Sunday, December 4, 2011

What is the inner game of stress?

I am reluctant to write about personal development issues on this blog. The most important reason is that I don’t have much professional knowledge relevant to the subject. That should not prevent me from writing about my personal experience, but the blog isn’t really meant to be about me.

Actually, that line of argument might be a bit suspect because a fair amount of what I write about reflects my personal perceptions. The real reason I am reluctant to write much about my personal experience in dealing with stress is that readers might think that I am claiming to be a top performer in that respect. I don’t like the idea of having to explain, for example, why I still don’t perform very well when I am trying to think on my feet.

Perhaps the problem is that when I have been trying to think on my feet my mind has been occupied in thinking about what observers may be thinking of me, rather than in accessing the emotions that the question should be evoking as I compose a response. Anyhow, whatever I say or write other people have to make up their own minds about me. I don’t control other people’s thought processes.

9781400067916There now, I have written myself into a state where I am sufficiently stress-free to write about ‘The Inner Game of Stress’, by Timothy Gallwey (with Edward Hanzelik and John Horton). This is the latest of a series of inner game books by Tim Gallwey. He has previously written books about the inner game involved in several sports, including tennis and golf, and the inner game of work - based on his experience as a coach and trainer. Hanzelik and Horton are medical practitioners who conduct stress seminars drawing on their understanding of the inner game as well as on their medical knowledge.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Gallwey’s books are to a large extent about avoiding the adverse effects of stress on our ability to function. This book is as much a pleasure to read as Tim Gallwey’s other inner game books. Gallwey is an expert in getting his message across by telling interesting stories based on his own personal experience. I have read all but one of his books. I wrote an article a few years ago describing how the books had helped me in dealing with a stress-related problem.

The main point in this book is that stress involves an inner game as well as external stressors. The inner game arises largely from trying to live with illusions about our own identities. It is as though an internal ‘Stress Maker’ has stolen our identities and substituted an illusion in order to create fear, doubt and confusion. The illusions woven by the ‘Stress Maker’ originate from the concepts, perceptions and expectations of other people.

The great strength of the inner game approach, it seems to me, is that it avoids the extravagant claim that we can be whatever we imagine that we want to be. It encourages the belief that each of us has a real identity (perhaps I could call it a ‘natural self’) that we, as individuals, are ultimately responsible for developing. Other people may see our identities as illusions that we have created in our own minds, but we should know better. We know intuitively how to be who and what we are when we by-pass the illusions that seem to be pressuring us, and recognize that we own our own lives. We also recognize our inner resources and the opportunities for learning and enjoyment that are available in association with pursuit of our performance goals. We can learn to trust ourselves to function more successfully.

The book provides practical guidance on how to break the momentum of stress – how to stop and become aware of what you are trying to control and what you can control. It discusses the potential we have to liberate ourselves from illusions by re-assessing the meaning of experiences.

From what I have written, some readers might be concerned that the book might encourage people to become too self-centred – to question the social norms that were instilled in them during childhood and to pursue their own interests at the expense of other people. I think such concerns are misplaced. People don't question norms that they have internalized - adherence to such norms is a matter of self-respect rather than fear. The book recognizes that it is important for individuals to have deep relationships with others. One of the exercises in the book involves seeing problems in a relationship from the perspective of the other person – to understand what they may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

My only reservation about the book is that much of the advice presented in it is based on case studies and has not, as far as I know, been subjected to rigorous scientific testing. Many of the recommendations should, perhaps, be thought of as having the status of hypotheses that have yet to be tested. Readers who try the exercises suggested in the book should be aware that they are conducting little experiments. I don’t think that is a significant problem. One of the themes of the book is to encourage readers to become more aware of what they are doing at present and of the effects of doing things differently.

It is possible that this book, and Tim Gallwey’s other inner game books, may benefit some people more than others. On the basis of my own experience, all I can say is that the ideas in Tim Gallwey’s books have served me well.

Anyone interested in learning more about the effects of stress on the body should click here to see a useful interactive chart.


Theresa H Hall said...

I liked it when you said this:

"Anyhow, whatever I say or write other people have to make up their own minds about me. I don’t control other people’s thought processes."

Too many times I find I wonder or am overly concerned about another's perception of me. I shall recall this in order to put this concern into perspective. Thanks!

Winton Bates said...

Hi Theresa
I have even heard some people say that what other people are thinking of you is none of your business.