In the world of small, safe experiments, it is possible to think that what we do is important. It is of less consequence to know how we feel.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with some-one on an action plan for their recovery after an accident. This left them with permanent, visible scarring. It interfered with ‘normal’ functioning a great deal. The repair work was done by doctors, with the help of physiotherapists and other specialists. Indeed, with time, the disruption to daily living routines was reduced as the person adapted and used their creativity to develop novel solutions. Even so, problems with daily living persisted.
In addition, there were issues about the things, often small things, that couldn’t be done any more. Asking for help was easier to say, than to do. Over time self-worth and self-esteem was undermined. The loss of functioning had an unexpectedly large impact on the person’s state of mind.
This account of the large and small losses – some evident and some less so – took time to emerge. These losses came with strong feelings and, were to become of much relevance in shaping the ‘scenic route’ toward recovery.
So what is known about that scenic route, as far as losses are concerned?
There is a pattern of feelings that many, but not all, people experience after a loss. These are summarised in this well-known transition curve:
It’s tempting to see these feelings as an inconvenience, or even an obstacle to change. However, that conclusion can be viewed differently. The feelings generated serve to stop us in our tracks. There is no longer a just perceptible change going on in our life. Instead, a large change has brought us up short. It is going to take time to absorb the practical meaning of what has happened. Feeling shocked is a great way to stop us in our tracks.
Literally, we stop still and do not move, if only for a very short time.
In time, it possible to see the way in which ‘unhelpful’ feelings can serve a purpose after all. Consider this illustration:
The message I read in this illustration – from Trevor Griffiths’ Emotional Logic course – is, as stated – shock stops me in my tracks. It may help me avoid getting into even deeper trouble after a major change. Denial serves a similar purpose by diverting our resources, now under pressure, to the ‘important’ things in life – sometime actual survival. Thereafter, anger can give me the energy I need to create change.
Now guilt is a strange one; one that most of us do not take to very much. However, guilt exists to stop me doing things. It can stop me taking socially unacceptable steps, such as committing a crime.
Bargaining is there to foster small, safe experiments; putting one toe in the water to notice what happens.More importantly, it helps me avoid repeating history. At that point, I may be able to Think, Judge and Act – to work on my options for my own future. Bargaining is an important part of designing and implementing small, safe experiments .Bargaining is a time for putting one toe in the water to notice what happens.
Feeling depressed generally slows me down. That might be important when my renewed energy leads me towards options that might be difficult, if not impossible to acheive at this time. If I can slow myself down, without feeling depressed, then I may be able to accept what I can do differently, and to know what I may be less able to do differently.
Part of Acceptance is having the wisdom to know the difference between what can be acheived, and what is not, now, within my reach.
This, and other ‘obstacles’ to moving on were labelled the “conservative impulse” by the well-known social scientist Paul Marris. His book, Loss and Change, had a profound impact on me when I was teaching.
He was saying that humans are hard-wired to view change with caution. In more recent years, it has become evident that our ‘hard wiring’ fosters a negative bias in our thinking. All this caution can help us to think twice before doing something. In my practice over the years, I have seen many people, in a time of crisis, regret an impulsive act that had large consequences when, for the sake of stopping, it might have been possible to slow down and take stock.
It may be an old text now, but Marris is still worth a read. This is particularly true if you consider his material alongside the work of Margaret Stroebe. Not only do the feelings that arise with loss have importance, but the feelings, unpleasant to experience, can serve some functions.
A Safe experiment
Consider a time when your feelings seemed to be getting in the way and unsettling you ‘too much’.This page on this web site might help galvanise some relevant information. As ever, chose a time in your life that is manageable or make sure you have professional support at hand.
Make a note: what happened and when did it happen? Who was involved and what were your relationships with any of the people involved.
Jot down just some fo the feelings you recall from that time. You may find a safe experiment – here – of some help.
Take a break ……
…. come back and review those feelings. Consider – in light of the two illustrations above – what useful function did the feelings, particularly the negative feelings, serve?
What small difference could you make – and are you willing to make – to help the process along? Bear in mind my illustration of the Window of Tolerance (WoT) and how it highlights to demands on us when we seek to stay on the ‘scenic’ route to change.
Who might be available to help you stay on the long and winding road, rather than slip into a ditch?