September 6, 2014

When the Sh*t Hits the Fan: 5 Steps for Survival. ~ Mary Ann Johnstone


So, we’re going along peacefully, minding our own business, and whammo.

We get the test result, or the pink slip at work or see the weird text on our beloved’s phone.

When the unthinkable actually happens to us, it may be helpful to know it has a name. Martha Beck calls it “Square 1,” and it comes with a few simple steps to help us survive our perfectly awful storm.

Step 1:

1. Cry.
2. Lay down.
3. Repeat.

We often resist the idea of crying or resting and attempt to push through the pain regardless of how awful we feel. Resisting the sadness or anger can lead to a slowly simmering, overall depression, and often causes all of our feelings to be dampened—even the more pleasant ones.

When we actually give ourselves permission to cry, rage, sleep and cry some more, we heal much more quickly and are then ready to move on.

Step 2:

Memorize the mantra of Square 1.

“I don’t know what the hell is going on and that’s okay.”

The relief we get from releasing the need to understand all of the implications of what just happened and forgiving ourselves for feeling so rotten is the miracle of self-compassion. It works like magic in helping us relax now, and then move forward with a good plan when it’s time.

Step 3:

“Only the Facts, Ma’am.”

This is not the time to get creative with our thinking.

It’s best to avoid this kind of thinking:

“I got a test result therefore…I’m going to die”

“I lost my job therefore…I’m going to end up a bag lady”

“I saw a weird text therefore…I’m never going to have love again”

Interrupting the crazy story telling is crucial because “story-fondling” leads to more pain. It’s like drinking poison on top of the bad news. And it keeps us stuck and unhappy for much, much longer. Sometimes for years.

Avoiding story-fondling is not to be confused with “Think Positive!” When we’re smack in the middle of Square 1, that can feel like a burning, steel rod through the heart.

Adding more misery to misery is not helpful. If you are the person in Square 1, lay down. If you are the friend of a person in Square 1, bring tea and tissues, save the advice for later when we can hear you and it doesn’t feel like something else we are failing at.

Step 4:

Notice your painful stories about what is happening and instead of believing them without question, try interrupting the story saying, “ I am having the thought that… I am going to be a bag lady.”

Then you can give it an affectionate name you can laugh at when it inevitably pops up again, “Oh this is my bag lady story again.”

Just noticing it is a story we are telling ourselves changes our automatic neural pathways and that reduces suffering.

To research this mindfulness technique, Google “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.”

There are many free resources available and helpful books and videos on the technique.

Step 5:

Get to the truth!

When something awful happens we have no idea how it’s all going to go in the end.

Staying in the moment is critical. Try not to get ahead of yourself making up bad stuff that could happen in the future. If it’s really dire, take it minute by minute until the mountain of fear recedes into the rear view mirror.

The more we “Grieve and Disbelieve,” as Martha beck says, the faster we will move through the pain of this situation and onto Square 2 (which is a heck of a lot more fun, I promise).

Grieve the real loss and disbelieve the unhelpful story that gets piled on top of it.

While in Square 1 we tend to believe we will never feel better, it seems utterly impossible.

Our instinct can be to try to run away from the feelings but oddly that is exactly what keeps us stuck much longer.

It’s been proven if we fully feel our strong emotions it only lasts 90 seconds. And we can survive 90 seconds. It may come back in the future but the 90 second rule applies then as well. Ride it out.

For more information check out what Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor says about this 90 second rule.

And it feels right, get the help of a good coach to guide you through Square 1 with the least amount of burning and lingering. Or visit Byron Katie’s site for “The Work” and coach yourself.

Square 1 is a time for extreme self care, whatever that means to us, personally.

This often involves extreme self-love and kindness. And occasionally repeating the surprisingly calming, simple mantra of Square 1, “I don’t know what the hell is going on and that’s okay”.



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Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: courtesy of the author

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