Imagine yourself between protection points on a challenging climb. You’re at your limit, pumped, and doubts begin to swirl in your mind. You may begin to perceive that you’re in a threatening situation, a kind of existential threat. Your survival instincts of fight or flight kick in, to fight through the threat or flee from it. What do you do?

Difficult climbing situations like this challenge us to our core and reveal how we deal with stress both on and off the rock. Climbing helps us become aware of our stress-coping mechanisms; mental training for climbing helps identify and replace limiting mechanisms with more helpful stress-coping mechanisms.

We tend to react to threatening situations as if we only have an “either/or” choice.

We think we have to choose a stress-coping mechanism between either fighting through the stress or fleeing from it. This manifests in climbing as either rushing to the next protection stance or escaping back (i.e. downclimb) to the last one. We process stress by rushing to the future or escaping to the past, which is not really processing it at all.

“Either/or” thinking is a reflection of a dualistic mind, which views reality selectively:

  • “I want positive thinking, but not negative thinking.”
  • “I want to succeed, but not to fail.”
  • “I want the good in life, but not the bad.”

Stress is necessary for learning and improving. It exists within the negative, in failure, and in the so-called “bad” aspects of life. Selecting only the positive, successful, and good experiences limits engagement in life and our ability to live it.

Life includes everything: the positive and negative, the success and failure, the good and bad. A unitary mind is one that thinks in ways that are aligned with life. It’s designed to see all of reality, to embrace all of what makes up life, accept it, and work with it.

We access the unitary mind through “both/and” thinking:

  • We perceive both positive and negative so we can see reality in its most complete form.
  • We accept both success and failure as necessary for our learning.
  • We work with both good and bad aspects of life so we can be present, do the work, and enjoy our learning journeys.

Unitary mind and “both/and” thinking build a better and more resilient core foundation for our stress-coping mechanism.

How to build a unitary (“both/and”) mind with tough love

Fight and flight are natural reactions to stress and we can work with them. However, instead of either fighting or fleeing, we both fight and flee.

Fighting is a movement forward; fleeing is a movement backward. We don’t move when we combine them; we stay in the current stress. Doing this gives us time to be aware of our internal state and stress-coping strategies.

Pausing—delaying the urge to fight or flee—allows us to stay in stress and perceive with more clarity. Notice the tendency to seek comfort either in the future or the past, and shift to seeking comfort in the present moment. Pausing and staying shifts from fight or flight to vulnerability, which helps us remain open to learning and improving.

Effective work can now be done because we’re vulnerable and open enough to perceive what’s occurring inside us. We’re naturally driven to move toward comfort; there’s nothing wrong with being motivated this way. Rather, it’s a matter of when we seek comfort: in future and past, or in the present. Pausing, staying, and “both/and” thinking help us find comfort in the present moment.

A tangible tool to apply “both/and” thinking is by practicing tough love. We are both tough and loving with ourselves. We stay in stress and are honest with ourselves about our weaknesses and limitations. That’s tough. And, we love whatever is revealed by being compassionate with ourselves when we make mistakes, don’t progress as quickly as we’d like, and when our efforts fall short of our expectations.

Here is a sequence to use when at the edge of the comfort zones (at the limit, pumped, and doubting)

  1. Notice the tendency to either rush through the stress or flee from it.
  2. Then, pause and stay in the stress without using “either/or” thinking.
  3. Use unitary mind to shift to “both/and” thinking by being tough and loving with ourself and others.

We’re no longer pursuing only a select reality of positive, successful, and good experiences. We know life is tough. Yet, we can be both tough with ourselves about life and loving with ourselves as we navigate our difficult life journeys. It simply boils down to when we seek comfort. Instead of seeking it in the future or past, seek it in the present so we can engage in the full reality of what life is.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Danielle

    I really liked this one. I failed on a project this weekend and was wondering how to mentally process being proud of the effort but still disappointed by the failure. The tough love section sheds a little light.

    1. Arno

      Nice Danielle, I guess the “tough” part is about clarity, being honest and direct with what happened, without sugar-coating it. The “love” part, of course, has to do with compassion, being kind with ourselves. Studies on what increases willpower show that self compassion helps willpower, whereas self criticism hurt it. Keep being tough and loving with yourself.

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