I have a good understanding of stress – as everybody else living in the contemporary world with all the demands on time and expectations needed to be met. There’s a lot of expectations from peers, family, bosses etc that underlie the type of interactions we have with people generally and these expectations do their bit to ensure some level of stress.
We could look at this through the simple Pavlov conditioning experiment: ring a bell, then a moment after give a dog food and do this a few times over – the dog salivates eventually without the food and just by the sound of a bell itself. Let’s say I’m the dog and the environment is a social situation. When I’m around people it’s nice to be part of the conversation and feel somehow accepted – a natural preference being the social animals we are. In this case the food is social acceptance.
To gain some level of approval though, I need to be aware of what’s going to be acceptable and what’s not, what I can and can’t wear, what to and what not to talk about and generally how to behave. All these factors tend to modify what we do and how we do it – if we’re hungry for the food of acceptance – and most of us are to some degree.
The bell in this case is our own behavior. So like the dog salivating on the cue of a bell – we don’t always have to modify what we do and say to fit a given situation and carry the plaque of social acceptance – the reward is internalized. For example I achieve a certain goal and I’m automatically rewarded with more of a personal acceptance of myself. What’s interesting is that some of this personal acceptance is unavoidably based on the values I’ve internalized – some of those things I’ve come to know are expected of me by others, I’m rewarding myself for achieving.
The problem is, as most expectations go – they’re mostly out of touch with who we are as individuals, or they’re more suitable for a different time, place or person. Basically they’re generally hard to met and heavy to carry and being often intertwined with our identity they’re hard to challenge. Invariably though, they can be a reasonable cause of stress.
I find it’s worth thinking about this when I don’t meet some of my own personal expectations. It’s useful to turn this around and question myself: “are these my expectations?” “have I thought hard enough about these things, or have I just taken them on and believed them?”
It’s also worth reading this – its written in an old English style (originally in German), so it takes some time but its a good analogy for cutting through values that don’t always apply to us as individuals:
“Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and god? “Thou shalt” is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, “I will.” “Thou shalt” lies in his way, sparkling like gold, an animal covered with scales; and on every scale shines a golden “thou shalt.”
Values, thousands of years old, shine on these scales; and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: “All value has long been created, and I am all created value. Verily, there shall be no more ‘I will.'” Thus speaks the dragon.
My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? Why is not the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, enough?
To create new values — that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred “No” even to duty — for that, my brothers, the lion is needed. To assume the right to new values — that is the most terrifying assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much. Verily, to him it is preying, and a matter for a beast of prey. He once loved “thou shalt” as most sacred: now he must find illusion and caprice even in the most sacred, that freedom from his love may become his prey: the lion is needed for such prey.
But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes.” For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world.”
Nietzsche – Thus spoke Zarathustra