One of my favourite things to tell my clients is that there are two kinds of stress: avoidable and unavoidable. Unavoidable stress is caused by things like weather, delays, other people’s behaviour, and physical pain or discomfort. Avoidable stress is generated when we make every small thing into a big deal. Examples:
Last week, one of my friends became exasperated and lost her temper when her son asked for the 100th time whether or not Santa would be bringing him a tablet computer. Another friend was offended because he and his wife usually bring their famous chocolate torte to the family Christmas dinner, but dessert was assigned to someone else this year. One of my clients was irritated that his girlfriend wasn’t invited to his work holiday party, and I personally was fuming when I noticed that I have to pay an extra fee for checked baggage on my holiday flight.
I asked my friends, my clients, and myself the same animosity-deflating, stress-reducing question: On a scale of 0 to 10, how important is this?
Each of them, including me, laughed and rated the importance of the offensive situation as less than 5/10.
This question helps in two ways. First, the exercise of generating an objective importance rating helps you step outside the whirlpool of indignant and resentful thoughts, notice that you’re creating avoidable stress, and reconnect with your sense of humour. Second, the actual rating–which is often pretty low–puts the offensive situation into perspective. Assigning the lack of invitation for his girlfriend a 3/10 helped my client realize that his relationship could withstand one night apart; giving the dessert assignment a 2/10 allowed my friend to refocus on the pleasure of sharing a holiday meal with family. My friend noticed that getting up in arms about her son’s pestering was more stressful than letting it go, and I noticed that I started looking forward to travelling once I assigned the baggage fee an importance rating of 1/10.
This year, when you burn the Christmas cookies, when your brand-new string of Christmas tree lights doesn’t work, when your flight is delayed by an hour, when the mulled wine is too sweet, when you receive an iPhone 5s rather than an iPhone 5c, when a baby cries during midnight Mass, ask yourself how important it is on a scale from 0-10.
This holiday season, I’m going to try to let go of anything below 6/10. What’s your threshold going to be?