Recovering from emotional distress

Cole Bitting’s website is Fable. This interview was done for Beyond Meds. Thanks Cole so much for answering these questions. Your work and thinking always resonates deeply.

This was first posted April 2010.

Yesterday I posted a link with commentary to an article on “post traumatic growth” and that gave me reason to revisit Cole Bitting’s work. It’s really so wonderful I’m sharing an old post. Perhaps I’ll share more in the future too. 

Q: On your website Fable, you write about depression, posttraumatic growth, context, anxiety, rumination, etc. What’s the theme or direction?

We all want to live with a sense of durable well-being, contentment and the occasional heady moments of flow and great joy. Many writers focus on these topics. They gloss over the times when we struggle with life’s hardships, as if we can make these enjoyable episodes crowd out the more difficult.

I think it’s much more likely for our hardships, left untended, to crowd out our sense of well-being. We might to live with affirming experience. We need to manage the negating experiences. We do get what we need: We have innate abilities to convert negating experience into valuable perspective.

Life requires struggle. The struggling is also the source of growth and profoundly satisfying personal development. We have nothing to learn from if bad things don’t happen. Yet bad things are bad, and the problem with the struggle is the struggling. Failure to manage the tough moments can damage long-term well-being and contentment. To neglect the struggle in pursuit of the happy is to neglect personal peace for the sake of ethereal aspiration. Our core – the very sense of who we are – is born from the struggle, just as our spirit is born of suffering.

My theme is the struggling and the suffering, the core and the spirit.

Q: I understand struggling as just something which happens. Is it your ideas that it’s something we must learn like with so many other programs or styles of therapy?

Everyone has innate talent for the struggle. It’s baked into our DNA, as it must be. No doubt the lives of our ancient ancestors were nasty, brutish and short. Without great struggle-skills, our race would have perished.

If we can get out of our own way, this natural talent blossoms. It’s not something we need to be taught or has a step-by-step process. When we have a visceral understanding – something we trust in our core – of what is going on during the times we struggle, it’s as if our body and unconscious mind know what to do. Struggling is struggling, but the more attuned we are to our process, the better it works.

Lance Armstrong says that for all his training, the pain of climbing a mountain during a race never diminishes. He just goes up a mountain more quickly. We have natural talent, and as we develop it, we go up the proverbial mountain more quickly.

Q: What causes the struggling? What is it we should understand?

We carry with us a life of learning, beliefs about ourselves and the world around us – a context to explain and interpret every experience we have. Our personalized context is perhaps the most necessary tool for living. It’s nothing less than directions for what to do whatever may happen. Without this core understanding, we would miss out on countless opportunities and would be victim to endless threats.

Context is that important. It also changes all the time. Whenever our understanding of ourselves or the world changes, our experience of life, even our entire autobiography, changes.

Sometimes significant change is something which happens to us. The world is unpredictable. Life is fragile. We often meet our core fears on the road we take to avoid them. These events create mountains. Our worse losses destroy our vital context.

If I’m mugged in my neighborhood, I might never feel safe again. If my spouse has an affair, I might never trust relationships again. If my petty boss fires me for no good reason, I might never feel confident about my ability to provide for my family.

I remember when my ten-year old son called me a bitch. My relationship with him became much more hostile. There is no switch to throw to undo the changes to the relationship caused by the insult. Either the relationship grows from its damaged state or it remains degraded and at risk of further damage.

When we lose context, we lose a part of our relationship to ourselves and the world around us. We feel disconnected and lost. Life can become an energy-sucking trap. We miss opportunities and cower from possible threats.

We need to understand the need to understand. After our faiths or beliefs are violated or destroyed, we struggle to find our bearings. As we regain context, the struggle diminishes. If we know how to regain context, we go up the mountain faster, and we grow.

Q: What are some of the details of regaining context?

I wrote about context in two recent essays – Happiness And Sadness, Both and Growth Needs Context (which is more technical). One part of my answer is elaborated in those two articles. Their central theme is the process of rebuilding context after confronting traumatic experience.

The second part is to expand our capacity to manage our process when we recall and expose ourselves to our raw emotional wounds or a deep sense of sadness and loss. However indirectly, tangentially or orthogonally we approach these traumas, these experiences provide the raw materials for our recovery and growth.

The exposure, though, is hard to handle. Tolerance is hard to find. Sometimes, we run and never return. Sometimes, we cannot handle the experience. Before building context, we need to strengthen our ability to regulate and tolerate exposure.

My writing often focuses on three primary domains of living – Achievement, Social Relationships and Knowledge. The discussion of the context-building process falls under Knowledge. The capacities to regulate and tolerate are found through Social Relationships.

In other words, we cannot face our wounds alone. We already tried and yet still are wounded.

When context is lost, the presence of others helps us face these terrifying wounds. The wisdom of others helps us build better beliefs, regain appropriate trust and gives us the courage to hold to new faiths. Maybe monks, after years of intense contemplative practice, have indomitable self-regulation and tolerance. The rest of us are at great risk of being overwhelmed by exposure if we face our traumas alone.

We learn self-regulation from others. We practice self-regulation in the presence of others. When we tell our stories, we watch them struggle with our circumstances, and gain valuable perspective. One of the keys to going up the mountain more quickly is to get the struggling out of our heads and into the open.

When I fly, passengers occasionally tell me, a complete stranger, their current life stories. They use me to help them explore their wounds. I usually have nothing helpful to say. I listen and am amazed as they become less stuck. They might find insight, resolve or a renewed sense of vitality. Strangers can be as helpful as intimate friends. Skilled listeners can become great friends in a time of need even if they remain strangers.

Therapists are professional interpersonal, socio-biological regulators: in other words, empathic, nonjudgmental listeners. They can be a great resource for managing the return to our worst wounds. Some wounds benefit most from professional care.

Some people put themselves in a bind. They don’t trust their problems to strangers because they are too personal. They don’t want to share their wounds with friends for fear of burdening them or driving them away. They focus on who to tell and choose no one.

The focus should be on the telling. Telling is an act which begins the process of context building.

We practice and improve our capacity for self-regulation and tolerance of old traumas. Once learned, self-regulation, like bike riding, is a skill that is never forgotten. We can get very weak at it, however. It is a skill, and it is very difficult to strenghten alone.

You can download for free Cole Bitting’s book “Furies — the struggle for growth” here There is an excerpt of the book at the link you can read before downloading.

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