Living Life Between Chaos and Rigidity

Alas, life doesn’t always go as planned even when well planned. No matter our station or age, life has a tendency to serve up experiences that can throw us into chaos or rigidity.  It was 6:28 pm on another Wednesday and I could feel my anxiety rising.  My wife and I had just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to direct our scattered 7-year old daughter out the door, with about the same success as trying to direct a cat.  Just as we were about to leave, she bolted back into the house to search for her favorite stuffed animal to bring in the car with her.  It was obvious we would be late for the 6:30 pm soccer practice – again.  These are the moments as a parent, where if you are even a little bit tired, hungry or in any other way depleted, you are very susceptible to having a “daddy-fit” – steaming, stomping and storming.  And over what?  A stuffed animal?  Missing a few minutes of soccer practice? 

For the non-parents reading this, or the better parents reading this, it may be hard to imagine how something as simple as getting a 7-year old to soccer practice on time is routinely beyond our ability.  That is a topic for a different post on another day.  Let me just say it is maddeningly harder than many other projects are to manage.  The point of this post is not so much how to manage my daughter, but how we manage ourselves in these moments.  Because these moments are not unlike many other moments in life where our experience is significantly different than our expectations. 

Why We Lose It

 Dr. Daniel Siegel has a great model for a healthy mind. In his model, a healthy mind is an integrated mind, where all the components are able to function optimally and are interconnected with each other. We move to an unhealthy state (i.e. we are more prone to lose it) when our mind isn’t integrated.  Siegel sees integration as the place of well-being between two extremes: chaos and rigidity.  He suggests we imagine we are floating down a river in a canoe.  One bank represents chaos – where we feel we are out of control and caught up in the rapids and turmoil of life.  This side of the river is filled with instability, anxiety and even fear.  

The other bank represents rigidity – where we are imposing control on everything and everyone around us.  We are unwilling to be flexible or adaptive to anything.  This side of the river is filled with stagnation. 

I like Dr. Siegel’s model of finding balance between rigidity and chaos and believe it can be extended from a model of a healthy mind to a useful model on how we navigate our lives.  Let's look a little closer at the experiences of chaos and rigidity.

My personal experience is that the language of the chaos side might include statements like “I can’t”, “I don’t know how”, “I don’t know what to do” or “Why is this happening…to me?”  The mental/emotional state on the chaos side feels frenetic, frenzied, frustrated and fearful.   And within the chaos there is a cry for structure and stability.  Unfortunately, clear thinking and decision making on this bank can be difficult to impossible.

My experience with the language of the rigid side might include statements like “I have to”, “I should...”, “I won’t” or “I don’t”.  The mental/emotional state on this side may feel like frustration or anger, but can also feel like fear and frenzy, as you battle for control.  Within the rigidity is a cry for openness and acceptance.  As such, decision making on this side is limited to what you know, what you believe is best or what worked last time. 

So one extreme is chaos, where there is a lack of control and structure, and the other extreme is rigidity, where there is too much control and a lack of openness.   Either bank leads to strong negative emotions and difficult or inflexible decision making.

In this analogy, our goal is the middle of the river.  When we are in the middle, where the water is flowing freely, there is purposeful movement and ease.  Where life is not so rigid that there isn’t room for new ideas or even playfulness, and yet it isn’t so chaotic, unanchored and unstructured that emotions are high and direction is lost.  Not tumultuous rapids.  Not stagnation.  The language in the middle of the river might include “I trust”, “I know where I’m headed so we can figure this out”, “what’s possible given this challenge?”, or “what can we learn here?” There is a shift in the language from “me” to “we” as survival and ego shift to valuing relationships.  The mental/emotional state in the middle of the river is one of calm, curious, connected and concentrated.  Decision making is guided by principles or values in a state of openness and acceptance.

Can you feel the difference between the two sides of the river and the middle?  Your emotions are your best dashboard – giving you a very clear signal whether you are drifting too close to either bank or flowing nicely down the middle.  Our greatest joy, creativity and productivity lies in the flow.  Our goal is a stable, yet flexible and adaptive mind and a mental/emotional state which is calm, curious and connected. 

How to Move out of Chaos and Rigidity and into the Flow 

My own take on this is that there are simple things we can do to move ourselves out of the turbulence of chaos or stagnation of rigidity and back into the smooth flow of the river.  

1.     Adding Structure to Chaos

 If we are feeling the instability of too much chaos in our lives, we need to add structure.   At the mental/emotional level, structure looks like those things that give us direction; things like having clarity of purpose and a clear vision of where we going.  It includes living in accordance with our values.  Many high profile people live what might appear to be a life of chaos.  But they often carry a calm despite the fast pace and long hours.  How do they do it?  They know why they do what they do – and it is often to serve something greater than their own desires.  They are clear on where they are trying to get to and the path they need to follow.  And lastly, they are clear on who they want to be along the path – their values and guiding principles. 

 So what can you do?  To start with, take the time to get clear on your personal purpose, your vision and values.  Maybe you did this in the past and haven’t looked at it for awhile.  If so, bringing fresh clarity and vitality to these attributes is very helpful.  This type of inner work may feel like it can wait for another day, yet once completed, it can bring greater clarity and ease to every aspect of your life.  Do the work yourself or better yet, work with a coach you trust to move past your own road blocks.   Once you have clarity here, connect back to it every day and it will become your GPS through the chaos.

Adding structure to the chaos can also be as simple as setting realistic expectations and better planning.  The chaos in getting my daughter to soccer practice could have been greatly dampened by having a more realistic expectation about how long it will take and planning accordingly. 

2.     Add Openness and Acceptance to Rigidity

If we are feeling too much rigidity in our lives, we need to add openness, acceptance and non-judgment.  While we may feel confident in our knowledge and beliefs, curiosity and openness opens the door to new possibilities and improved problem-solving.   When you experience conflict, this is a chance to get curious about the other person’s perspective and alternative options to what you already know, rather than digging in deeper for the battle.   Openness and acceptance allow us to let go of the need to control everything and be more trusting. Non-judgment means not labelling everything and everyone immediately as good or bad.

So how do you develop more openness and acceptance?   One way is by developing your own mindfulness practice.  While it may appear disarmingly simple on the surface, mindfulness is surprisingly effective at calming the nervous system and creating space for greater openness, acceptance and non-judgment.   Establishing daily habits such as a simple breath practice or making a conscious effort to be present to what is happening in a given moment allows your mind to see options you would otherwise miss in the heat of the moment.  With regular practice, there is an actual rewiring of your brain, allowing you access to stable yet flexible mental/emotional states throughout your day, often when you need them most.  This is why conflict resolution negotiators and the US Army incorporate these practices into their training – they need this level of mental/emotional stability to perform under pressure.

Summing Up

The take away here is that we can move our mental/emotional state from a place of frenzy, frustration, fear and anger to one of calm, curious, connected and concentrated.  We can do this by adding:

  1. clarifying and directional structures like purpose, vision and values, or by adding simple organizational structures like better planning, and 
  2. mental/emotional flexibility and adaptability through openness, acceptance and non-judgment.

As we do, we are moving out of chaos and rigidity to stability, flexibility and adaptability.  We are moving back to the middle of the river, into the flow of purposeful movement.

In the End - They Are Our Teachers

Going back to my story about my daughter, I was initially caught up in the chaos of our frantic race out the door, taking it on as my own mental/emotional state.  My response to the chaos was a reactive one, moving to rigidity and control which came out as anger and frustration (“we don’t have time for a stuffie, we need to leave now!”).  But because I’ve worked to get clear on my vision of who I want to be as a parent (“I’m a teacher not a policeman”) I was able to steer myself out of chaos.  My mindfulness practice allowed me to move toward far greater openness and acceptance, which allowed me to find my way out of rigidity and back to the middle of the river.  In hindsight, if we had also added some more structure to our day, in the way of realistic expectations and better planning, this would have helped greatly by reducing the potential for chaos in the first place.  Alas, life doesn’t always go as planned - even when well planned. 

On my worst days as a parent, my children seem to draw me deeper into either bank. On my best days as a parent, I can catch my chaotic or rigid reaction as it boils up, access the stability and flexibility of a resilient mind and make amazing choices, beautiful choices that sometimes surprise me.   It is the difference between singing songs with my daughter in the car all the way to soccer practice with joy or an angry, chaos-fueled lecture on the virtues of being rigidly organized and on-time!

Whether you have young kids or not, I’m confident there are other people in your life who present very similar issues; teenagers who don’t listen, in-laws whose opinions shock you, aging parents who confound you or co-workers who you feel are conspiring against you.  No matter our station or age, life has a tendency to serve up experiences that can throw us into chaos or rigidity.  The wisdom in this is that at the end of the day, all of these people in our lives who confound us are our teachers, pointing us toward growth and happiness.  To get there we need a stable, yet flexible mind; and a calm, curious and connected mental/emotional state.   Only then are we flowing in life again.  Imagine that!?