When we’re feeling upset, there are usually two things at play. 

First, there’s the problem at hand. The irritant. The nuisance. The immediate instigator of our distress.

Second, there’s an underlying expectation or assumption – often an invisible one – that makes the situation more painful that it must be.

In times of stress, it’s hard to ignore the immediate stressor. It’s hard to not be annoyed by the thing that terribly annoys us, to not be frustrated by the Very Frustrating Thing.

But if we can identify the assumption that’s intensifying our frustration, we can question that assumption and maybe surrender it. If we do that, the frustration remains but it doesn’t grow; it starts to shrink.

The intensifying assumption is going to be “bigger” than the problem itself, and quite likely we’re going to find that we’re attached to it. But paradoxically, we might have better luck in relinquishing this big assumption than we’d have in trying to accept or take a more positive view of the immediate, smaller thing that’s causing stress.

Here are three examples from my own life.


The immediate annoyance was that I got into an argument with someone I love. The intensifying assumption was that we shouldn’t ever fight. We should have smooth interactions and always understand each other and quickly find common ground 100% of the time. If that doesn’t happen, something must be “wrong” with our relationship. In this case, the idea that something was gravely “wrong” made the argument all the more painful. A calming thought was that actually, disagreements happen in every relationship and even when you try to resolve them it’s not guaranteed to go smoothly all the time. It can be true that a couple has an argument, fails to resolve it quickly, and still, nothing’s really wrong.


The immediate annoyance was that I made a mistake while playing banjo. The intensifying assumption was that “Practice makes perfect.” I had practiced a whole lot. So I should have been playing perfectly by now. I shouldn’t have made that mistake! I didn’t get what I had been promised for all my practice. A feeling of unfairness and misfortune made the mistake all the more difficult to bear. A calming thought was that actually, practice can’t guarantee absolute freedom from error. Mistakes are natural and they don’t indicate that anything’s “wrong.” My practice got me to play well enough that the mistake stood out, which means my practice worked!


The immediate annoyance was that I opened the kitchen cupboard and it was so cluttered that I couldn’t find anything in there. The intensifying assumption was that the clutter shouldn’t have been there. I had decluttered that cabinet four years ago. That effort was supposed to be the beginning of a new, clutter-free life. The clutter wasn’t supposed to return. A sense that the clutter had defied me and “snuck back in” made it all the more infuriating. A calming thought was that actually, clutter is like that. It’s normal that decluttering would need to be repeated from time to time, because the forces that create clutter aren’t magically destroyed by any one instance of decluttering.


If we look at these intensifying assumptions, we see that they’re reasonable things to hope for, but unreasonable things to expect as guarantees. It’s reasonable to hope that we’d get along with our loved ones all the time. It’s reasonable to hope that practice would make perfect. It’s reasonable to hope that an investment in decluttering would have a durable effect. But it’s unreasonable to consider these things as rights or assurances. And the consequence of considering them as rights or assurances is a sense of being cheated when they don’t hold true.

In moments of upset, it can be very difficult to stop feeling bad about the immediate cause. Our perception of that cause is fixed. But there’s flexibility in the assumptions that create the context for that thing to be so distressing to us.

We can find calm by asking “What am I clinging to? What is the assumption that makes this situation hurt so much?” Questioning that assumption is a way to change the direction of our pain from “getting worse” to “getting better.” ■

Comments ༄