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In-Tension-al Living

I’ve been drawn to the word “Intentional” lately. For me, it is an empowering word that evokes a sense of consciousness, awareness, acceptance, choice, and decision. I have witnessed coaching clients adopt the term in their lives and I’ve seen how it transforms the way they show up in the world. By itself, it’s an amazing word.

But what I love even more about the word is the combination of the words that it sounds like. If you just hear the word “intention” you might think you heard “in tension.” And for me, the idea of In-Tension-al living, or living within the tension, captures my attention and imagination. It calls to me.

I am not the first person to write about In-Tension-al living. In fact, I first came across the idea around 2018, as I was studying about faith, doubt, faith crises, binary thinking and both/and thinking. I read an article by Mark Trendall called “In-tension-al faith: an introduction to both/and thinking." I loved the way he writes about the tension between faith and doubt. And I have been thinking, writing, and talking about a both/and philosophy ever since I read that article.

Growth vs. panic

Some people hear the word “tension” and think of stress and overwhelm. Tension can carry a negative connotation. But what I think of most when I think of living in-tension, is not living with tension based on overwhelm, but more about the natural push and pull of ideas and emotions. I think there is a certain amount of stress or discomfort that pushes us to grow. While it is possible to have too much discomfort and to move from the growth zone into the panic zone, a certain amount of discomfort can help us improve ourselves. When I talk about In-Tension-al living, I am talking about living with the amount of tension that promotes growth, not panic.

"Just right..."

It seems to me that much of this comes down to balance and I think of living in-tension-ally in terms of finding balance. It’s about there being “enough” tension. Not too much, not too little. The Goldilocks Rule--getting the tension “just right.” Consider the tension on a guitar string--it there is too much tension, the string will ultimately break. If there is not enough tension, the string will be limp and unable to create sound. In playing the guitar or any other stringed instrument, you need the right amount of tension. Once you get that, you create an amazing sound. And when you combine the 6 strings of the guitar that are all “tuned” or under the right amount of tension, you can create music!

Like tuning a guitar, in-tension-al living is not a one-and-done thing. Have you ever noticed that a guitarist might stop in the middle of a song and retune? A guitarist will definitely check the tension in her strings every time she picks up her guitar. In the same way, in-tension-al living is something we must check and recheck throughout any given day.

Artem Bali Pexels on Unsplash

Another way of thinking about In-Tension-al living is to think about the tension found in a yoga pose. Wait. What? There’s tension in yoga? Yes. Once again, it’s not the tension that comes from a stressful life, it’s the tension of holding/balancing opposite forces. Take the Warrior pose, for example. You have the arms extending in opposite directions, one stretching forward, one backward. There is a tension, or energy movement going in each direction. Then you have the tension between your legs, being grounded toward the earth, and your head/spine stretching upward. Again, there is energy going in an oppositional direction. You are “moving” or seeking energetic movement forwards, backwards, upwards, and downwards. The tension between these creates an incredibly strong and powerful stance. That is the kind of tension I am talking about.

What might In-Tension-al living look like?

For me, this is about not running away from the discomfort. It’s stopping and noticing what is going on, then deciding how I want to act. I’ve mentioned before that I am very uncomfortable with conflict. In the past, whenever conflict, potential conflict, or even simple disagreement occurred, I’d get a sinking feeling that made me want to shrink away. I’d get a heavy feeling inside. And I’d find myself going emotionally numb. I’d get anxious and do most anything to avoid whatever conflict I thought was happening or could happen. Now, trying to live with more intention (trying to live in-tension), I go through the following:

  1. Notice what I’m feeling--huh, there’s that feeling again, I’m getting anxious because I’m sensing some disagreement/conflict.

  2. Think about my habitual response--okay, I want to avoid this, I want to shrink away, I want to go silent or leave the situation.

  3. Get curious--is that old response helpful? Is it necessary? Is the situation all that bad? What’s the worst that could happen if we disagree?

  4. Consider other options--what else could I do? At the very least, can I just acknowledge to the other person that I’m feeling anxious? Can I hold space for this anxiety? What would a different choice look like?

  5. Decide how I want to show up--do I have it in me to be brave and talk through this? Am I willing to try something new

It’s important to note that I don’t always choose to act differently. Sometimes I’m too overwhelmed, or tired, or scared, to change my behavior. But in those times, I give myself the choice. I don’t have to change. And if I don’t change, I’m consciously making a choice, I’m not reacting.

What happens for me, when I am living in the tension, is that I am increasing my awareness of how I’m feeling and giving it space to be there. I am saying “yes” to the anxious feeling and in doing so I am creating space for other possibilities as well. By acknowledging and accepting how I’m feeling, I decrease my reactionary behavior. As I get interested and curious about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking about my feelings, I decrease judgment, which creates more options.

Intersection between paradox and acceptance

Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Living in-tension is the intersection between paradox and acceptance. It’s having a both/and philosophy or approach to life. Being able to hold space for paradox in my life creates a tension--often about myself, my identity, my ability, and my interaction with other people. And that tension creates something beautiful. Just like the tension in the guitar strings allows for the creation of music, or the oppositional tension in the body creates a beautiful yoga pose, so tension in my life creates a rich, dynamic existence.

Weather, fluctuations, and patterns

This kind of tension can play out on several levels. It’s kind of like zooming in and out from different perspectives and levels of interactions. To illustrate this, I want to look at weather. In temperate regions, temperature changes throughout the night and day, often staying within a certain range. Where I live, in the Spring, the daily temperature fluctuates between 35-65°F (1.6-18.3°C). There can be days of sunshine, wind, rain. Some weeks run colder and stormier, some are more pleasant and sunny. This can last for several months until we hit Summer, where temperatures skyrocket, often getting over 100°F (37.8°C). By Fall we are back to cooler temperatures and by Winter it gets quite cold, with some weeks never getting over 20°F (-6.6°C). As you can see, there are daily and weekly fluctuations, which give us monthly and seasonal patterns.

NOAA on Unsplash

How does this relate to In-Tension-al living? The tension I need to check, or hold, occurs over different temporal ranges as well. For example, I can go several days to weeks feeling very calm, very Zen, and then move into a more anxious, even discouraged space for the next week. In this case, I am dealing with the tension over several weeks. But also, there are times when I need to hold the tension momentarily--I feel the anxiety increase and then need to hold the tension of that anxiety for a few minutes, until it passes, and I can move on. It’s kind of like how the weather changes throughout any given day, but also how weather has patterns that can last weeks, months, and eventually move into seasonal patterns. I am learning to live In-Tension-ally both moment to moment, week to week, and even month to month. I work on being aware of what is happening with my thoughts and emotions over multiple time scales, recognizing patterns that affect my behavior, and working on creating a tension that creates space for growth and creativity while avoiding tension that sends me into the panic zone.

Creating space for Paradox

I think what is going on is that In-Tension-al living is about holding the energy of opposites--paradox, just as in a yoga pose you are using your body to create space for oppositional energies. In-Tension-al living is about living a “both/and” philosophy. I am both insightful and myopic. I am both wise and foolish. I am both self-aware and self-absorbed. My ability to hold these truths about myself at the same time creates a tension about myself, my identity. It shows me where I need to grow, where I’m doing well, what my strengths and weaknesses are, while at the same time allowing me to stand in my own truth, powerfully, like when I hold the Warrior II pose. It’s holding that power within myself that causes me to feel empowered when I practice In-Tension-al living.

Eduardo Barrios on Unsplash

This tension can also play out in how we feel about different life events and in our relationships. You might have an aging parent that you are caring for. On one hand, you have compassion for them and want to show kindness and love. But this can also bring up feelings of frustration or even anger. That might then trigger feelings of guilt. You might find yourself exhausted at times and wishing you didn’t have to give up so much of your free time. There might also be feelings of loss and grief, fear of the future, fear of death, and complicated questions about mortality (theirs and your own). Living In-Tension-ally asks that you make space in your heart and mind for all of these different emotions and thoughts. It pushes you to accept that they can all be true, and none of them qualifies you as a “bad,” “heroic,” “selfish,” or “selfless” son or daughter. It means you are human. And you can have a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. But accepting and allowing them also doesn’t mean that you act on all of them. As you are more aware of what’s going on, you can choose how you act. It might look like reaching out for help now and then, or holding back a comment that might be hurtful when you’re feeling particularly stressed, or apologizing for the time you snapped at them. It also means you work at providing space and understanding for the wide variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of your ailing parent. Living In-Tension-ally allows you to be intentional in your words and actions.

One of the cool things about In-Tension-al living (and paradoxically, the frustrating thing about it) is that it’s never done. You never “arrive.” It is all about process. Like playing the guitar, it’s all about continually playing it and taking time to tune ad retune it. Even learning to accept this idea has required me to readjust some of my ideas about “successful” living and challenges my concepts of achievement. That readjustment is all part living with the tension. And, like playing the guitar or practicing yoga, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. And, again, like playing the guitar or doing yoga, some days you’re better at it than others. That’s just the nature of life. Learning to accept that is an important part of In-Tension-al living.

My experience yesterday...

Just yesterday I got to practice living In-Tension-ally. I reached out to someone and asked for some help. It was something that I really wanted and felt I needed. My request was denied. The reason for the denial makes a lot of sense. I totally understand it. AND I felt angry, hurt, and frustrated. I don’t often make direct bids for help like this. I was already pushing myself into an area of vulnerability that is new for me. And my old story came rushing back--“see, you just have to take care of yourself, no one is there for you, no one will help you, everyone else’s needs are more important than your own, you’ll just have to deal with it and figure it out on your own…” I was floored by the intensity of these thoughts and emotions. But instead of throwing up the walls, I focused on the tension that was there. I went through the steps:

  1. Notice: huh, while intellectually I see and can even agree with the person’s response, I am also feeling a sh**load of emotions. I’m also noticing that I’m angry with this person, but I don’t like feeling angry.

  2. Habitual response: I want to put up walls, numb my emotions, shut down, distract myself from my emotions. I also want to hide my feelings from those close to me.

  3. Get curious: these old responses just reinforce my old story, they definitely aren’t the responses I am trying to grow into. That’s interesting that the very thing I’m trying to shift is triggered by this interchange.

  4. Consider other responses: What if I told the person what was going on with me, how I can understand why she won’t help me but I’m also having this emotional response? I could email her. I could wait until I see her next week. I could also share how I’m feeling in this very moment with my husband and friend (normally I wouldn’t do it, I’d just “deal with it on my own…”).

  5. Decide: I chose to do something different from my habitual response. I spent a good hour journaling about it, I messaged my friend and shared with her what was happening, I told my husband about it when he came home from work, I wrote out what I could say to the person without actually emailing her right away, and after spending time with all of those emotions, I set them aside and distracted myself with TV and a game of Wingspan.

Today, I am feeling much calmer. I gave space for the tension of yesterday and today doesn’t feel as dramatic. I honored the paradoxes that showed up --the tension between logically understanding the result and experiencing some emotions that had little to do with the “logic” of the denied request. I learned something about myself. I made different, intentional choices. And I’m not judging the experience. In the past I would have told myself I was being silly, overreacting, or shouldn't feel that way. Today there are no such words of judgment. I am talking to myself like I speak to my friends, my children, and clients--"yesterday was hard, you did a great job creating space for all of that, look at how much you’re growing! I'm proud of you."

This is what In-Tension-al living looks like.
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