interrupted, pace can be slowed, and more precise assessments of safety can be made (including by people considered unusually perceptive). Further, distress can be admitted and relaxation can be targeted as a possible priority.
So, we can avoid the dilemma of “either this is a problem caused solely by my own misinterpretation or this is a problem solely of external factors.” Maybe there is a problem and maybe not. Maybe it involves some degree of actual threat. Maybe it involves some degree of misinterpretation and invented distress.
The value of inventing stresses
Why would people ever invent distress? Inventing justifications for stress can be an effective method for testing other people in regard to their willingness and ability to handle stress (like stress in general or a particular kind of stress).
Do you value knowing how specific other people respond to stress? Then expose them to some stress! (Exactly how much feedback do you want to receive?)
If the stress is a stress that you make up, that may be ideal because then there is no real trigger for stress, but just an invented stress for you to display to them (as an over-reaction, even if sincere). You can practice displaying stress without any actual cause for stress being present. You may even know that the whole thing is a pretense.
However, willingness to process stress is not the same as ability. Some people may be very willing to assist others with processing stress (whether specific other people or absolutely anyone). Sincerity is no guarantee of effectiveness.
Maybe a person is eager to assist anyone with process stress because the prospective savior wants to compensate for a sense that they need some justification for existing (like their mere existence is somehow a problem or a crime). Or, maybe they do not have a savior complex of massive, heroic reforms.
Perhaps they are simply willing to assist specific others in order to promote specific priorities for them. Maybe they are cultivating partners and allies. Maybe they are creating bonds and networks. Or, maybe they are just professionals at managing stress and are earning a salary or an hourly fee.
Note that professional success is typically measured simply by cash profits. However, a professional may be extremely successful financially without being unusually effective.
Maybe they are quite happy in their own lives or maybe not. Maybe they are consistently effective with others and maybe not.
The various social valuations of stress management skills
In some circumstances, life may be orderly and stable such handling stress is rarely a challenge. Maybe only the poorest or least mature people have an interest in managing stress better.
In other conditions, there may be sudden, large changes for entire populations of people and then the ability to handle stress well is a rare and precious skill. Immense advantages may be accessible through a skillful and perceptive approach to managing stress.
Further, in conditions of lasting instability, handling stress well may be a very common focus because it is essential. Everyone may be interested and only those capable of mastering stress will survive.
Those different phases can form a cycle. Out of instability, order forms. Then order stabilizes. Then order destabilizes. Moderate amounts of order may destabilize gradually. Rigid orders may rarely destabilize without sudden and massive disruptions.
It can be useful to recognize which stage of that cycle fits for your current circumstance (in terms of culture and economy). While predictions can be challenging, measurements may be easy to make.
If you know both what your own internal feedback is and know what the social reality is, then that perceptiveness can promote effectiveness. With that in mind, I like to make an analogy to sailing on a boat.
Sometimes, it is easier to adjust the sails than to change the direction of the wind. Also, it could be very useful to accurately assess the actual direction of the wind before adjusting the sails. Any familiar presumptions about how the wind should be may be obstacles to adaptiveness and effectiveness… unless they are recognized as being mere presumptions.
As for identifying the destination of value to you, that can also be an important issue. If that is not clear and yet your sails are up, you might value taking them down to reduce your speed (or even find a dock).