Surmounting Stress with Stockdale

POW-MIA You Are Not Forgotten flag

For part two of the Memorial Day couplet of posts (see part one), I’ll take a look at the experiences of Admiral James Stockdale when he was a prisoner of war during Vietnam. In a time of obvious stress and increasing difficulty, Stockdale remained strong. He and others in his camp kept a solid support for each other throughout his 8-year imprisonment. From his experiences we can learn some key principles that will help us surmount the lesser stressors of peacetime.

Keep the Faith, but Face the Facts

While interviewing Admiral Stockdale, author Jim Collins asked him which sort of people didn’t make it through the POW camp.

“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists. … [T]hey were the ones who said ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And then Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. … And they died of a broken heart” (p. 85)*

That is not to say that Stockdale advocated pessimism in the camps. On the contrary, he never wavered in his faith that they would eventually get out of the camp. But he said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever they might be” (p. 85)

Stockdale knew he had to be realistic about his situation and face the facts, but he never let those facts convince him that the end goal—leaving the camp—was unattainable. In times of stress, sometimes we are prone to either the optimistic or pessimistic extreme as we try to cope: either we make unrealistically optimistic predictions or we lose hope that things will work out. Either option can lead to despair, which only bogs down your efforts to pull yourself out by your bootstraps. To keep yourself fit to handle your situation, follow Stockdale’s best-of-both-sides approach: Keep the faith, but face the facts.

Sometimes, Something Has to Give

While you’re out facing the facts, you may come up against some fairly brutal realities. For Stockdale, one of these realities was that no one can resist torture forever. So instead of having the unrealistic expectation that no one in the camp would ever divulge information to the enemy, he “created a stepwise system—after x minutes you can say certain things—that gave the men milestones to survive toward” (p. 84). Stockdale realistically knew that something had to give: either a man’s mind would break completely, or he had to be able to divulge something. So he selected what would be okay to say in certain situations.

In peacetime civilian life, you can create the same sort of systems. If you get too stressed out trying to meet every expectation for everything, you’ll just burn out and end up falling short on everything. Prioritize aspects of your projects. What are the things you can bear to lose, or at least not have perfect? Pick out a few and set them up as your stress-relief milestones. If you’re within three days of a major deadline and you’re not on top of your work yet, let one of your lesser priorities go. The day before, if you still aren’t going to make the cut, let another lesser priority drop. Because if you’re facing the facts, you’ll know that sometimes, something has to give.

Never Go It Alone

To keep things from giving too often, Stockdale also made sure no one in the POW camp had to be isolated. He “instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters” (p. 84). Using this code, even during times of enforced silence, all the prisoners were able to communicate with and support one another.

Sometimes people who are stressed block out others and take on their tasks in isolation. While in some instances this has merit (for example, I write much better when no one is talking to me), it shouldn’t be a knee-jerk stress reaction. Often the times when we’re overloaded are when we need others the most. Make sure you keep your lines of communication open: maybe someone can help you out, or maybe after you’ve vented about your stressful situation you’ll be able to face the facts more clearly and see what has to give. One way or another, you should never force yourself to go it alone.

*All quotations are taken from Good to Great by Jim Collins.

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