From Surviving to Thriving
Loi Eberle, August 1, 2010
A “bad day” might be a matter of feeling moody or pessimistic, and a little attitude adjustment might be all that’s needed to get through the day. Sometimes though, it’s not that simple. Sometimes, out of the blue, an unspeakable trauma occurs either to loved ones or ourselves, dropping us to our knees. What then? Are there ways we can draw upon our inner resources and creativity to help us get through?
Therapists and leaders teach that in order to move beyond a survival mode during difficult
times, certain attitudes and behaviors can help us overcome a sense of devastation. These
tools can help us draw upon inner resources to establish a sense of self that is coherent,
strength-based, and future-oriented. They involve drawing upon our inner creativity to
reestablish a coherent life narrative that makes sense and offers inspiration in those moments when it is so important to overcome a sense of powerlessness.
One helpful response is to focus on choices we do have, even if we had no choice about the
occurrence of the devastating event. For example, we can decide to consciously act, rather than automatically react. We can write stories, sing songs, post to blogs and create various images to reflect our experiences.These images can help us recognize and understand
the ways we have choice. Whether it is a thought evoked through the beauty of words, an
evocative painting, a videotape, or a musical statement presented in the way of the “Cellist of
Sarajevo”, we can use our various forms of expression to enhance our awareness and give
ourselves confidence to overcome a sense of powerlessness. Our songs, words and pictures
can help us recognize our ability to actively make choices about how we will respond to events, even when we had no control over the event itself.
Although we may think we have no choice over an outcome, there is power in understanding the ways that we do have choice in the present moment. We have the choice to act, rather than react. We can choose for example to constrict our breathing, or to breathe deeply. We can react with rage or compassion. By looking deeply we can begin to better understand the range of ways we can respond to any given situation. This recognition of the choices we have is a coping strategy.
Another helpful strategy is to develop a sense of ‘agency’, the knowledge that our actions can impact our world. At first we may feel there is nothing we can do, yet as we start to heal we can begin taking baby steps, slowly beginning to build the road to our dream. By seeing how each small step has perhaps a small, yet a desired outcome, we start building the understanding of how our actions impact our world. This mosaic of incremental successes creates the illustration of the impact of our actions. If we are willing to look, we can begin to see how we have personal responsibility. By owning our decision making and its consequences, we begin understand what effects we have caused. We can develop more purposefulness about mastering the ability to implement, evaluate, practice and assume responsibility for our personal actions and decisions.
It may take time to build a sense of any kind of personal power, especially if one’s world has
crashed down for any reason. It may take a lot of courage to confront a fear of failure, a fear of further disappointment. Yet, a sense of powerlessness can be even more debilitating. It is much more helpful to hold each other’s hands and begin to build.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead made the statement: “Never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
Of course to do that, we need to find our individual voices, and then, we need to learn how
to communicate them to each other. On good days, we can create beautiful harmonies.
Forbes magazine quoted the prophet of management, Peter Drucker, stating that perception
is a survival skill, and that our new civilization, based on information, is characterized by
perception. In order to survive Drucker suggested, we need to “deal with people’s values,
growth and development in order to foster joint cooperation.” This is really the area of art and a “humanistic calling toward soul craft.” This culture of perception seems to be the very thing we need to better be managers of ourselves and our collective dreams. Although it appeared in the Harry Potter fantasy movie, there is truth in the statement: “When information is lacking, all decisions are hazardous.” It is the development of more accurate perception that helps us gain the essential information for good decisions.
Drucker wrote, “The Information Age requires that we perceive not just the parts of a situation, but the overall ecology in which a part or an individual operates. Motivation of people cannot rest solely in money, but in rewards around challenge, mission, learning and awareness of the outcomes. They must perceive who they are, what their group is doing, and how it contributes to their sense of self.”
Social networks like Digg found that people worked harder if they could see the impact they
were having, than they did if you just gave them money. Perception of the self and the group
matter. Any social network is based on this.
In a world of blogs and social networks, all companies are in effect media companies,
in constant communication with customers, partners, even competitors. They have to
communicate in dense, consistent ways and grow their story almost organically. The fact that Drucker saw this world’s hurly-burly of data, desire and bandwidth as a coherent and human place is strangely comforting. Of course, that is always our choice in any situation. We can focus on the negative nightmare, or we can choose to build our vision. The choice is ours. Any instance in which we make an active choice, in the present moment, in the service of meeting a goal, is a success – regardless of the outcome of the choice.
In more clinical circles, when there has been trauma and an attempt is being made to create
healing, a model that is often suggested involves Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency. What do these terms really mean? Attachment speaks to an understanding of the importance of human connection, the deepest aspect of being alive together on this planet. The fact that we can share deep connection as a means of receiving strength and nurturing is a reason for celebration. In order for that to occur of course, it is necessary to use our awareness to assure that there is interpersonal safety within that connection.
Self-regulation is another way of expressing choice. Rather than reacting, we can instead
respond, choosing to use our internal resources to release tension, consider alternatives to
anger, and use the power of slow deep breathing to connect the mind and body. Therapists
describe self-regulation terms of delaying response, anticipating consequences, evaluating
outcomes, and actively making decisions.
In fact, the research on resilient youth, described in Treating Traumatic Stress in Children
and Adolescents by Blaustine and Kenniburgh, highlights the role of problem-solving skills in positive outcomes. Not surprisingly, youth who are able to make choices effectively and are active players in their own lives, do better than those who cannot. Learning to more effectively evaluate situations is an important way for everyone to solve problems effectively. In order to do so, it is helpful to inhibit our responses. For example, perhaps you could flash the peace sign gesture to the person who flips you a bird when passing on the freeway, rather than shaking your fist? Taking even a moment to reflect on the variety of potential responses can help de-escalate any situation. Contrasting the difference between acting and reacting helps accentuate the benefit of having choices.
Not only is it important to effectively evaluate situations, it is also helpful to be able to effectively and compassionately evaluate ourselves. Sandpoint author, Colleen Russell, wrote in her 2/17/09 blog about a quote she once saw in a public restroom “The object in the mirror may be more beautiful than it first appears.” That simple statement alludes to how quickly and harshly we tend to judge ourselves. Before we can truly show compassion to others, we need to learn to extend it to ourselves.
By developing a coherent and positive sense of self, we can begin to develop an increasingly
complex and nuanced sense of identity and awareness of future possibilities. We can use this
enhanced perspective to develop greater confidence, which can help us transform our mentality of surviving the chaos and trauma, into that of being a person who is thriving even in the most challenging of situations.