Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 46;   November 16, 2005: In the Groove

In the Groove

by

Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.

When a ship enters the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, there's risk to both ship and lock. A few feet to port or starboard can make the difference between a safe passage and a dangerous collision with one of the lock walls. That's why the locks have guide walls, or fenders, that jut out from the lock entrance at about a 45-degree angle, roughly in the shape of a V.

The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide walls

The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide walls. Photo courtesy Beauchamp Tower Corporation

These walls guide errant ships toward the lock, making sure that the ship is "in the groove." Scott Acone of the US Army Corps of Engineers explains that the structure "…ensures that the ships make it into the passage without a direct hit on the lock itself. They ensure a more glancing blow, which doesn't damage either the ship or the lock."

Our minds have "guide walls" too. When we've used a particular behavior frequently, we develop "grooves" that make it easy to find that behavior again without thinking. But there's a price — when we aren't thinking clearly, the only choices we can make are those that require no thinking. And the patterns we're most likely to find are those with the most effective guide walls.

Under stress,
we sometimes behave
like children. Why?
Under stress, we tend to use behaviors that we learned long ago and that we've used a lot. And those behaviors tend not to be the ones we learned more recently, as mature, thinking adults. Instead, we find more easily the behaviors that we learned long ago, as children, when our choices were more limited. That's one reason why, under stress, we sometimes do behave like children.

Where do your guide walls take you? We're all unique. Some popular destinations are anger, helplessness, abusing others, wackiness, retreat, hero worship, medication, stuckness, and complexity. You probably know yours — maybe too well.

Here are some tips that can help you find the choices you'd like to make instead.

Learn to notice stress
Canal locks have much more protection than just guide walls. There are lights and buoys and other warnings that alert pilots to the approaches.
Knowing that you're stressed is the first step to better choices. Learn what your own stress symptoms are, and practice noticing them.
Slow down
Canal pilots ease their ships into the locks very carefully. They need time to make course corrections.
If you notice that you're stressed, slow down. Breathe. Give yourself time to make better choices.
Accept the need for practice
The guide walls at the Gatun Locks are massive, and took time and tremendous effort to build.
Our guide walls aren't physical walls, but building them takes time, too. We build them by choosing consciously, and by observing our own progress.

Changing — building new guide walls — takes practice. That's why every stressful situation is a gift. It really is your only chance to practice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Training Bounceback  Next Issue

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