On Boiling Frogs

There seems to be this unspoken rule we learn as kids: that we’re only genuinely successful (ergo, happy) if we have “it all”, and if we don’t have it all, we damn-well better be working hard for it. In other words, if we’re not stressed out just livin’ life, we’re not doing it right. We accept this as normal. But, operating in this mode places us at a substantial deficit, for when life brings real adversity, we won’t see all the subtle ways the increased stress takes its toll.

When this happens, you may become a boiling frog.

If you’ve not heard the boiling frog analogy before, it goes like this:

“The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.” (Wikipedia > Boiling Frog)

If we’re not in tune with our stress, we run the eventual risk of being shut down by it.

While we may handle acute stress well, (such as a tight deadline at work), or even become temporarily more productive because of it, chronic or cumulative stress taxes our entire body in ways we can’t recover from as easily, and our body’s systems eventually slow down to conserve energy. One day, we just notice that everything takes more effort. We’ve become forgetful, and can’t concentrate. Fatigued, we make poorer and poorer choices for ourselves. We stop exercising because we’re too tired. We eat fast food because we don’t feel like cooking. All of the mindful caretaking we do when we’re at our best goes straight out the window. Maybe we think about asking for help, but damn, it feels like SO MUCH WORK to talk. And likely, we sorta want to give a crap about all this, but the reality is, we don’t…we can’t.

And so, until something changes, we struggle.

Recognizing the sources of stress in our lives can be difficult. We may know that we’re tense ‘because of work’, but be far too busy with day-to-day obligations to quantify our discomfort in terms of unhealthy work environment, a lack of challenging work, or feeling undervalued. (Or, if we’re fortunate that our uninspiring job actually pays well, perhaps we write off any associated stress, because we believe what we’re getting more than makes up for it). It’s difficult to admit that we’re struggling because we’re doing something inconsistent with our core values, or that our priorities may be mis-aligned.

If we hope to manage our stress, we also need to have a solid understanding of how it’s affecting us. Has our creativity or productivity suffered? Have we been isolating? Are our relationships suffering because we’ve become irritable? Are we dealing with GI upset, headaches, or anxiety? We may know we’re ‘off’, but without taking full stock of our current state (mind, body, spirit), we may underestimate the impact stress is having on our well-being.

Effective stress management comes down to focusing on what is within our power to control. And the reality of living is that the only thing we can control is ourselves.

How do we react to challenging people and situations? Are we emotionally volatile?

Are we investing too much emotional energy where we shouldn’t?

Are we trying to “fix” someone whose behavior is upsetting us?

Are we compounding a problem by making it bigger in our minds than it needs to be?

When we become more aware of our behavioral patterns, especially those that conflict with our values, we can see where we unwittingly contribute to our own difficulties. From here, we can start to make small changes that have an enduring impact on our ability to cope with change and adversity.

Having a better grasp on what and how we’re doing, we can now evaluate which, if any, remaining sources of stress can be minimized or eliminated. It’s at this point we need to take inventory of our relationships and decide which ones honor our personal values, and which ones don’t. And for those that don’t, we need to ask ourselves some painful questions:

  • Which is more important to you; your values, or the relationship?
  • What are you getting out of the relationship that you’re willing to sacrifice your values and self-worth?
  • What are you afraid of that’s keeping you stuck here?

I realize that no situation is ever black and white. When it comes to friends and peers, we have a bit more freedom in resolving issues with someone who violates boundaries and treats us with disrespect. But, family? I get it. It’s a whole other story.

The bottom line – and I cannot emphasize it enough – is that no matter the situation, if we do what we believe is right for ourselves, we will eliminate an enormous source of our discomfort. Eliminating our internal conflicts eliminates the lion’s share of stress.

The remaining share lies in allowing others to do what they believe is right for them, whether you agree with it or not.

Try it…work through this process, and see how your perspective shifts, how much clearer your real priorities become, how much freer you feel, and how much more resilient you grow. Try it now… The only thing you’ve got to lose is stress.

Don’t wait until you’re boil…



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