Posted on Jul 29th, 2006

What triggers stress for you?

Most people think they know exactly what pushes their buttons, but they’re going for the low-hanging fruit. It’s the stuff that’s hanging in the hard-to-reach branches that tends to multiply our feelings of frustration, exhaustion and disconnection.

One client–let’s call him Scott–told me that he knows very well what causes stress for him: "My boss, the fact that he won’t give me a promotion, and my stack of bills to pay."

Well, isn’t that a tidy little package? But here’s the problem: Scott looks at that package and feels that there is nothing he can do with it– "I must work with the boss who hates me." "I must work harder to get a promotion." "I must make more money to pay my bills." End of story.

When we put our stressors into a package like that, we create an obstacle–the big box marked "This is my life"–that seems impossible to change.

That’s why we need to shake up that package a bit, unwrap it and see what’s really inside.

In Scott’s case, shaking that life package revealed that the whole "My boss is out to get me" story tended to color his perception of everything about his job.

The truth was that he loved the work, enjoyed his colleagues, and felt he was making a difference. However, he didn’t feel appreciated by his boss because he did not get the promotion he’d expected due to the company’s reorganization.

Really, his whole "my boss is ruining my life" concept was a story he created to avoid looking at the fact that he was feeling under pressure to make more money to provide for his family.

Adding fuel to the fire, his young children were getting into activities–soccer, gymnastics–that required more money and created more stress for his wife, who acted as chauffeur. Scott felt he should work longer hours, which meant he missed out on family dinners and rarely attended his children’s activities.

Scott was drained. His wife was frustrated. His children missed him. "If only my boss would give me a promotion," Scott’s story went, "my life would be so much better."

With a little help, Scott was able to pay attention to what matters most–

1) Providing a comfortable lifestyle for his family while doing work he enjoyed

2) Having time and energy to spend with his loved ones

Scott recognized that his boss had nothing to do with his frustration. What was stressing Scott was the idea that he had to continue to work hard in order to support a lifestyle that was becoming increasingly expensive and exhausting.

We all do the same thing–we create stories that make it easier for us to accept what we view as unchangeable circumstances.

Scott had a heart-to-heart talk with his wife, who had believed that Scott’s boss really was the source of his frustration. Once she knew the real situation, things shifted.

They agreed that what they wanted most for their family was a simpler way of life. Together, they decided to limit their activities–more dinners home together, more time on the weekend to enjoy family outings, less strain on the family budget. The children were okay with giving up their sports if it meant doing more fun things as a family. They’d signed up initially simply because their friends were doing the same.

Many of the things we feel we NEED to do are simply things we start doing. Without paying attention to what we might be losing in the process, these activities can become an obstacle to creating a happy, relaxed home life.

Scott’s looking forward to a year of less stress, more fun, and greater awareness. He feels much lighter now that he recognizes that his boss story was based on frustration, not facts.

Things are coming together now that Scott sees what matters most, and he is surprised at how simple it was to make decisions that made life easier for his whole family.

Oh, and that package? It turns out there wasn’t much in it after all.

Sometimes, those are the best ones to unwrap.

Maya Talisman Frost has taught thousands of people how to pay attention. Her playful, eyes-wide-open approach to mindfulness has been featured in over 150 publications worldwide. To read her free tips and tricks for practical awareness, visit

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