Why Worry? Stress that We Deliberately Create


Another common source of stress is what I call “predictive stress”.  Predictive stress arises from the common practice of trying to relieve pressures of worrying by asking, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  Asking this question is incredibly stress producing as we now add a whole list of calamities to our worries.  It’s not bad enough that we worried that our boss didn’t like us, now well meaning but dim-witted friends introduce the worst case scenario and we add being fired, loosing our homes and become destitute and diseased homeless nomads driven mad by life’s luxuries lost.   Gee that’s a cheery thought, thank you for adding to my gloom.   It makes sense that if we don’t have a complete picture of a situation that we would have to prepare for the worse case scenario.  The problem with this practice is that the worst-case scenario is  not  the mostly likely scenario.  Instead of picturing the worst-case scenario, we should picture and plan for, the most likely scenario.  When we plan for the most likely scenario, it’s prudent to prepare some contingency plans (saving money for a rainy day, for example) but we need to stop our Armageddon thinking and concentrate on real issues and things we can do to minimize our risks.

Take for instance, the prospect of loosing your job.  Economic conditions, management decisions and a host of other factors that could contribute to loosing our jobs are completely beyond our control, so worrying about these and obsessing about them is a complete waste of time: the stress consumes our energy and provides us with nothing of value in return.   Instead of worrying about the prospect of loosing a job, we need to make contingency plans.   Some people will never be happy with our lack of worry and will actively seek to agitate us.  I remember when I was in high school; I was talking during one of our many fire drills.   The teacher launched into a surly admonishment of my behavior and finished her self-righteous monologue with, “what are you going to do if there is a REAL fire?!?!?!  I calmly responded by walking her through the complete evacuation procedure.   This didn’t satisfy her, in fact, it made only made her more angry, “okay, smart guy, what are you gonna do if the wall is blocked by fire?”  Again, I calmly told her that I would break a window, hang from the window ledge, and drop to the ground below, doing my best to stay upright and flex my legs, reasoning, that all though I would likely break a leg, I would prefer my odds with gravity rather than against the fire.  At this point, nearly enraged she spat, “and what if the window is blocked, then what?” she asked almost screaming.  Again, calmly, I told her that since the room had a drop ceiling and retractable wall, I would crawl to through the ceiling, drop into the room next door,  and leave by one of my aforementioned methods.  This time truly screaming, she asked what I would do if that was not an option. Now, frustrated by the situation having been extended to the most extreme, ludicrous worst-case scenario, I looked at her and said, “then I guess I’ll die, will that make you happy?”  and then I added, “although in this extreme scenario you’ve cooked up, I doubt my talking during a fire drill would kill or save anyone.”  What does this story prove (beyond that my high school teachers earned every cent they were paid)?  I think the story is a nice illustration of people’s love of worry, and the impatience of people who love to worry with those of us who don’t.

Adaptive Dysfunction

Our personalities are in part, ways to protect our bodies.  (This is not to imply that this alone is the purpose of or origin of our personality—I’ll leave that for the philosopher’s to ponder).  Our personalities are shaped as we mature and create our danger database.  We retain behaviors that protect us (or bring us joy, or reward us in some way, etc.) and we reject and avoid the things that have harmed us.  This process is not limited to our physical body, but our personalities as well.  The process of gathering sensory input, categorizing it, and storing it in our subconscious for further use is a relatively simple phenomenon compared to the complex development of our personalities.  Because everyone’s life experiences are unique the world is full of personalities, no two exactly alike. No personality is better or worse than the other although the interaction of personality styles can be a significant source of stress.

There are many different ways to categorize personality styles, and many good tools for identifying and describing a person’s personality style, but that is for another author to explore. Personality types are like horoscopes, we can see something of ourselves in any of the Zodiac signs, because they describe universal reactions to life. For our purposes there are four major types of personality Compelling, Persuasive, Social, and Orderly.  All these personalities styles grew from some very primal reactions to the dangers in the world, and therefore, most people have elements of all four, and any well adjusted person will exhibit characteristics of all of these personality traits depending on the situation. We learn to see these very complex personality styles as archetypes—the executive, the salesman, the social worker and the accountant.

The compelling personality believes in a hierarchy based on dominance.  The compelling personality will force his or her desires on the group.  The compelling personality learned at an early age that action and dominance will help force others to behave in ways that are easy to predict.  The compelling person will tell you what to do, and expect you to do it.  The compelling personality shoots first and asks questions, makes decisions quickly and expects quick results.  Don’t waste the compelling person’s time with idle chitchat, he wants you to say what you need to quickly and efficiently.  If you ask the compelling personality for advice and you will get quick direction.  “Here’s what you do…”

The persuasives learned early that if people like them they will get desired results so they spend their days cultivating relationships.  They like people and people like them.  They are direct, albeit meandering communicators, who get to the point only after telling a story, a joke, or asking about you.  Persuasives survive through innovation and creativity and social skills.  A persuasive won’t tell you what to do, rather they will freely tell you what they would don in the same situation. The persuasive personality is driven to talk, in fact, they process information by talking to others about it.  They need to talk in order to think. This non-stop jabbering may cause others to misread the persuasive personality as incapable of gravity but such is not the case.

Social personalities are shy people who form deep friendships with a relatively few number of people.  They have a deep affinity for fairness and are profoundly upset by what they perceive as injustice.  Caring and concerned friends social personalities prefer to console rather than to give advice. Social harmony is a primary motivator for the social personalities and these people abhor conflict and resent those who bring it.

The orderly personality lives for rules and perfection.  Introverted and exacting the orderly personality fears being wrong above all things. Orderly personalities make decisions carefully and deliberately and may be accused of analysis paralysis.  Orderly personalities intensely dislike having decisions rushed.

Far smarter people have spent far more time studying the development of the human psyche than I can or will ever do, so I won’t bore you with my take on that.  Sufficed to say, that while most of us develop personalities that help us to function in society, others among us develop in dysfunctional ways.  Dysfunction is one of those words that has become widely used in psychological circles, but I use it in a slightly different way.  Behaviors, beliefs, and inhibitions that help us to better relate to others in society protect us and reduce our stress.  Behaviors that put us at odds with society are dysfunctional, because they make it more difficult to “function” as a member of society.

People who have adapted to life in a way that puts them at odds with others suffer from (or more accurately the rest of us suffer from) “adaptive dysfunction”.  Before you rush out to use this as an excuse for being a jerk, this is not a mental illness, rather it is learned behavior that can be unlearned.  The adaptive dysfunctional person has found a way to survive without following society’s rules.  I once played softball with a man named “Kirk the Jerk”; this was obviously not his given name, but one that suited him and suited him well.  He wasn’t a big man, or a particularly tough one, but Kirk was rude, nasty and thoroughly unlikeable. He wasn’t even that good a softball player, but people welcomed him on the team mainly because people had known him for years and accepted his behavior as normal and acceptable.

We see these people every day and most of us except the dysfunction as  “oh that’s just Kirk the Jerk’s personality”. These people bully there way through life seemingly unconcerned by other people’s opinion of them. They have survived using behaviors outside the social norms.


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