How to build resilience and avoid the black hole of despair.

When we get through a difficult event in our lives (think: losing your job or your business or your marriage), the tendency is to be in a hurry to find certainty again. We tend to look for the next thing too fast because we hate uncertainty. But we need to let ourselves spend some time in the ‘fertile void’ (a term that comes from Gestalt therapy), which is the space between the end of one thing and the start of the next, to allow for what naturally needs to emerge before we invest and jump into the next thing. That’s the only way we’re likely to align what we really want with what works for us. And trust that we have agency and that once we have our new job or project or whatever that we can put our focus and energy into making that happen.

Post Covid there are so many brick walls round our opportunities, which is devastating both economically and psychologically. When we contemplate what we might do, there’s a lot of “I can’t do that because…” So lots of our choices are gone.

To get through this we need daily structure, to keep our skylines small for today, to have small wins and projects. And we need hope. Hope is the alchemy that turns a life around. We have to believe that from this we will have possibilities that can actually bear fruit and that we can have an interesting future work-wise. Hope is an emotion but also a way of thinking that leads to a plan A and a plan B, and the self confidence and trust in yourself that you can make it happen.

Find your own ways of building your resilience. You build it by doing exercise, keeping yourself balanced, having structure and routines through the day, staying connected to others, staying tribally connected to your village so you feel you’re not alone… all this builds the capacity to surf the waves of disappointment and crushing losses. As human beings we are evolutionarily adaptive and creative and that gives me hope. Many people will come up with new ideas and creative ways of building businesses and opportunities and occupations.

And make sure you acknowledge the losses. A huge sense of your identity comes from work, so if you’ve lost your status it’s a loss that you need to grieve. When you feel really bad one of the best things you can do is help other people, so try some volunteering – it changes your perspective, takes you out of yourself, and you feel proud of what you’ve done and good about yourself at the end of the day. You also meet a new community through it and it can give you all sorts of connections you may not have expected, moving out of your normal circle, so you can explore other opportunities, try things out, retrain etc. And it’s also a very good thing to have on your CV.

The big difficulty is the rollercoaster of disappointment that so many of us are going through. What you have to watch out for is the 3 P’s. These are negative thoughts that tell you your loss is pervasive, permanent and personal. That whatever failure you have experienced is going to be in every part of you life, will be forever and is your fault. That kind of negative thinking affects your feelings and your behaviour so if you have those three P’s in your head, it’s very hard to unchain yourself from that black hole of despair.

The more awareness you have of the ‘shitty committee’ in your head, what you’re thinking and how it’s affecting your behaviour, the better. That awareness gives you choices because it creates a gap between what you think and what you do and you can be careful to avoid the 3 Ps and choose to do something that will make you feel better about the world.

Extracted from an interview on Christina Patterson’s Work Interrupted podcast with Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass (Penguin), her latest book about the difficulties of coping with change.

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