Can you live with tension and still have a good life?


I don’t know about you, but I really don’t enjoy feeling tense. Even the thought of being tense can be enough to make me feel tense. I feel it in the way my shoulders and neck tense, my jaw tightens, my eyes and head feel tight – and how I react, becoming even more impatient than normal, jumping to conclusions, giving up, feeling deflated, and snappy. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Tense times are not necessarily pleasant.

I know I’m not alone – there is so much shared about removing stress and tension from our lives. Often we try to avoid it. We go with the flow, even if it’s contrary to our values. We give in to our kids, because it’s easier than having the same argument time after time. We tune out from news or issues that are upsetting or contrary to what we believe because we just want a simple life.

And it sort of makes sense. After struggling with competing agendas for a while, and getting myself worked up, I thought maybe I should be a little more relaxed myself. Maybe caring was too hard and it was time to focus a lot more on myself. It seemed like an option, anyway.

So I was a little confronted when I read a comment Brené Brown made lately about learning to live with tension. It related to how there is a lot of badness in the world (in her case, she was referring to the separation of parents and children trying to enter the USA), but yet … there is a lot of good, especially in the ordinary, which we are called to appreciate (she had in front of her a bowl filled with delicious cherries). Somehow we need to learn to live with the tension between the two.


So tuning out isn’t the answer then? But – surely – remaining uptight and on edge can’t be the answer either? (Channelling Oprah, about this, I know this to be true).

I realised that there are different sorts of tensions, and we need to take a different approach to each:

There are the tensions we bring on ourselves.

When we don’t want to let go of an issue, or when we become too confused between our self worth and our efforts (no, they are not the same), or, even, when we chose not to make the changes in our lives that we know will help us feel healthier and stronger (exercise, yes, I’m looking at you).

And there are the more everyday tensions:

  • The tension between wanting your kids to forge their own path, and wanting to protect them.
  • The sense of achievement in making a decision and putting in the hard yards, and the desire to have someone step in to help you.
  • The need for space and time alone, and the need to connect
  • The desire to hold on to the current moment, and the anticipation of what lies ahead.
  • Or – the wish for this stage to be over (please, some sleep!) and the knowledge that you will look back at this time with a sort of nostalgia. So don’t wish the days away.

What I am slowly realising will be no revelation to many of you but for those of us who grapple and struggle and don’t let go – guess what?

We need to make the tough decisions. They’re not always easy. Sometimes the timing isn’t right and we have to be prepared to let them slide for a while, sometimes we need to just decide. Only we can know what is best to do. But we have control over these – we are not helpless, even if, at times we feel we are. So act.

We don’t have to live with tension. We really don’t. We need to decide, is this something that needs me to make a stand, or is this something I should let slide. And if we need to take a stand, well, do so. With compassion, and recognition of timing, and so on, but act. On the other hand, if it’s not that important, let it go. This might take some internal mind wrangling to get there, but maybe it might not be an issue that is worth the angst. Only you will know the right solution, but generally avoidance isn’t one of them.

None of this is easy. You might be out of practice (or never very skilled in the first place). So – like any exercise, it seems to me we have to take it slow, build up our resilience, and rest. And, while resting, let it go, before you are ready to pick it up again. But deal with it and move on. But these matters can be resolved, one way or the other.

This is easier said than done, I know. It doesn’t come naturally to me – as a worrier And – for the worriers amongst us, it might seem like we are taking the avoidance track but no. We are just taking the effective path. And that’s what we need to do.

There are tensions created external to ourselves

There are the sort of tensions Brené was referring to.

She was talking about how to live and contribute to redressing major ‘out there’ events – impacts of natural disasters; injustices as a result of race, gender, birth circumstances, or the like; implications of the powerful on the vulnerable and so on – and how much we commit to making an impact compared with living the rest of our lives. How do you juggle the good in life with the bad?

I know I’ve been feeling a particular despair about not only the way we treat asylum seekers in the country, but also the plight of so many homeless and marginal Australians – the problems are becoming more visible and who do you help first?

I also worry about others closer to home – how they are tracking, health issues, personal issues, and so on. How much to turn over, and give, vs how much to live and celebrate. Life is meant to be both enjoyed and also shared. Too much worry can turn life into a real slog – I don’t know if that’s the ideal, but nor is being closed off from the needs of others (or ourselves, if we are personally dealing with struggles).

How DO you hold competing desires, competing points of focus, competing emotions at play at the same time?


Holding competing ideas – the right amount of tension

Maybe the challenge is in the holding. And balancing. Maybe it’s not possible to do this in a way where we remain perfectly balanced. Otherwise, we might create our own burdens, as we try and maintain an equilibrium.

Maybe, instead of balance, we need to learn how to tilt at different times. Not too far one way, which would lead to despair, or too far the other, which is the way of  denial. Maybe it will always be a little wobbly, but that’s ok. Neither extreme is right – but yet somewhere in the middle is a tension that we have to learn to live with. Because, maybe, that tension – between hope and frustration, between positive and negative – maybe that’s what life is about.

And – somehow within this – to learn not to hold on too tightly, because tightness is the source of tension. Trust, instead, is a gentler, less exhausting approach. You can tilt and adjust if you are not so wound up, and trust the process.


I’m not sure this is the way. I’m not even sure that it makes sense (does it?)

But, somehow, to me, it seems to fit and be the only way forward.

How do you manage the tension of life?
I’d love to know your thoughts as I try and sift into a place where the competing ideas make sense



9 thoughts on “Can you live with tension and still have a good life?

  1. Oh Helen, well-said and I was & still can be a LOT like this. Getting cancer and dealing with it has actually taken all those lesser but really annoying worries away. Lucky for me my constant searching and learning more about what made me tick & all of the humans of course took me to all of Brenes work, the work of Pena Chodron, and Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Rick Hanson. the accumulated knowledge along with being married to a very calm bloke who is a trained counsellor saw me being 100% able to focus on what I COULD control and what I couldn’t . I remain, over a year since my diagnosis & surgeries a work-in-progress but I do know I have taken on board being more mindful and letting go of trying to control the lives of those I love. It is actually very Freeing! The latest person making great sense for me is Susan David – Emotional Agility. Watched her TEd talk and have listened to her book twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Denyse! I’ve been noticing your progress through the horrible experience that is cancer – you have been remarkable in your positivity (and so great to see that there is progress, too). Perspective is very important, isn’t it? I’ll definitely look up this TED talk.


  2. I can see Brene’s point, but living in the US at the moment, the tension is just relentless and overwhelming. Every day it’s something new and scary to deal with and think about. I feel like my first defense mechanism is to tune things out a little. #LifeThisWeek


    1. I think that was the response from at least one person (and – if permission was needed – Brené agreed that it was a perfectly reasonable, and in many cases, necessary approach). We all need to, from time to time (and yes, it does seem full on there x


  3. These are such good questions. I remember having tension some years back about work that just totally bled into the rest of my life and I was terrible at trying to manage it. I felt like it coloured my every reaction, even unrelated ones. The only way I can deal is to pull back totally and try to see everything with long-term and wide-angle vision, picking things that I could cope with and change, and trying very hard to let go of the rest. Tension and stress sucks the big one.


    1. Oops, big gap in blogging, clearly! That’s a great tip, Stacey (and sorry to hear you were going through that period of time).


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