Crisis Advice

“A crisis is something that simply can’t be ignored.”

Some thoughts on personal crises…

Our assumptions are invisible to us, operating below our level of awareness. One common assumption is that when a crisis hits, the best we can do is cope and get through it. As so beautifully expressed in the “Thought for the Season ” by Blaize Clement, we have other options when it comes to dealing with a crisis.

A great definition of crisis is a situation that simply can not be ignored-the house is on fire, you are fired from your job, or someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal cancer-things that demand our attention right now.

Some therapists, myself included, have this perverse view that a really good crisis can be used, forces us, gives us the opportunity, to take a look at assumptions that have formed a kind of scaffolding in our lives.

For example, a woman who was a client of mine many years ago came to see me in the midst of an overwhelming crisis. She had spent most of her life taking care of and worrying about others-her siblings, mother, and her own children and husband. A crisis associated with her grown son’s irresponsibility absorbed her every waking hour. While he served his jail term, she worked tirelessly with attorneys, counselors and others to see if her son could reclaim his life.

She came to me for help because she couldn’t sleep, had lost about 20 pounds and was more and more estranged from her husband. Her professional training and experience in health care also added to her overall stress level, as she had a tendency to take many patients’ problems home with her. She was worried that she was losing her mind.

Her family doctor had prescribed an antidepressant, which she said wasn’t helping much.

She and I reviewed her childhood pattern of being expected to function as a sort of Cinderella in her home as a girl, subject to her father’s beatings if she refused or tried to rebel. Her mother, who was chronically physically and emotionally disabled, had retreated to a passive mode through most of the client’s life.

I assured her that I didn’t think she was losing her mind, but rather that her circuits were overloaded. She laughed and said she was thinking of adding more circuit capacity, but couldn’t figure out how to do that. I replied that I thought she should think about voluntarily reducing her capacity, and wondered to her about why it was that she was so willing to take so much responsibility for other people. It was easy for her and I to connect this pattern of over functioning in her adult life to the Cinderella pattern of her childhood.

To summarize the focus of the therapy, we began to reevaluate her basic assumption that her job in the world is to take care of others, even to the point of carrying responsibility for her son’s embezzlement and subsequent jail term.

As she became more objective and critical of this assumption, she began to change several behaviors that had previously created an enormous overload for her. She stated on many occasions that she just couldn’t believe that there is another way to think about how to relate to others. But as she shifted her thinking and behavior she commented that if it hadn’t been for the “last straw”, her son’s conviction and incarceration, she might still be trying to take care of everyone but herself.

In this woman’s case, the crisis that prompted her to seek therapy was a logical outgrowth of her internal paradigm. Her decision to change this paradigm liberated her from a pattern that limited her and those close to her.

There is a cliché among psychotherapists that the Chinese ideograph for the word crisis contains two symbols: the first signifying “danger” and the second, “opportunity.”

If we merely try to smooth over a crisis, medicate people in crisis, just help them cope, we really have not taken advantage of the opportunity that a crisis gives us, which is to ask, “Wait a minute, who ever said life is perfect”?

This is not to suggest that being in crisis is any fun. It is not. The anxiety, pressure and sense of doom are usually overwhelming. I usually recruit some help from family members, encourage the client to take really good care of him or herself and to consider taking a homeopathic remedy, ignatia amara, which is usually very effective in helping people in crisis to cope. Most clients who stick with the process can honestly say that the crisis held some very important lessons, and that their original assumptions would not have served them very well in the long run.

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