What to do When You’re Dreading Something

Note:  This was originally published on March 11, 2013


When I woke him up for the second time on Sunday morning, my beloved son had that 15 year old’s look of anxious dread, and he breathed the heavy sigh to confirm it. I stole my own deep breath and sat on the side of his bed.  So many leadership discussions are duets, as much as dialogues. You meet your boss, your spouse, your co-worker with words, but with music, too. And so, as if with the gentlest stringed instrument, I asked him “What’s up?” and he sighed — as much as he said — “Just anxious.” Hallelulah’s for self-awareness! How great when someone can label what’s going on. I probed, still softly, “anything in particular?” Another sigh and he offered, “Too much homework. Not enough time.”

Fresh from re-reading Eckhardt Tolle, I invited him to see if he could hear that voice of dread, but not identify with it. “See if you can hear the anxiety, but don’t get on the side of it, arguing against yourself. See if you can just hear it, but not have to get carried away by it.” I told him how Tolle talks about “putting a little space” in there between your thoughts and your response to them. I told him I was feeling the same pressure about a big lecture I’m giving on Thursday. Time and again, I worry about these things (I was singing his song now, but with a little different sound, a little twist, a high harmony).  I told him that I still worry, and then I pull it off — not perfectly, but well.  Just as he pulls off his homework every Sunday.  He nodded….as if he were now a different person.

Reflecting later, I was reminded of an interview where Livingston Taylor talks about his brother James’ under-appreciated guitar-playing. Livingston, a professor at Berklee School of Music, talked about how James creates rhythm, working the pauses and rests as much as the notes themselves. That in turn reminded me of how my friend John Burkhardt teared up as he played Handel’s Messiah for me, and said, “listen, listen for the pause” — the pause before the great Amen. He seemed transported by that space.

The pause.

A space between the thought –    or the sigh, the gasp –             and           the “I am.”

I think “I can’t.”  I think “This is the time it’s all going to fall apart.”  And

I put space in.

I realize, “I think this.” Or, “I feel this.” But “I AM NOT this.”

Just enough space.


I asked Jack, “Does it help you to think of putting some space in there?” And he said, “Yes.”  And added as he swiveled his feet to the floor, “And it always feels better to be doing something instead of just thinking about it.”  Pause.


Put some space somewhere today, as you

Lead with your best self!


  • I find conversations with people like John Burkhardt can also lessen any dread. Just talking with him one feels inspired, and I’ve watched him do this over and over again with graduate students and others who passed his way. I haven’t thought so much about the pause or the rest, but I’ve found in my own life approaching tasks I dread incrementally by inserting small acts of things I enjoy between the “dreaded” tasks helps me reach my goals – not trying to do some big assignment all at once, but instead in smaller strides. John, by the way, is my link to you and Read to Lead – for this I am grateful.

  • Hi Dan,
    I had a similar conversation with my younger son (19) who took off for Orlando a year ago to seek his dream of working with animals. After a year of what seems to be dead end food service work in Sea World’s Discovery Cove, he is frustrated with an overabundance of bills and an underabundance of ability to change his situation. He’s considering coming home to Michigan to live at home and go back to college. While we welcome him home, we want him to consider what’s best in the long run so have convinced him to ask for a week or two off work to come visit home while we explore the options together. I think of it as taking a pause. Right now the merry-go-round has him so wrapped up & disoriented that he can’t breathe – he’s in a panic.
    I hope we can help him find his path. Like Jack, he’s a great kid and just needs to give himself space to figure it out. (And we parents can help with that, sometimes!)
    Also, I want to suggest a book to you if you haven’t already discovered it: “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund & Benjamin Zander. It’s amazing! Look up Ben’s TED talk for a taste of what it’s about.
    Dave Ewick

    • Dave,
      Sounds like sage advice from dad!
      p.s. Love the Zander work. If you’re a music guy you might also enjoy a book called The Four and the One: In Praise of String Quartets. It’s not about leadership, but the group/leadership lessons are everywhere in it!

  • THIS is why I call myself “Active Advocate.”

    We all face challenging situations. Sometimes it’s because our dreams are bigger than our abilities or we didn’t have information we needed. Whatever the cause, we face some options. Generally, the first emotional response is to curse our sorry luck and anyone or anything we can FIX BLAME on but that, of course, DOESN’T FIX THE PROBLEM so it’s a waste of time.

    Sitting on the pity pot just gets you a ring around your back side.

    Ignoring it just makes the problem even bigger.

    We can reflect on it, journal it, turn it over in our minds, and sleep on it.

    Eventually, several options may occur to us:
    1) change our attitude, adjust, and make the most of a bad deal.
    2) leave the situation rather than allow it to suck all the energy out of us.
    3) witness to our truth, however lame and inadequate and silly it may seem, recognizing that it might only be the “tree” vision when someone else has had responsibility for the whole forest for a long time. Do so even if it seems scary or silly or a threat to our future careers in some field. Do so not out of fear, but out of loving concern for the organization, the people in it, and the people it serves. Do so in spite of the fear of consequences for witnessing to your truth.

    In other words, lead with your best self.

    It might be that top management needs a little input from the “tree” level. They may not like to hear what we have to say, may not be inclined to share their “forest view” vision with us. They may not feel it’s worth their time to talk to us. Still, they may take our perspective into account as they make high-level decisions.

    This is my hope and my reason for advocating.

    As the Christophers always taught “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be!” …and someone also said “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

    So I like to see myself as a kind of lighthouse, bringing light into dark places. It’s a lonely job. There are no conventions of lighthouses (unless this blog is it). 🙂

    When you bring a flashlight into a rubblestone Michigan basement, all the dark things – the spiders and the centipedes–scurry away. The light hurts their eyes.

    In the same way, some people who are accustomed to doing things in “dark” ways are terribly frightened when someone sheds light into their territory, bringing to light what they’ve been doing in the dark.

    Oh well! I can’t worry about their reaction. Jesus said he is the light, the way, the truth that will set us free. I always hope that my truth–if expressed courteously and humbly–will set some people free.

    So no moping around. Light a candle! Be a lighthouse! 🙂

  • Excellent insight. One of my faves, Paul Pearsall, says it’s really our thoughts about our feelings that have the larger effect, and that often those thoughts come from an entirely different place than do the feelings. Taking a breath and stepping away can help us see the difference.

    • Sam, if you haven’t gotten into Michael Brown’s The Presence Process, I suspect you’d find it enriching. He finds (and leads us to) great power in the emotions – oft-hidden beneath our elaborate and sophisticated ego-driven thoughts.

  • The music analogy helped me the most to see your point. I’m glad your thoughts went to that place as an illustration.

  • Excellent! Love Tolle! I repect you for both writing about it in your work on this site as in teaching your children…I do the same with my 12 yr old. The “I AM” is so imporatnt and a wonderful example of the pause! Thank you so much!

  • Dan,
    What a concept…wresting space between the feeling and the action/reaction! Seemingly so simple and yet so easy to miss.
    I’m going to use it this morning as I tackle those home/yard job maintenance tasks I always hate and procrastinate on.
    Thanks for the note.
    Jim Hughes

  • Great piece today Dan – not that they all aren’t great — but in this one you presented a concept that applies to a good many situations and did so in such an “actionable” manner that it was both simple and profound at the same time. I am very interested in this notion of the “pause” and think it is one of those elusive variables – there but hard to quantify or qualify – that we may be too often overlooking when we go digging into broader phenomena like leadership, followership, values, emotional intelligence and others. Taking a ‘pause’ after feeling an emotion, whether that be dread, anger, sorrow, joy, etc., might be the most important skill a human needs for survival and positive growth. It certainly seems to be one of those essential skills all leaders need to consciously self-develop and hone.

    Thank you for putting the concept of the “pause” – and its incredible importance – out there today in a manner that is readily teachable to others as a real story which we all can relate to in one way or another. Got me putting on my beanie cap from the first sentence and by the end, leaving me encouraged to think about how I might weave this concept into the rest of my day and week in an actionable manner!

  • Dan,
    Thanks for your experience and wisdom this morning ~~ just what I needed to hear! Caregiving is a difficult and frustrating job; and it is sometimes easy to feel frustrated and lost. Putting a space between the feelings and myself is right on point. There are always more ways to think about a challenge, or to create another approach, or to stop and try again later. Thanks!

  • Love this post. You have no idea how often and how positively you inspire my sunday morning homilies!

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