“JFK was wrong.” Remarked a client more than ten years ago, in the midst of an unwanted and unexpected change. “Crisis is not ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ in Chinese. And I’m sick of hearing all these Pollyannas tell me so.”
This was my cue to listen.
She was angry.
Tired of being told to “look on the bright side” and “to choose happiness” in the face of what looked like personal and financial disaster. Angry that her feelings and thoughts were ignored in the hopes that it would “help her” through the crisis.
What she wanted was someone to listen and accept her, where she was. What she was getting felt like a lot of pressure to be somewhere she just wasn’t. Somewhere she couldn’t be, until she was allowed to be where she was.
And she was right.
Crisis, in Chinese, is not composed of two elements translated as ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. ‘Danger’ is correct, but the second is something more akin to, “crucial point, when something begins to change,” according to Dr. Nguyen at Workplace Psychology. The difference between these two elements or ideas is vast, and important to note.
Opportunities certainly exist as a result of a crisis.
And that will not sell any of us into signing up for a major life crisis.
A “crucial point”, however, is galaxies away from the facebook-meme philosophy asking us to recognize that “Happiness is always a choice.” Sometimes, as my client reminded me, it’s not the healthy choice to make. There is an opportunity in this time to be faithful to oneself, to what one is really feeling, in the midst of any challenging time.
There is also the opportunity to find someone willing and able to share, or process, these feelings with.
Sometimes this person is a friend. Sometimes a family member. Sometimes it is a trained professional.
Real crisis intervention looks at the stress associated after the event and how to resolve it.
For instance, in Roberts’ Seven Stage Crisis Intervention Model, the first thing therapists are called to do is to ensure the safety of the person in crisis. Safety can mean a lot of different things at different times. For my client, after a fire destroyed her family’s home, finding a more permanent place to live was where her individual and family’s safety started.
The second stage of crisis intervention is making psychological contact and quickly creating a collaborative relationship. Thankfully, our relationship had been a highly collaborative one before this crisis. While she discussed her challenges, I was able to ask about her children and partner, based on the history we had working together. Roberts also highlights that recognizing and allowing emotions to process always comes before looking at other alternatives, new coping strategies and creating an action plan.
I was asking about her family, but not in order to create an action plan for them at this point. I wanted to know how she saw them and felt about them at this critical time. It gave her an opportunity to process some of the emotions “closer to the vest” – especially about her children and their emotional safety.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have researched couples and families for decades (more than four). One of their newest published works is entitled, “Emotion Coaching”. This DVD/workbook is geared towards helping parents to understand their own feelings about feelings, or metafeelings. With an understanding of metafeelings, parents can more effectively recognize a child’s feelings, and respond primarily to the need within the emotion.
Talking about her crisis, my client was able to talk about her own feelings about feelings. And I was able to coach her into accepting all of her emotions, “good” and “bad”. (BTW, I don’t believe any feelings are “bad”.) Accepting our emotions as they are can have a profound effect on us, and them. (If you are interested in acceptance through action – mindfulness practices in particular – please read my Vipassana blog post.)
As we moved through other stages, she was able to change focus from issues of safety (for self and family) and towards ways to cope with the present, and some of what the future would require. Also, we looked at what was working for her presently – in that moment – and focused on her courage and strength. As a mom, as a partner, as a human being in the midst of crisis.
We also found that what was working would continue to work for her as she moved towards future possible stressors. She had an excellent capacity to adapt to challenges and thrive under pressure. Recognizing she could not do this alone, she talked about her need for healthy supports.
When she decided she was ready to end counseling, she did so feeling ready. We celebrated how much she had learned through the crisis. At our last session, she remarked that this time had really helped her grow. It taught her to ask for help. It motivated her to be more discerning about friendship and ask for what she needed. In the end, the crisis helped her move towards the woman she wanted to be.