Want Less Stress? Don’t Keep Your Hand on Life’s Hot Stove

 In Better Life, Negative emotions

Last week I was excited to share Shirzad Chamine’s concept of our Saboteurs; those negative voices in our head that get in the way of our happiness and success. This week, I would like to bring you one of his articles I really enjoyed that digs a little deeper into why we should limit the time we give these voices.


In my Stanford lectures on Positive Intelligence and Saboteurs, I invite students to raise their hand any time they feel skeptical about something I’ve said.

A lot of hands usually go up when I make this statement:

“Stress and unhappiness are always a choice. Any negative feelings you experience are because you’ve chosen to listen to your Saboteurs.”

The reactions from my students are usually along these lines:

“But, Shirzad — Sometimes things happen to us that are truly awful — such as losing a job or botching a presentation. Isn’t it normal to feel upset about it?”

“If I don’t feel bad about mistakes that I make, I won’t learn from them and will probably just repeat them.”

“When it comes to a major project, stress energizes me and drives me to do my best. If I don’t feel stress, won’t I under prepare or under perform?”

I typically respond to them with an exchange that goes something like this:

Me: Are unpleasant physical sensations, such as pain, ever good for us?

“Yes, of course,” they say. Invariably someone will point out how pain is useful when it warns us of danger, such as when we accidentally touch a hot stove or tweak a muscle when working out.

Me: “Quite right. Now, for how long do you need to feel the pain to get the message?”

“A split second,” they usually respond.

Exactly. A split second is all it usually takes. Once you benefit from the informative warning of a negative sensation, you automatically want to take action and let the pain go.

Yet our Saboteurs keep us in a cycle of replaying our disappointments and anxieties over and over again…

…the Judge beats you up steadily and uses shame and guilt to teach you a lesson.
…the Controller, Stickler, and Hyper-Achiever consume you with anxiety about the terrible consequences that might ensue.
…the Avoider tricks you into procrastinating, which leads to more anxiety.

And so on.

Disappointment over a setback or mistake is only useful for about 10 seconds until you switch to curiosity about how to learn from it.

And feeling stress over an important presentation or deliverable is of limited benefit at best – only up until the time you start preparing. About 10 seconds worth! Beyond that, it can actually hinder your performance.

Whenever you find yourself in a negative feeling or reaction for more than the informative 10 seconds, I encourage you to try this easy practice:

1. Pause. Ask yourself if you’ve already heard the message and if there is any value in staying in the reaction.

2. Chuckle to your Saboteur and say, “I’ve got it and I’m on it. Now get out of my way!”

Take your hand off the hot stove of life’s challenges. You’ll see how much easier life instantly becomes.

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