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Standing in the Gap: A Counter-Intuitive Approach to Managing Tension

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

We experience various levels of tension every day, stemming from personal challenges, work pressures, relationship dynamics, and global events. These tensions are common thread in the human experience, ultimately shaping shaping our responses to the world around us.

However, we don't like tension and prefer to resolve it as fast as possible. Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist, writes, “When we feel powerful energy [tension], we tend to be extremely uncomfortable until things are fixed in some kind of secure and comforting way, either on the side of ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ ” Our tension compounds when we lack control and when we experience high levels of uncertainty.

As you read through the ways we respond to tension, think about your patterns of behavior and the patterns of behavior you observe in others.

We battle the tension

Battling tension often involves criticism. We can be overly, and sometimes unfairly, critical of ourselves and others. We might ask, “How could I have made such a mistake?” or “How can he be so incompetent?” Battling tension can involve spreading fear and it can lead to violence. War, assault, emotional abuse, harassment, bullying, demeaning behavior, insulting remarks, threats, and verbal attacks are some of the ways people battle tension. We are all too familiar with these responses.

We run away from the tension

Running away from tension often involves some level of distraction. We dive deep into our work to avoid reality. Consumption is another form of distraction: shopping, eating, drinking. And few of us are immune from over consuming media as a form of distraction, be it television, social media, gaming, or streaming. Other forms of running from tension include disengaging, detaching, withdrawing, quitting, hiding, ignoring, or concealing. Denial, or convincing yourself or others that what's happening isn't really happening, can be a dangerous way to handle tension.

Let’s explore the space between these two approaches.

We hold the tension

Holding tension involves acknowledging and trying to understand what we are feeling. Most of us, including me, don’t have much practice with holding tension.

Chödrön writes, “Instead of immediately acting on a habitual response… sit with your anguish and the discomfort of it. It’s like sitting on a wild horse. When we stick with this process we learn something very interesting: there is no resolution for these uncomfortable feelings... Patience, on the other hand, gives us nothing to hold on to. Joy, happiness, inner peace, harmony come from sitting still with the moodiness of the energy until it rises, dwells and passes away. Patience is a way to develop fearlessness, to contact the seeds of war and the seeds of peace and decide which ones we want to nurture.” We battle and run away from tension because of fear, but if we sit with the tension we can become fearless.

Parker Palmer has a similar perspective. He writes, “What drives us to resolve tension as quickly as we possibly can is the fear that if we hold it too long, it will break our hearts… As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair, and hope.” Holding tension can create space for something greater.

In a recent Harvard Business Review Article, Peter Bregman describes what it is like to slow down, to stop doing, and to be present. He writes, “And when I see that I am capable of staying with myself in my fears and insecurities, I no longer have to act to avoid them. Which leads to a new confidence, an irrepressible power, and a profound freedom to act — not out of fear and insecurity — but out of purpose and connection and strength and longing and love.”

That’s something worth striving for, isn’t it?

Further Reading

Bregman, Peter (2020). Empathy starts with curiosity. Harvard Business Review.

Chodron, P. (2007). Practicing peace in times of war. Shambhala Publications.

Palmer, P. J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. John Wiley & Sons.

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