confess your stress
Just last week, my wife asked me a simple question and I became defensive. My reaction was quick, automatic. Didn’t even have to think about it. It didn’t feel like a choice, but…it was.
We were getting ready for bed when she asked, “Why do you go into work so early?” I didn’t see the question coming, but you would have thought I did based on the series of ready-made responses. I was several sentences into it before I noticed my volume, my tone, my heart rate. But I quickly discounted my awareness, overruling it with a practiced sequence of defensive thoughts: Something about the way she said it; It was her question, that’s the problem. These mental maneuvers changed the subject so successfully I didn’t notice my defensiveness anymore. I had simultaneously staved off integrity and renewed my prime motivation: being right.
The whole thing lasted maybe five minutes. We said only a portion of what we were thinking and then stopped. Neither of us wanted the tension that we pretended wasn’t there.
I should say that only the first part of the “thing” lasted five minutes, because I wasn’t done internally. I chewed on it. I rehashed the discussion. I internally edited my responses (What I should’ve said was…) and then I edited her responses (What she was really saying was…). After an hour or so, my edited version bolstered my feeling that I was right and I’d handled myself pretty well, all things considered. But given all the mental effort this required, I thought I would have felt more vindicated, more like I could move on.
Except I couldn’t quite let it go. I laid in bed and kept fiddling with the editing, adding new points and rearranging my case.
I was uncomfortable the next time Jean and I were together. I had prepared some sentences if she brought it up, but I was committed to not bringing it up first so I did what I could to make sure it didn’t come up. I became (uncharacteristically) a fountain of conversation starters: “How was the call with your sister?” “I saw a hawk on the way home.” “What’s the plan for dinner?” “Coronavirus update?” I was a little too chatty, my questions a little too forced. Externally, it appeared that I’d moved on. But internally, I was still bothered, mad, and feeling misunderstood.
I also felt embarrassed and guilty by my response. In the recesses of my memory, I could still hear my defensive tone. I could see Jean’s startled response to my words and the hurt on her face, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. So when any of these troubling thoughts popped up, I popped them back down. Emotional Whack-a-Mole. It was tiring. It’s a lot of work to pretend that something that is true isn’t true.
And I was stressed.
Now stress can come from a variety of circumstances. Often it comes from outside sources: bills, illness, the actions of others, etc. The one I’m describing here happens to be self-inflicted. Either way, it is all stress. And when I am stressed, I think mainly of how to stop it; I am not thinking about love or health.
But whether stress is externally or internally caused, the first healthy step is always the same: confess your stress. Everything begins with telling the truth, because the truth will set you free from the exhausting effort of maintaining that something that is true isn’t true.
It took me while to get there. For a day (or two), I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop the defensive maneuvers (building my case, avoiding the subject, etc.). But God slowly brought me back to noticing what I was feeling. He helped me pause long enough to say, “I was defensive.” Well, honestly, I don’t remember if that was the first confession. I may have started with, “I felt misunderstood.” Both were true. But any honest confession can put you on the path of telling the truth and, if you keep walking that path, you walk out of the contrived world and back into the real one.
There is a big difference between a contrived world and the real world.
Contrived World – You pretend that something true really isn’t true.
I don’t feel misunderstood. It doesn’t bother me. And since it doesn’t bother me, then I didn’t really get defensive. And besides, even if I was a little defensive, well, she’s wrong in the first place, and I’m right. So my defensiveness is understandable and maybe even admirable that I didn’t get really angry. I’m fine. We’re fine. Everything is just fine!
In the contrived world, you think you can manage and eliminate stress by holding up this false world.
Real World – You tell the truth and trust God and others to find options.
My shoulders are tight. There is a pit in my stomach. I feel embarrassed. I am afraid to talk. I am acting vague and evasive.
In the real world, you don’t have to work as hard. Instead of working to hold up a false world, you just let the real world hold you up. It is easier, but you have to trust.
So I decided to bring it back up to Jean. We were getting ready for bed again and I hesitated. Another ten minutes and I could have avoided it again and re-entered the contrived world. But God helped me.
With a weak voice, I said, “I need to apologize…” This got Jean’s attention. She looked puzzled.
Oh my, I thought, she forgot…maybe I don’t have to do this. I tried to think of something else to apologize for, something lessor.
“I was defensive the other night when you asked about my schedule.”
I managed to get it out. And when I did, the weight of the contrived world dropped from my shoulders. When you live with a contrived world you have to hold it up, straining like old Atlas. But a true world will hold you up, if you trust like early Adam.
My confession, feeble as it was, had placed me again on the ground of truth. Sure, I was still scared and a little hurt, and still feeling guilty for the way I’d treated her. But I was beginning to trust God again. And by extension, I was also entrusting myself to Jean, asking her to meet me there. If she didn’t, well, I would still have something solid underneath me. And if she did meet me (a pretty safe bet with Jean), then we had real options for working this thing out.
Confess your stress.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.