My Life as a Hot Mess

Yours truly, 30th birthday party, San Diego, California

What do you do when it all goes to hell? Things happen in life that will stagger even the strongest person. Injury, layoffs, losing the big client, a death in the family, a death of a relationship – actually all sorts of events can trigger significant disruption in our lives. The “black swan,” a term first coined by economist Nouriel Roubini, has come to mean an unforeseen event that causes catastrophic disruption. I think of myself as the luckiest guy in the world and I have experienced considerable success in my endeavors. Nevertheless, I have seen the “black swan” and it has hurt me at times.

Think of this article as a tool kit for surviving a crisis. This is about the first days and weeks after the black swan appears. This article is not about fulfilling all your dreams, being a better blogger, being “mindful,” telling yourself positive things, having a closer walk with Jesus, or making yourself feel comfortable with the universe. This article is about responding successfully to a crisis. It is about survival.

I want to look briefly at what happens to us in a crisis. The key fact to know is that crisis produces stress and stress changes our psychology. There is the “fight or flight” response which is rooted very deeply in our evolutionary DNA. You can’t turn it off with a switch. If someone attacks you, you will get the adrenaline dump. Our hormone levels change, affecting mood and decision-making. One theory of stress is that during stressful situations, our unconscious expands to fill almost our whole personality. This is why you will often see people under stress do inappropriate things: the unconscious is calling the shots on responses for now, and its logic is different from the conscious mind. The black swan casts its spell on you and for a time you’re a different person. If you have ever looked back on a period of time in which you made some unusually bad decisions, this is likely to be what was going on. You literally “weren’t yourself” for a while.

Things to Know

The first thing to know about this stress effect is that it cannot be avoided. It is like shock in a physical injury. Some people with great clarity of mind and enormous will power can avoid the mistakes and acting out of a stress reaction – such people are rare – but even among the strongest, the effects of a crisis are still there acting upon the personality. Some of these effects can be mitigated or compensated, but not avoided altogether.

The second thing to know is that everyone is different. Responses to stress vary from person to person and there is no tidy formula that works for everyone which will relieve the effects. If there were, we would know it by now.

The third thing to know is that how you respond to a black swan event may affect your life and those around you for years to come.

Survival Mindset to Beat the Black Swan – some ideas for navigating a stress reaction:

Don’t do something stupid – When you’ve just been fired from your dream job and the mother of your three small children tells you that she’s moving to California with her new girlfriend, you’re not going to be thinking clearly. Bad ideas come fast and furious when you’re in a crisis. By “something stupid” I mean killing yourself, buying a new car, drinking yourself into a stupor, picking a fight with a total stranger in a bar, eating everything in the refrigerator in one sitting, picking a fight with your significant other, getting a new tattoo on your face, cultivating a new drug addiction or joining the French Foreign Legion. Also, things like stalking, making threats, and waving a gun around are not only stupid but also against the law, and they will make way more trouble for you than you need right now.

Fight for Consciousness – Think of forcing yourself to awaken from a bad dream. I say “fight” because it goes against normal tendencies and reflexes. Awakening from the bad dream is a struggle, moving from unconscious dream-mind to conscious waking-mind. The trick is to get out of the “unconscious mind” of fight or flight, and back into your conscious rational mind. Journaling and reading the journal later has always been helpful to me. It provides some perspective. Telling someone you trust your story – the real story – is very helpful. This does not include posts on social media. It’s not the same thing. Social media only feeds your dopamine addiction. Oddly, little things such as making a checklist of what you plan to do early in the day can help you think consciously again. In the fight for consciousness, encourage thought and suppress feeling. You will have the rest of your life to deal with emotions, but for now you must think your way onto a better footing in your life. This is especially true if you are very angry. You can put those feeling aside temporarily and think. Note: “consciousness” is not the same as the trendy “mindfulness” (which strikes me as a form of self-hypnosis). Consciousness is awareness: a rational interaction with the real world. In responding to a stress event, it is vital to become self-aware and form a realistic picture of your situation.

Eat the Elephant – One of the wisest sayings I ever heard was, “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You can’t fix everything but you can fix something. Success and failure share a common trait: they both build on themselves. Small wins add up to big wins. Small failures can build to a cascading shit storm. We tend to view a crisis in global terms as if our whole lives are one huge unsolvable problem. It usually isn’t. Most problems are built with smaller components. The whole is unmanageable but the individual pieces can be addressed one at a time until things improve. We may not be able to pay off a crushing load of debt all at once but we can pay off one credit card and then the next. That’s one less unpleasant phone call, one bite at a time.

“Dogged Determination” – This was one of my mother’s favorite expressions. She was a gifted and realistic person who overcame great adversity in her life. Her childhood happened in the depth of the Great Depression (1930’s) in drought-ravaged Nebraska and her mother died when she was nine. Mom learned how to be tuff. She adopted a basic attitude that says “I’m not going to let this beat me.” Mom had a clear idea of what she wanted in life. When faced with a setback, and when she knew she was on the right track, she just didn’t let a setback stop her. Key to this is the discernment to know when to hold on and when to let go. By the same token, don’t be afraid to fold a bad hand and take your losses. Stubbornly trying to hold on to a losing situation out of pride or fear of loss only means that it’s going to cost you more and the pain lasts longer.

Go with the Flow – “Fight” is not always the best response. Sometimes you have to face the fact that temporarily you are not in control of unfolding events. I have lost a couple of jobs that I needed to lose, but I thought it was a disaster at the time. My conscious self denied what my heart knew. I needed to be out of both of those jobs, but I was conflicted by financial responsibilities. To try to hang onto those jobs would have been unsuccessful and humiliating. In a situation like that, it is often best to let events transpire and anticipate the next good thing coming down the pike. Watch for your best opportunity, and make your move when the time is right.

Times Change – People who are overcome by stress or depression tend to believe they have no options, that they are trapped in something forever and nothing will ever change. Here’s the straight scoop: everything changes, everything – your body, your mind, your friends, and the world around you. There’s the old saying that, “Time heals all wounds,” and that’s about half true, if you have the luxury of time. This is not a case for passivity, but sometimes a bad situation will resolve itself. One way or the other, the future will be different than today.

Practice Self Care – Get plenty of sleep. Don’t skip meals. You’re wounded and you need life’s sweet medicine to heal. Sometimes, just stepping back and doing something you enjoy will provide fresh perspective. When you’re sitting in a hot tub with your beloved sipping on a nice cocktail, somehow the problems of the world just don’t look so big. During one difficult period of my life, I had a huge German Shepherd Dog named Lucky. He was everything you could hope for a dog to be – beautiful, obedient, fiercely protective but not aggressive. I have a tendency to sit at my desk and read news on the web when I’m not feeling good. I was really depressed, having just lost one of those jobs I talked about before. (This turned out to be the greatest non-crisis ever but I didn’t know it at the time.) Maybe he was sensing me with his dog voodoo, but he would come over and knock my hand off the mouse with his big nose. If I put my hand back on the mouse, his answer was the same. I interpreted this as his way of saying, “It’s time to go for a walk.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. At 120 pounds with a bark that would make your ears ring, he was hard to ignore. He would get excited when I grabbed the leash. Those walks saved my sanity and helped me get through that challenging time.

Who Loves Ya’, Baby? – Supportive relationships will literally save your life at times. If you don’t have any, cultivate some. Notice I didn’t say “networking.” Networking has come to connote in my mind the bothering of a bunch of strangers on LinkedIn in order to form highly exploitative relationships to further your career. Not talking about that. I’m not talking about your Facebook “friends.” I am talking about family, friends and lovers who care about you. You may have messed up, but odds are they still love you. When everything falls apart, they are often the ones who help you pick up the pieces.

What’s Not In Here – Religion. I am not opposed to calling on faith resources in a crisis. How can I say this? Religion puts a weird English on the ball (pool term). A gazillion books have been written about this and I don’t expect to solve it in two sentences. Your big invisible friend in the sky may bail you out or crucify you. That is unknowable to me. The helps I’m suggesting in this article are accessible in this space/time continuum. One exception: if your group of supportive relationships is largely composed of your church family, they can be a big help in difficult times. A good church (if you can find one) can be a wonderful resource.

Also not in here is working with a professional therapist. A healing relationship with a professional can be a wonderful thing, if you can afford it, and if you have access to a therapist who can produce the desired results. For me personally it was often the case that one of those two conditions weren’t met, and I had to get along without the help of a pro.

I hope you never need any of this. I hope you never see the black swan.

9 comments

  1. Syd, I just read this rather quickly as I have to meet a friend soon but from my quick read, this is a very inspiring post! Thank you. I will come back later to digest more of your writing!

    Like

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