This past month I have talked to many people whose hearts were hurting. A husband called worried about his wife who was swirling out of control with pills, alcohol and shopping. In the midst of this she forget to tend to her 1 year-old. Then a 48 year-old colleague of mine dropped dead leaving behind his 3 year-old son and a beautiful wife. A brother called worried that his 63 year-old sister would drink herself to death. A sister lamented her brother was paranoid – people were chasing him after a psychotic bout with fentanyl and other drugs. And parents called distressed over their college-age student who was traumatized by a date rape and had taken to large quantities of marijuana to cope. Two sets of parents worried about their 20 year-old sons lost to gaming.
All of these folks were hit hard – walloped, so to speak – with events that happened in their lives and the choices they face on how to move forward.
Recently, I had the chance to read a Martha Beck blog. She’s a PhD from Harvard (oh they do get some great ones) who is a sociologist and a coach. I started today off reading When Life Wallops You, Turn It Into a Personal Evolution. Beck’s articulation of trauma and resilience brought me to a screeching halt. She points out that there are two ways evolution works. One is called gradualism, which “holds that living things evolve slowly and subtly, making many tiny changes over time.” The other theory is punctuated equilibrium: “the idea here is that creatures remain quite stable until something radical happens in their environment. Then, in order to survive, they evolve very rapidly. Once they’ve adapted to their environment, their stability returns.”
In other words, sometimes it takes a wallop to effect some serious personal evolution. In my own lifetime I have had several loved ones die – the sudden death of my father at age 47 where tragically took his own life. There was my son who died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) at 3 months and my first husband who dropped dead at age 48 after biking 60 miles.
Each one sent me for a wallop and at the time I had no idea who I was or what I would become. The same is true for clients that call me and tell me their life has given them a wallop. Recently a woman whose husband wrapped their car around a tree in a drunken stupor did not know that action would have her take a look at herself and see what part she had played in her husband’s 3 DUIs and his arrest. The accident sent her into my coaching arms and at first she knew everything and nothing. She felt it was her fault and could not see herself as part of the solution.
Today, serendipitously I received this note: “I am so grateful we connected when all was haywire and we were able to work together for the time we did. I go back through our discussions and I am continuously drawing pearls of wisdom from them.”
How do people go from life’s wallops to transformation? What do they do? What steps do they take?
When life hands you a wallop such as sudden death or a loved one hospitalized, etc., it takes six steps to work through the trauma and get back to equilibrium. As a clinician and interventionist, I have developed these in conjunction with Beck’s blog post, as well as my years of expertise and experience.
- Stay still and assess the situation. A traumatic event can leave us breathless and paralyzed. That is why it’s important to slow down our usual lives and assess the situation, to process the information and make sense of it. This will lead to sensible actions and solutions for the future.
- Reach out for help and handle the immediacy of the moment. Many wallops require immediate action – natural disasters, sudden deaths, a love one ruining their life with alcohol or other drugs, the loss of a job, the breakup with a partner all require one to do something. From finding a new place to live, to talking with funeral directors, to trying to help a loved one go to treatment. Direct action is required in the immediacy of the moment. Often times people go on automatic pilot doing what they need to do. Feelings go on the back burner as everyday life activities are handled.
- Feel your feelings. After all that is said and done and in the immediacy of the aftermath, one now has the time and luxury so to speak after the aftermath. The proud widow who buries her husband only to find herself listless and crying on every street corner, the mother who feels less than as her daughter does not have a top-notch job. These are all emotions that deserve to be felt.
I recently moved to a new place and I was very, very scared. I did everything in my power not to stay still, going here and there, helping families, visiting colleagues, going to conferences. I was replaying an old tape and I did not sit still. In desperation, I, the counselor, went back to counseling and saw vividly my fear. I had to embrace my fear, sit with my sadness, so I could embrace where I am and what I do. In a similar manner, my middle daughter, Felicia Alexander, has opened a string of boxing studios. Felicia says that when her father died she was so sad and angry that she went boxing to take the pain away. Almost 30 years later she has learned how to sit with that sorrow, to feel that pain and now has a chain of successful boxing studios called Box Union.
- Reach out for help or seek new mentors. It’s important to find the help you need. If this takes the form of a therapy group or hiring an individual therapist for one-on-one time, vocalizing your pain and letting in an objective perspective will help you make sense of where you are at and give you the tools to grow.
- Try on new behaviors. Go for a hike, take a Pilates class, visit a new friend in their neighborhood. The idea here is to form new habits that replace the old and trigger a response to your trauma. These new behaviors will open your eyes to rewards you didn’t know possible until you gave it a try.
- Embrace your new life. We are never stagnant – changes come and go and we grow with the times. If you lean into the discomfort of change and embrace that which is new, you’ll find joy and comfort. Once you begin to develop these skills, it will be easier for you to work through triggers of your pain and find ways of moving on.