The ancient Pythagorean philosophers of southern Italy—back in the 6th century BC—were very clear about the importance of ‘measure’ as a condition of harmony, and that in a very concrete sense. They tried different amount of force to stretch the strings of a lyre. They observed that the quality, the degree of clearness of the sound depends on both the length of the strings—the shorter the length, the higher, less low sound—, and the force to stretch them. Under extreme work—too stretched—the strings break; while under a weak work—too loose—the sound results dull and poorly tuned.
As a lyre string breaks due to an excessive tension and goes out of tune due to lack of tension, same with us. To find our own day-to-day ‘harmony’, we need to find a balanced, middle point about both internal and external demands.
Stiffness and Laziness ~ Two Ways to Emotional Distress
The word ‘stress’ was originally used in the field of Physics to refer to the maximum pressure or force that a solid thing could withstand without breaking (Nebot Guillamón, 2017).
In the mind-body field, we could refer the term stress—or more specifically distress—to an excessively harmful degree of both internal and external demands, which we are deal with. Based on the findings from multiple researches, today we know that an increasing stress—related to high levels of anxiety and excessive self-demands—produces lower quality performances in several areas, such as work, study, sports, relationships, and also leads to emotional dysregulation and decreasing enjoyment (Torres & Baillés, 2014).
Procrastination—a too stretched string— (commonly called ‘laziness’) means to leave what is important for an indeterminate ‘later’ or just for the last minute. It is a trap since, in the end, procrastination produces dissatisfaction, even guilt, because we know that it leads us to live on the edge, live in a hurry to get the things done. And because of that our attempts will be much lower quality that it could if we’d manage time and resourses more efficiently—we could even have time to review the outcome after finishing tasks.
An excessive responsibility—a too tight string— (one of the faces of ‘psychological rigidity’) linked to act with little flexibility, no consideration of the circumstances for each case, and no self-control, that is, without setting clear limits on the management of time, mental energy, and external resources; all this will lead us directly to distress and exhaustion.
«Emotional distress is a reflection of the deadly combination that often overwhelms individuals with high work demands and little autonomy, out-of-control responsibility» (Sapolsky, 2013; p. 414).
Rigid Demands Vs. Flexibility ~ Enjoy the Trip!
In a broad sense we could consider our entire life as a ‘journey.’ We are always moving from here to there through both the mind —thinking and rethinking ideas, projects, undertakings—and the body—literally moving from one point to another. With not enough conscious connection to the present, with no flexibility in accepting circumstances just as they are given to us, then how could we enjoy the life journey?
Whoever looks at reality—oneself, others, circumstances—from a rigid, black-and-white, all-or-nothing demand, such as, ‘If it’s not perfect, it’s a disaster’ (meaning ‘perfect’ what meets our expectations fully). That way, could you ever experience everyday life as a satisfying journey? Let’s be honest, how many times does reality completely meet our expectations? As Mindfulness and the new contextual therapies in general teach us, the main cause of the human dissatisfaction, discomfort and suffering is the ‘discrepancy’ we experience between reality—what actually there are—and our expectations—what we wish things to be (Rodríguez-Morejón, 2019).
We could consider two main types of demands, internal—self-demands—and external—those arising from the environment and its circumstances.
Without denying the fact that in every socio-relational plane there are real obligations which we are affected to, however, we must also recognize that, the less flexible our thinking, the greater internal pressure we’ll get from those obligations.
On the contrary, the more flexible our thinking—without falling into extremes such as indulgence or negligence—the better our performance will be. Plus, thanks to mental flexibility, even the fulfillment of duty will not completely prevent us from enjoying what we do; like someone—with an attitude very similar to that grown in the Mindfulness practice—who is willing to enjoy the journey, and not just getting to the destination. Because, in fact, the more you are flexible in accepting the impediments and setbacks that could arise along the way, the more you will be able to enjoy the trip (Baer, 2014).
Some Demands from the Ego
In the personal development field, ‘Ego’ refers to our personality style. Among many typification systems, the Enneagram is one of my favorites for two reasons, the variety of its sources, and for its holistic viewpoint of the human being as a bio-psycho-socio-cultural unit (some would add an ‘spiritual’ dimension, although this could be included in the ‘cultural’ one).
Let’s see some typical internal demands derived from the deep motivation and particular worldview of each personality style, as nine ‘social masks’:
To reaffirm my personal worth, I must show myself…
… correct to set an example—which implies to correct myself and others.
… essential to those who matter to me.
… competent and stand out with my performance.
… different, out of the ‘ordinary.’
… smarter than the others.
… responsible and trustworthy.
… versatile and funny.
… strong, firm, and with authority.
… calm and adaptable to circumstances.
Since the personality in general is made up of a set of traits with different degrees of prevalence (in the Enneagram we usually say that ‘We all carry the complete Enneagram inside us’), probably several of those ‘must’ statements might resonate to us as an implicit motivation under the explicit ones relating to achieving specific goals.
Those ‘must’ add an extra pressure to the external demands. For example, a young person whose goal is to ‘Finish university studies’, besides the external demands related to the circumstances—such as, number of subjects, deadlines and study requirements, time, cognitive and economic resources to invest…—, he/she will carry an extra pressure derived from the underlying motivations that most affect their personality, according to its most prominent traits. And so, to the external demands mentioned, extra internal demands might be added, such as the following:
I must set an example of integrity at my academic performance.
The fact that I am studying does not exempt me from taking care of others who need me.
I’m going to excel at what I do, whatever the cost.
I’m not going to go unnoticed, nor am I going to be one of the bunch.
I’m going to be a specialist in my field, even if I have to cut off everything else.
Studying is fine, but I also have to foresee possible impediments and ensure my continuity in studies.
Studies doesn’t have to be serious and boring; you have to relax a bit.
Knowledge is power, but this is not for everyone, this is for really determined people.
Yeah, I think I would like to study but, you know, sometimes it’s necessary to put oneself off for the welfare of others.
We could find multiple applications of the nine ‘must’ statements that our Ego add to external requirements in life. Can you apply this analysis to yourself?
Returning to the initial metaphor of the Pythagoreans’ lyre strings, we should insist that, in order not to fall into the traps of distress, we need to moderate the pressure in adjusting the strings. To do that, we need to make our internal demands more flexible without losing sight of the context we are in. Plus, when taking the next step, or making an important decision, we need to awaken the internal observer, in order to respond consciously to the ever-changing and challenging circumstances in life, instead of reacting to them automatically.
Wellness and peace,
IG / FB @marceloaguirrepsi
Baer, Ruth (2014). Practicing Happiness – How Mindfulness Can Free You from Psychological Traps and Help You Build the Life You Want
Nebot Guillamón, Vicente (2017). Mindfulness: La meditación científica
Sapolsky, Roberto (2013). ¿Por qué las cebras no tienen úlceras?
Torres, Xavier & Baillés, Elva (2014). Comprender el estrés