October 02, 2012

Capacity for Composure

How come one day your computer melts down and deletes half your files and you cheerfully back up the remaining files and continue your day, yet on another day you have a tantrum when someone steps on your foot on the subway? Isn't losing your files inherently more upsetting than brief foot pain? What explains the difference in reaction?

The book I'm reading (The Mindfulness Solution; see sidebar) says that "what matters for our sense of well-being is our capacity to bear experience relative to the intensity of the experience." That is, our well-being depends on the intensity of our stressors, but perhaps depends even more on our capacity to bear stress.

Example: Last week, I was waiting outside for a friend to pick me up in her car to go for brunch. It was a lovely day and my friend was doing me a favour by driving, but I found the wait intolerable and spent most of the all-of-ten-minutes fussing and fuming. Thinking about it later and taking into consideration my capacity to bear experience, I was able to identify that I had been hungry, dehydrated, underslept, and in physical pain. This explains why a non-intense stressor such as waiting for ten minutes felt intolerable. In contrast, this week I remained calm and relatively cheerful during a two-hour drive in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic to pick up a parcel from an incompetent courrier service in a distant corner of the city. I was well rested, I wasn't hungry or thirsty, and I wasn't in a rush; that is, my capacity to bear experience was high and I was able to take a deep breath, accept the traffic, and enjoy singing along with the radio.

The moral of the story is that sometimes when we're all worked up and certain that our situation is unbearable, it may simply be that our capacity to bear stressful experience is low at that moment. The good news is that we can improve our ability to bear stress and distress, both in the long term and in the moment:

In the moment: We can often increase our capacity to bear experience by decreasing physical discomfort. If you're waiting in a long line in a stuffy building, try putting down your bag and taking off your sweater. If you know that hunger makes you cranky and intolerant, carry a granola bar in your bag at all times. Use the washroom before you leave the house so you don't get stuck in traffic with a full bladder. Keep Advil in your desk at work so you don't suffer through the day with a headache. Consider calling someone to vent for a couple minutes or asking for help. Or, if you're overtired today, consider putting the situation aside until you can get a bit of sleep. Not being rushed also helps: it's easy to tolerate the bus being a few minutes late if you're not already running late for the first of five back-to-back appointments.

In the long term: Mindfulness is an attitude of acceptance, openness, and non-judgment in the present moment; mindfulness meditation--one of the primary practices through which mindfulness is cultivated-- is essentially practice bearing experience. During mindfulness meditation, you sit and pay attention to yourself and to your surroundings as they are, accepting what's happening without piling on secondary emotions and without telling yourself stories about what's happening. It's called meditation practice because it's practice for real life; when stressful situations come along, you're better equipped to bear the experience with equanimity.

Further good news: You don't have to meditate to be mindful--all you have to do is pay attention and differentiate between the fact of what's happening (e.g., my computer deleted my files; a guy stepped on my foot) and the stories we tend to tell ourselves about what's happening  (e.g., my entire life's work has been deleted; that guy has no respect).


  1. Yeeeep you weren't lost LaSalle with no food or money!

  2. Just the ability to recognize that our capacity to bear stressful experience is low at that moment, is a feat. I know I often get frustrated by my (momentary) inability to bear the stress - "this shouldn't be so hard", etc.