March 3, 2010

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 suggestions from professionals who try to convince us that experiencing difficulties must mean we need (their) professional help.

From a distance other people may look very calm and controlled. The reality is probably there is a more or less constant tension within each of them. The same may apply to all complex systems.

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’d 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 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 the system seems 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 opposing 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. two relevant quotes:

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." -- Jim Horning


    "The first thing to do to become happier, paradoxically, is to accept painful emotions, to accept them as a part of being alive. You know, there are two kinds of people who don't experience painful emotions such as anxiety or disappointment, sadness, envy; two kinds of people who don't experience these painful emotions. They are the psychopaths and the dead. So if we experience painful emotions at time, it's actually a good sign. It means that we're not a psychopath and we're alive. The paradox is that when we give ourselves the permission to be human, the permission to experience the full gamut of human emotion. We open ourselves up to positive emotions as well." - Tal Ben-Shahar (part of the Big Think Interview)

  2. I love this post.

    I've been having similar thoughts for the past few months. Mine have been based on ideas from evolutionary psychology--that the common ways people think and feel are often adaptive or else we wouldn't have survived to the present day.

    For example, it turns out that when people are depressed they are better able to think analytically--especially about social situations and social conflicts.

    So it could be that depression is an adaptive response that helps us better analyze problems we don't know how to solve.

    And it also turns out that most people who experience depression never get treatment and don't need to as most people's depression lifts on it's own.

    Depression also lasts longer when people interfere with the ruminations or negative thoughts they have during the depression. Treatments that have clients focus more on the problems by journaling for example can shorten the depression.

    This is just one example. However, I think an SF approach can help us adapt faster and better than this. I wonder how effective SF would be for depression treatment since it might cause a person to find solutions and therefore have no more need for the depressed state to help them think about their problems.

  3. In addition, when our clients call us in because they are in pain and we are helpful to them, we need to remember that our job is to get out of their way and let them get on with managing tension their way.

    Our job is to help them make progress, not solve the problem.


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