It’s Your Choice

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Why Tension Will Either Destroy You or Strengthen You By Dr. Sam Chand

“You must not only learn to live with tension, you must seek it out. You must learn to thrive on stress.”—J. Paul Getty

All of us handle a myriad of tensions throughout our day: from the tension it takes to simply get out of bed to family stresses to workplace demands. Tensions can include health concerns, conflicts in our relationships, or even struggles in our spiritual walk. No one can escape tension completely; however, our human instinct, even as leaders—or especially as leaders—is to try anyway.

If our highest hope is to be completely free of tension, our misplaced expectation will multiply our difficulties and make us deeply discouraged. But if our hope is to see God use the tension to produce something good, something noble, and something of lasting value, we can have assurance that He will come through…in His way…and in His timing.

Our Choices Determine the Outcome

Every moment of every day, we can choose how we respond to tension. Our choices determine whether it destroys us or strengthens us. Following are specific instances in which it does both. Which do you see more of in your daily life currently? Be honest with yourself—it’s the only way you’ll begin to grow in this area and harness the power of the tensions in your life.

Tension Destroys When…

1. You get angry and frustrated that you can’t figure it all out.

You assume you can think your way out of tension, and you can use your intelligence and wit to try to stay on top of things. There’s certainly nothing wrong with thinking and reasoning, but some people believe they can think long enough and hard enough to relieve all the tension they feel.

2. You pressure people to act like there’s no tension.

A team leader tells staff to put on a smile when they walk out of the room, even though they’ve just had a knock-down, drag-out disagreement. A couple walks into a party holding hands and smiling, but they’ve hardly spoken to each other in the past week.

3. You have a “superhuman complex” and assume you can fix every person and every situation.

Many people are compulsive fixers who get their self-worth from their attempts to right every wrong and make people do the right thing. We often applaud these people because they are so helpful, but they can rob recipients of their dignity and prevent them from learning to be responsible.

4. You use bullying tactics to get your way.

Some people try to manage tension by getting big—talking loudly, glaring menacingly, and demanding compliance from everyone they know. The people who are the targets of their demands often get little, cowering and giving in to avoid more attacks.

5. You escape to avoid the tension.

To avoid thinking and feeling, people may watch hours and hours of television, read, or do almost anything to occupy their minds.

6. You avoid having any opinions because you’re afraid of being blasted as wrong.

Some people feel overwhelmed by the oppressive tension in their lives, and they try to cope by not having an opinion about anything. Stating their opinion would open them up to criticism, and they can’t stand that.

7. You sulk to get attention and be pitied.

Some people play the victim card, hoping others will cater to them and not ask them to do anything hard, like producing what they’re responsible for.

8. You self-medicate to numb the pain.

People may use alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, or almost any substance or behavior to mask the tension they don’t want to face.

9. People are afraid to speak the truth to you because you’re either too fragile or a bully.

Tension that isn’t addressed with wisdom and truth can quickly shatter trust through a violent outburst or slowly erode trust through isolation and criticism. The results of a lack of trust are the extremes of being fragile or being a bully. Either way, the message to others is, “Don’t talk to me about anything important. I’ll either crumble under it, or I’ll use it against you.

10. You feel trapped because you don’t see any other choices.

Perhaps the most common way tension destroys is when people don’t believe they have any options in how to deal with it. They feel like prisoners in their homes and at work.

Tension Strengthens When…

1. You see it as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Instead of instantly catastrophizing— thinking, The world is coming to an end!—it’s possible to slow down and ask, “What are some positive outcomes that can happen from this?” You won’t find them if you don’t look for them.

2. You become more aware of others’ feelings and your surroundings.

When tension isn’t a threat, we don’t suffer from tunnel vision. Our range of vision expands; we become more observant, noticing words, tone, and gestures. We see how people are reacting to each other. Our goal is no longer to get the tension over as quickly as possible, but to use it for good in every person’s life.

3. You learn to make adjustments in the moment.

With time and practice, we’re more fully present in each situation and conversation, and we respond in the moment instead of having to think about it for hours or days after the crucial encounter has passed.

4. You become wiser, more patient, and kinder.

When we react to the perceived threat of a tense moment with fight, flight, or freezing, our focus is on protecting ourselves or dominating the other people. As we gain a better perspective, we learn to notice the truth beneath the surface, we’re patient instead of insistent because we know what it’s like to be reactionary, and we have compassion for those who are under the weight of multiplied tension.

5. You give others the benefit of the doubt.

As our confidence grows, we no longer insist on being right all the time. We value opposing opinions, and we aren’t surprised when people verbalize them a little too passionately or a little too hesitantly.

6. You listen carefully to people who disagree with you or oppose you.

When we feel stressed, we just want relief—and we want it now! In these circumstances, we want people to hear us, and we’re not eager to hear them. But as we learn how to use tension for good, we listen intently to others to understand their concepts, their feelings, and their goals.

7. Your brain chemistry reinforces a healthy pattern of responses.

Our brains are wired with feedback loops. This means that unhealthy patterns replicate themselves, but brain chemicals also reinforce positive behaviors. A study of military Special Forces showed that for many of the men and women, in tense situations such as combat, brain chemicals actually cause their minds to slow down so they can think more clearly and act with more precision. An author summarizes the findings: “In other words, when the going gets tough, you can mimic the brain activity of the bravest performers by adopting their mindset: look on the bright side and take decisive action.”[1] Probably few of us are in the category of Navy SEALs, but the point is that our brains are wired to enforce our choices.

8. You become humble and less jealous.

Humility, as the saying goes, isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. When we feel threatened by tension, we become remarkably self-absorbed, but as we become wiser and stronger in our response to pressure-packed situations and difficult people, we feel more secure and less passionate about defending ourselves. We also no longer feel the need to compete to put ourselves up by putting others down.

9. You become a great example to the people around you.

One of the most powerful motivations for many of us is the realization that our responses to tension affect the people around us, especially our children, but also our spouses, colleagues, and friends.

How to Harness the Power of Tension

When Jesus was about to launch the greatest enterprise the world has ever known, He met with His closest followers in the upper room. This meeting was electric with tension—tension with the disciples who were arguing about who would be the greatest in Jesus’s coming kingdom, tensions with Judas, tensions with Peter, and Jesus’s tension within Himself as He faced the excruciating future of going to the cross. Jesus’s response to all of this wasn’t to run away or bark condemnation at those who didn’t appreciate what He was going to do. Instead, He took off His cloak, wrapped a towel around Himself, picked up a basin of water, and washed their feet. In the middle of the most profound and searing tension anyone had ever faced or would ever face, Jesus embraced the moment and took the role of the lowest servant.

Later that night, He experienced tension when Peter, James, and John couldn’t stay awake with Him as He poured out His heart in prayer. He was completely in charge of the moment when Judas betrayed Him with a kiss and Peter cut the ear off the high priest’s servant. Jesus spoke calmly and clearly in the mock trials and in front of the Roman governor who claimed to have power over Him. And He endured the greatest imaginable tension when the Father withdrew so He could bear the punishment for the sins of the world. Jesus knew that these tensions were temporary but His mission was eternal. He refused to get distracted from the Father’s purpose. He certainly didn’t ignore the stress and tension He faced, but He kept His eyes on a far bigger goal than relief.

Jesus had a choice to live in tension and stay in the Father’s plan or escape it by calling twelve legions of angels to slay His enemies and rid Him of the pain and shame of the cross. I’m glad He stayed.

We have choices, too. We can let tension destroy us, or we can invite it to strengthen us. What will we choose?


[1] Jeff Wise, “How the Brave are Different,” Psychology Today, April 20, 2010 (www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/extreme-fear/201004/how-the-bravest-are-different).

This article was extracted from the premier issue of Thrive Magazine (Spring 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Thrive Magazine by visiting us here.