“i am through you so I”— E. E. Cummings
As Sue Shellenbarger wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article,
It’s a paradoxical fact: When someone is getting stressed out, one of the least effective (and perhaps most annoying) things to say is “Relax.”
Have you ever told someone who is stressed out to "relax" or "calm down?" How did it turn out?
I teach workshops and coach individuals on the art of centering: how to return to calm composure under pressure; how to hold a difficult conversation without stressing out, remain flexible with life's myriad attacks, and remove the hot buttons that hold us hostage in conflict situations.
I was promoted to third-degree black belt in Aikido this month! Which should mean I'm pretty good at staying relaxed in most situations, right? Well, there's a cute Aikido quip that goes like this:
What did the 10th-degree black belt say to the 9th-degree black belt?
That's right--it never ends. And, it isn't the best way to encourage someone else to calm down.
As I've written in Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict, every time I get on the mat I experience the truth of this. It's easy to notice my partner's physical tension, for example, when doing a technique together. I hear myself telling him to "relax." But what about me? My arms are more relaxed than his, but I still feel tension. Maybe I "caught" some tension from my partner. The more he stiffens, the tighter I become.
So--I think to myself--if I relax, maybe he will, too. I try it and it works. As I become more relaxed, so does my partner. I ask myself which one of us needed to relax, and I sense the depth of the connection between us--that it only takes one of us to make a change that both of us experience.
We mirror the physical tension we see in others. To test this, the next time you feel tense, notice if there's someone else nearby who's also tense. As you relax, see if they relax. The applications of this experiment are limited only by your imagination.
- When your life-partner starts shouting at you or the kids, instead of shouting back, relax and regain control of yourself and the situation.
- When you notice that your boss is tense, instead of bracing yourself against the coming onslaught, relax and see how the change is reflected in the environment.
- When you ask your 15-year-old to clean that room now (!) and see her stiffen, relax and invite her to help you figure out what you can both do to resolve the ongoing dilemma.
We often hear it said that we cannot control others and, for the most part, that is true. But because we are in relationship with them--because we’re connected--they will be affected when we breathe and become more centered.
So the next time you're ready to tell someone else to RELAX!, stop and center yourself. You'll know what to do next.
Have you ever done this--centered and relaxed instead of telling someone else to? I'd love to hear your Comments below. Thank you!