A few years ago, a colleague offered this observation about workplace meetings: Every time we sit down around a conference table, he said, we tend to take on the roles we played at the family dinner table when we were kids. Further, whatever bothered us at that long-ago dinner table, no matter how healthy our family dynamics, will often be the thing that later frustrates us when we’re working in groups.
His comments shed light on something that I had been struggling with. I often found myself irritated at lively staff meetings. Whenever people started talking over each other — even when they were doing so out of sheer inspiration because the meeting was full of creative ideas — I checked out. My shoulders tensed up and I tapped my feet. Despite my attempts to join in, I just wasn’t enthusiastic about participating.
According to leadership trainers and relationship coaches Robert and Judith Gass, I was being triggered — that is, I was having an emotional reaction based on a past experience rather than being fully present in the moment. One explanation for my reaction is that I come from a family that considered interrupting people rude. When I identified how my frustration at staff meetings stemmed from my past, I suddenly found the meetings enjoyable. “It is startling to see how reactivity comes from a situation triggering a very old experience,” says Judith Gass. “People are often unconscious about how their past shows up.”
After coming to understand how my past had popped up in my present, I had to wonder: How many times in interactions with others had I actually been reacting to my past? In what ways do past experiences keep me from responding accurately to what’s going on in the present?
Recently, there’s been a revival of interest in what it means to be more present, especially after the publication of spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (New World Library, 1999). “The more attention you give to the past, the more you energize it,” Tolle writes. By focusing your attention on the present, he suggests, you can “meet everything
and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise.”
Today, the concept of living in the present is being applied in fields as diverse as leadership training, financial planning and home organizing, where clients learn how to distinguish between past and present. The result is often greater personal effectiveness and less stress.
Where Stress Comes From
Although momentary challenges (like getting stuck in traffic), can certainly make us uncomfortable, according to Robert Gass, a Harvard-trained psychologist, most stress comes from another place and time. “Stress is virtually never in the present,” he says. “It is usually anxiety about the future or it is about processing the past.”
That traffic stress, for example, may actually be preprocessed anxiety about being late to a meeting. Or it may be a past reprocessed reaction about experiences of not being in control, or about “getting in trouble” for being late.
The Gasses have observed that if someone has been triggered by the past in one kind of situation, they’re likely to experience the same prickly reactivity in other interactions. So in their leadership courses and
couples retreats (www.sacredunion.com), the Gasses address stress that appears in multiple settings.
If your stress is coming from your past, your body might already know it. Here are some of the signs that, according to the Gasses, may indicate you are experiencing a triggering event:
- Holding your breath or breathing rapidly; body tension, clenched fists
- Judgmental or blaming thoughts; emotional outbursts
- Wandering attention; spacing out or falling asleep
- Obsessively repeating thought patterns
- Feeling sorry for yourself, feeling victimized
While all these physical and mental reactions are methods of protecting yourself, this protection comes with a price. “Stress reactions create muscle tension, exhaust our adrenals, depress our immune system and hamper our ability to skillfully respond to situations,” Robert Gass says.
“When we are tense, we get reactive, defensive, and tend to speak and act in ways we later regret. When we stay open and relaxed, we can be far more creative and resourceful in how we choose to respond to what life brings us.”
Where Stress Shows Up
Stress from the past can pop up in unexpected places. In your house, for example, clutter is one indication that you might be letting your past determine how you live. “Many of our reasons for hanging on to clutter are… about fear: fear that we won’t be equal to the challenges of the future, and fear of confronting our regrets about the past,” writes Stephanie Roberts in Clutter-Free Forever! (Lotus Pond Press, 2003). “Clutter can be comforting; it acts as a buffer between us and reality.” As a result, clearing away clutter can refocus your attention on the present.
Your financial decisions can also keep you mired in the past. Taking on debt, says Cynthia Eells, a Roseville, Minn.– based financial adviser, indentures you to do future work in order to pay for past purchases.
She explains that income provides for three parts of your life:
1) Your past, or debt
2) Your present, or basic needs
3) Your future, such as investments, trips and classes
“Your decisions now very much affect how your future dollars are divided among those three,” Eells says. “To give yourself the greatest choices, it makes sense to be very cautious about adding to item 1.”
Clear and Present Comfort
While simply being aware of whether a given stress is arising from a future fear or past struggle won’t necessarily solve all your present-day problems, it can help alleviate unnecessary tension. And that can help you deal more effectively with the situation at hand.
It can also change how you experience the world. As Robert Gass explains, “Our capacity to be centered in the present moment increases our capacity to be content, joyful and at peace in ourselves.”
Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and former editor of Utne magazine.