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Life Crisis - Finding Inner Guidance

Have you ever faced a ‘limit situation’? This is the striking phrase coined by psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe a situation in life that we would like to change but either can’t, or are limited in our power to do so.
Sooner or later, we are all confronted with a limit situation in life, often experienced as deeply personal to us. Limit situations can include a relationship break-up, physical or mental illness, a bereavement, an addiction or eating disorder, and many other forms of loss.
Limit situations cannot be overcome by active force of will alone. Instead they challenge us to learn to engage with and attend to our emotions on a deeper level if we are to cope with them effectively. This takes courage but, often with the right guidance and support, many people find the self-knowledge and indeed new relationship to life they develop through the experience has its own value.

When things fall apart

We normally define ourselves in certain ways, including by our roles, relationships and achievements. We have desires and goals for how we’d like things to be – in love, at work and materially – and invest our time and energy into realising these.

… and then something happens in life that knocks us sideways.

As our sense of who we are takes a blow, we may feel we are falling apart, as if losing touch with our internal base. While some of us tend to feel overwhelmed with emotion and anxiety, others may react by becoming more distanced and withdrawn, appearing (superficially) to be handling things well. There can be a sense of shock and disconnection from people and life going on around us.
A limit situation can be imposed on us through external circumstances over which we have no control, for example in the case of say miscarriage, redundancy or an accident. However, often our own ingrained relational patterns, coping strategies and way of life contribute to the limits we go on to face.
It is very common for men and women to set themselves up for self-imposed limit situations through the emotional strategies they act out in relationships, often related to unmet childhood needs. A common pattern, for example, is that of ‘codependency’ where a person relates to their partner from a place of need, diminishing the scope for adult intimacy and growth in the relationship. Similarly, an addiction or eating disorder can serve a much-needed purpose for a while, but eventually becomes a problem in itself. So the strategies we developed to cope with earlier difficulties often themselves become limiting over time.

Connecting to feelings - our inner guidance system  

Traditional wisdom sees it as a positive development to learn to come to terms with a limit situation as it enables us to get in touch with our emotional self and reach a deeper self-knowledge and wisdom in life. 
This traditional wisdom is supported by the latest research in neuroscience which is in the midst of a revolution. Though since the Enlightenment thinking and reason have been valued over emotion, it is now being understood that thinking and feeling are closely interrelated processes and equally vital. 
Emotions are related to areas in the brain that direct our attention, motivate our behaviour, and determine the significance of what is going on around us. Emotions are critical not only in shaping our experience and relationships with others, but also in providing an internal value system that helps to assign meaning and guide decisions and choices.
Life crisis triggers huge emotional energy – by learning to name and think about the feelings within this flood of emotion, we can develop a ‘felt intelligence’ that goes beyond our cognitive intelligence.

Importantly, it is not the experience of emotion in general that is of value. It is the skill and capacity to name and reflect on our different feelings (of pain, anger, sadness, fear, etc.). Through this, we develop an emotional intelligence that can help us navigate difficulties and engage more fully with life in our own unique way. 

Unhelpful emotional patterns

Though we’re born hard-wired with the capacity for a felt intelligence to guide us, many of us don’t find this easy in practice. Indeed most of us are afraid of our feelings, particularly the negative ones. We find many ways to avoid and escape from these feelings, including simply not taking the time to reflect on what’s really going on for us.

On a deeper level, our capacity to be in touch with our feelings is greatly influenced by the quality of relationship we experienced in childhood. Parents who are able to respond to a child’s feelings in ways that convey empathy, coping and appreciation are engaged in an interactive process of helping the child connect to his own feelings and to be open and available in intimate relationships with others.
However, for many of us, our basic feelings, needs, desires and impulses were simply not picked up on by our caregivers, or seen as bad or unacceptable in some way. On some level, we experience this as an abandonment or rejection of parts of who we are, giving rise to pain, fear and anger.
Research into relational attachment has found that children, to protect against re-experiencing these painful underlying feelings, develop one of three insecure relational / emotional strategies to create distance from their feelings. A basic understanding of these strategies can be very helpful in relationships.
Can you identify yourself or someone you know as using any of these strategies?
  • People with a preoccupied strategy have learned to turn up the volume on their emotional experience, at times feeling intense emotion which can be difficult to contain. They can be triggered into being needy, demanding or aggressive in relationships in an attempt to get their needs met. For the person on the receiving end, this creates a push / pull in the relationship in which they are both needed and wanted but also pushed away in anger or frightened off when their efforts don’t seem to be enough.
  • People with a dismissing strategy have learned to turn down the volume on their emotional experience and disengage from their feelings and needs. They are triggered by emotional intensity in relationships to withdraw and distance themselves, often acting out their emotional life in more impersonal aspects of life (for example, at work but not in their close relationships) or in addictions.
  • People with a disorganised strategy may use elements of both of the above patterns, often in a confusing way.
Though we develop these strategies initially to protect ourselves, they later become an obstacle to a healthy emotional life and relationships. A limit situation is very often the initial crisis that gives us the opportunity to engage more with our inner life and work through these insecurities. It has been proven that parents who are able to do so can help their children to become emotionally healthy adults.

Overcoming a limit situation

So what’s the best way to handle a limit situation? 
Facing our limitations is the hardest thing we can go through because it challenges our meaning structure – the values and goals we’ve identified as important. Finding new meaning in life is a process that takes time and effort. But recognising the intrinsic value of this journey as one that clears the way for a deeper connection with oneself and fulfillment in life can provide inspiration and hope. 
Limit situations also challenge us emotionally. It is mainly through adversity and facing our limitations that we develop the emotional maturity that is prerequisite for meaning-making and spiritual growth. One of the most effective ways of engaging with our inner emotional life is in the context of a therapeutic relationship. This ideally can provide an experience of being felt, understood and responded to in a way that can help you connect more deeply with yourself.
Finally, emotions take place in the body therefore activities that help us manage our stress level and get in touch with felt experience can be very useful, for example the Alexander Technique, yoga and spending time in nature. Creative activities provide other access points to inner experience, including artwork, music, dance, etc.
It is inevitable that we will all encounter some form of limit situation in our life. Finding the right guidance and support at these times (if not before) to build our inner resources can make all the difference so that we not only overcome the immediate situation, but are able to learn and gain from the experience. 

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