"Crises can be moments of new beginnings; the choice is yours"
Crisis situations can strike anyone anytime. They could range from issues at work to personal life problems such as losing one’s job, mistakes (intentional or not), broken trust, separation from family, injury, illness, or loss of loved ones. The hard truth is that sooner or later we all will come face to face with these kinds of challenges and what matters is how we respond to them.
A crisis, by definition, is something that one wasn’t ready to deal with. There was never a contingency plan in place. When it hits we are left numb. The typical feelings include ‘the world crashing down’, ‘the world is conspiring against me’, ‘Why me?’ Many people begin to question life, feel a sense of meaninglessness, and start moving towards depression.
An interesting area of research in Psychology is related to ‘Affective Forecasting’. Scholars have extensively studied the forecasts people make about their future emotional states. One consistent finding is that people are surprisingly quite inaccurate when it comes to predicting how they would feel when faced with happy or sad life events. Professor Daniel Gilbert from the Harvard University (also author of the book Stumbling on Happiness) along with his colleagues found that we overestimate both the duration and the intensity of the future emotions we might feel. For example, when it comes to negative life events such as not getting one’s dream job or getting a divorce, we expect ourselves to be extremely miserable and that too for a long time. In reality, however, we revert to our baseline emotional state quite quickly. They called this the ‘Immune Neglect’ - that is, people’s ignorance about how emotionally resilient they are.
But what about more severe events such as illnesses or loss of loved ones? Picking oneself up after such mishaps can be a daunting task. One suggestion to do so is to do charity work and go out to help others. Just a quick look around would give several anecdotes of people beginning to volunteer for service and charity after suffering a major loss themselves. However, that only goes as far. The rationale behind this is that one needs social connections in order to avoid feeling isolated. And it also gives an immediate short-term sense of purpose to one’s life. At the same time, such outward-focused techniques of recovery run risks too. Others could start taking advantage of one’s vulnerabilities or good intentions. And in the long-term, we will have to learn to be emotionally independent of others.
An alternative set of techniques are related with introspection and focusing on oneself. Professor Martin Seligman proposed the 3Ps to build resilience – Personalization, Permanence, & Pervasiveness. One common feeling that occurs after setbacks is that we somehow feel responsible and guilty about what happened. In many instances the outcomes are direct consequences of one’s actions and one will have to own up and face them. After all, being caught for fraudulent activities at work would result in loss of job, penalties, or lawsuits. But in other times, there are reasons beyond our comprehension and, in those cases, blaming oneself is going to be counterproductive.
The other two factors deal with the intensity and duration aspects of emotional states. The more we feel that the current sadness is going to be permanent, the longer it would take to get back up again. And the more we let one bad event take charge and pervade through other ‘good’ aspects of life, the more difficult life would feel. A constant assurance to oneself that ‘this is only temporary’ and to ‘look at the brighter side of life’ can go a long way.
Moments of crisis can be quite emotionally-charged with feelings of regret, guilt, anger, and sadness. We have a choice to make in terms of how we deal with it. Do we do nothing and just let time heal? Do we act – for example, apologize and own up for what went wrong? Indulge in a blame game? Give up and become hopeless? Or consider this as a time for introspection to rethink one’s life goals and values. Perhaps exercise Sanyam (restraint) and Samyabhav (equanimity) as our Indian shastras have always propagated in order to get back into an inner equilibrium.
Crises can be moments of new beginnings and the choice is ours. Consciously choose strategies to bounce back. Surround yourself with resilient role models. Invest your energies into developing yourself. We are and can be more resilient than what we predict for ourselves.