The Chinese word for “crisis” is comprised of two characters – the first character symbolizing “danger” and the second character symbolizing an incipient moment, a crucial point when something begins or changes, or opportunity. When a difficult time is upon us, there is no doubt it will be uncomfortable and we’ll struggle. The pain is inevitable, but the growth and lessons we can accrue from the situation are optional. While working as a San Diego counselor, I encounter many people at crucial junctions when they come in for counseling. Whether they are struggling with issues related to work, relationships, family or self, they are all at a crossroads of withdrawing from life or expanding themselves into life. I consistently encourage my clients not to let situations define them or life, but to take and grow from the circumstances at hand and define their life with intention from the struggle, lessons and opportunities that exist within the crisis.
Feelings are always temporary, and we all “make up a story” about ourselves in relation to the feelings we are having and the situation we are in. Sometimes we make up a story about life and the future as well. These “stories” then become beliefs about ourselves and life which influence how we relate to self, others and future situations. For example, when difficult times arise, a person can begin formulating a story they are powerless, or they have terrible luck, or they are incompetent, etc. Unabated, this story becomes a belief the person holds about him/herself and they become ineffectual and disabled in the face of future opportunities or challenges. It is very important to examine the “stories” you start formulating from your situation and feelings so they don’t lead you to shrink in life. Instead of running with a false narrative during a difficult time, I suggest you challenge the negative story about yourself and invite compassion instead. If you are in pain, and struggling and then start having a running monologue that is negative, this is hardly a compassionate stance but one of correction and chastisement. Why beat yourself when you’re already down? To say you’re powerless, or unlovable, or incapable is never a kind and helpful approach.
Instead, I suggest taking an active stance towards the situation you’re in and the negative stories that may start to circulate. Simply having an awareness of the negative monologue can help you identify it. Reminding yourself of your past successes, your positive qualities, achievements, values, character, etc, can also help create a more realistic and positive narrative of yourself, your life and your future. Sure, there may be things you did that led you to your current crisis or difficulty, but instead of beating yourself up about it, make a vow to learn from it and start moving forward. Constantly reminding yourself how you “messed up” will not make things any better or help you remember it any longer. I also suggest sharing your worries, sadness and fears with others you trust. Because a negative story often wants to creep into our heads, it’s good to hear a different voice besides our own which is sometimes more accurate and it helps you to avoid isolating. Yes, there is a time to be sad, to grieve, to feel bad. But, be careful that those feelings don’t start generating a negative monologue. I encourage you to take a stance of determination toward your difficult situation and turn it into growth. Real healing will not only afford lessons and maturity, but it will deepen life and the relationship we have with self and others. Despite the pain, lessons and opportunities exist in crisis. Your life and self perception can diminish as a result, or you can stretch and grow.
Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information, feel free to call or email her.
Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.