August 31, 2009

The inevitability and usefulness of tensions

Sometimes some solution-focused coaches and positive psychologists ask there clients what their ideal future would look like. Or they may ask something else in that same vein, such as: what's your ideal job, what is your big dream? What does your perfect future look like? Perhaps it is not wise to think in these idealistic terms. While life can be pretty good and people can be pretty happy, even very happy, it seems impossible for life to become perfect or ideal. Sometimes it may approach such an ideal state but that seems impossible to last forever. I believe we have to potential for happiness and growth and we can make progress during our lives but I am also convinced that the presences of tensions and the occurance of problems is inevitable.
Here is a paragraph from an earlier article:

The inevitability and usefulness of tensions
If William James was right, contrary impulses within people are inevitable and useful. From the outside these ‘inner stresses’ are usually hard to perceive. This may explain why people may (falsely) think that other people –unlike themselves- don’t have these inner stresses. And it may explain why we are susceptible for professionals who try to convinces us that experiencing difficulties must mean we need (their) professional help. From a distance, other people may look very calm and controlled. The reality, however, is probably that they too, more or less constantly, have to deal with pressures and tensions. The same may apply to all complex systems. Let's look at a few examples. From a distance, a famous organization may appear to function very smoothly. They serve their customers, they make a good profit and they innovate. However, if we would get a chance to look from the inside, we might see all the messy processes and inner tensions and conflicts that occur within the organization. A great pop star or movie star may appear to lead a glamorous and problem-free life. However, when their biographies come out we may find out about the struggles and problems of their lives too. The same is the case with historical figures like Caesar, Alexander the Great, Beethoven and Darwin. We tend to remember the glorious ‘summaries’; of their lives. Close inspection, however, teaches us that they were more like us than we thought. They had to deal with problems and struggles constantly, like we do. From the outside, complex systems often seem stable and steady, from the inside there is equilibrium of many contrary forces. Beautiful examples in nature are the stars in the sky. From a distance we may think of a star as a glorious solid shining body in the sky. But, from up close, a star is more like a collection of very dynamic processes than a solid body. The star is the result of the balance between two oppose forces: an outward force caused by a process of nuclear fusion by which hydrogen is steadily converted into helium and an inward gravitational force. These two opposing forces create a state of equilibrium. At some point, the outward force will decline because the star will be running out of hydrogen. This is the beginning of the end of the life cycle of the star. This is an interesting perspective: the inner stresses are the essence of the ‘life’ of the star.

Back to human beings and organizations. A realistic perspective seems to be that the problem-free life, the life of constant comfort, will never exist. We should probably not let professionals of any kind convince us that experiencing problems or doubts necessarily means we need a therapist, coach or consultant. Instead, we may be wise to embrace our stresses and dissatisfactions and consciously use them to make progress.


  1. How can you grow if there is nothing to expand you?

    There is this nice quote from "Evan Almighty" that might be appropriate:

    Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?

  2. Hi Peter, sorry, i don't understand the question: "How can you grow if there is nothing to expand you?`

  3. Hi Coert, I meant that if everything stays the same, there is a poor chance for things to... change. :)

    The question was more rhetorical. I believe that the tensions are our drive for change.

    A person wanting to grow will not be served by a tensionless state.

  4. I think (but I am not completely sure) that we agree on this. I think change often (perhaps always) is fueled by some kind of tension or dissatisfaction. I think that is wonderful idea. Duke Ellington (whom I admire quite a bit for his music too) once said: A problem is an opportunity for you to do your best. I think that is such a wonderful, hopegiving, realistic, down to earth way of looking. And I think it really works to think about things like that. Do you like that quote?

  5. I like it :) Here is another one very similar: "Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they're supposed to help you discover who you are." - Bernice Johnson Reagon

    I think this quotes are true because of the "last human freedom", the freedom to choose one's attitude in any circumstances.


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