Illustration: Dan Page
Identify the Real Enemy
No matter how much stress we roll downhill, no matter how we justify the rolling, ultimately we still have to deal with the situations that caused our discontent. The only thing stress-rolling accomplishes is the creation of new enemies out of old allies (or potential allies)—a classic lose-lose situation. So the moment you get the slightest inkling that you're stress-rolling, excuse yourself, take some deep breaths and figure out what's really bothering you.
Because the core issue is often so upsetting that you push it out of your consciousness, you may not be able to articulate it at first. Luckily, you have a built-in problem-pinpointer: discomfort. Identifying your deepest emotional triggers is like finding where a bone has broken; you poke at the general area until you find the epicenter of the pain. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. "What's really bothering me?"
2. "What's the worst thing about that?"
3. "What's the worst thing about that?"
4. Repeat question 3 until you reach the source of your distress.
You'll know you've hit upon your real issue when all your irritation with innocent bystanders disappears in a flood of fear, sorrow, or despair. You'll probably feel helpless about coping with the core dilemma—that's why you displaced your aggression in the first place. Looking squarely at overwhelming problems requires extreme courage and honesty. Solving them takes even more. You may feel you don't have such valor in you, but that's okay. Just look around.
Align Yourself with Your Allies
To find courage you don't possess, all you need to do is share real facts about your real problems with people who may be able to help. I reiterate: people who may be able to help. If you've stress-rolled onto someone who holds less social power than you—say, your child or your assistant—simply apologize. These are not the people you should ask for counsel; doing so would leave them feeling even more overwhelmed than you feel. Find someone who, from your perspective, has at least as much power as you do.
For example, after yelling at your child, you might say, "Honey, I'm so sorry for shouting at you. I was worried about something completely different, but I'm getting help with that." Then you could call an adult who's survived hard times—your father, a coworker, your best friend—and talk about your career uncertainty. Or you could offer your husband a peanut butter sandwich—and the truth about your physical and emotional fatigue. Or you could admit to your assistant that you were out of line, then close your office door and call a couples counselor to discuss your relationship.
Are you seeing the pattern here? Apologize, tell the truth, get help from someone who's not below you on the power pyramid.
You may feel awkward being this honest and open. Suck it up. If you don't want to be the general who shoots at his own troops, you need to consult experienced, educated advisers. Make no mistake: You are the one and only leader of your life. But you'll be amazed by how brave, learned and resourceful the people around you can be. Honesty and humility will help you solve both the problems that create stress-rolling and the problems stress-rolling creates.
Keep Enlarging Your Circle of Advisers
As you begin to stop rolling stress onto others, you'll also start to gather crucial information that will help you face any problem without feeling overwhelmed: You'll learn whom to trust and in what capacity. Not every person you ask for help will be able or willing to give it. Your work friends may amplify your fears with their own. Your husband might shut down the moment you start talking. Your couples counselor could be a complete idiot. It happens. Just keep consulting different people until you get a response that feels genuinely helpful. The great thing about total honesty is that once you are grounded in it, you immediately know when someone's advice to you is wrong.
Lao Tzu said, "All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power." Every time you avoid rolling your negative emotions downhill, and instead admit the places you feel lowest, you'll find your power paradoxically growing. As you feel less overwhelmed and more balanced, you'll lift the people who look up to you until they, too, stop stress-rolling and start leveling with you about their own issues. In time, the very people you once dumped on may join you in solving any problems you face. Rolling on together, you'll be unstoppable.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).
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