Understanding yourself in crisis: Fear v learning

Understanding yourself in crisis: Fear v learning

statues wearing Covid-19 masks

Tatiana Bachkirova looks at the range of strategies we adopt when we are in crisis, and asks: What in us can counteract something as big and powerful as fear?

Existentialists say that crisis is unavoidable, and it is almost certainly the case that we all face various crises now and again. However, the current world crisis is of a different scale and amplified by the significant uncertainty over how long it may last.

How we face up to and come to terms with such levels of crisis is a current topic and on the mind of most of us. We feel that something needs to be done by each of us, but what we can do in such circumstances seems disproportionally small. We are provided with basic guidance for what we should do, but often there is little confidence in this guidance because of a lack of clear evidence, or the holding of some level of justified distrust in the authority claiming to guide us.

Our strategies in crises where we are confronted with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty are not unusual in comparison to our typical tendencies:

• To obey authority, thereby putting the main responsibility in someone else’s hands.
• To panic and act impulsively – trying to do at least something, such as stockpiling.
• To engage in blatant self-deception to avoid anxiety, e.g. ‘This won’t happen to me’, or, ‘It will go away soon’.
• To constantly check the situation through various media, as if this information can help to prepare or save you.

We also sometimes choose to do something productive that allows us to stay sane and to promote a sense of control in a situation when control is scarce. However, even these sensible actions are externally faced. This is not surprising; focusing on the troublesome external environment is natural. It is a normal instinct to be alert to where the danger seems to come from and when possible to take care of oneself and others in this environment. We probably carry this instinct from our evolutionary past.

However, when the nature of the danger is so vague, prolonged and disruptive of our normal activities, constant alertness is exhausting. It depletes resources and brings low the general mood. Life becomes dominated by fear.

As many of us, not by choice, now have an unusual amount of time on our hands, I would like to invite you to turn, at least to some extent, internally and to consider: What in us can counteract something as big and powerful as fear?

Love would probably come to mind first. It is fundamental to our nature to try to protect our loved ones and, where we can, do our best to extend our love further, to colleagues, friends, communities and the planet. This kind of action is externally focused and might be limited under the circumstances.

My intention in this message is to remind you about another powerful drive that can counteract fear. This drive is a desire to learn, and it can work internally against fear. We know that learning is beneficial for our development. Everyone’s individual development contributes to a wider community, and maybe even wider in the long run. At the same time, learning as a process can go quite a way in mitigating the debilitating sense of fear.

Learning could be about anything, but I would argue that crisis provides a golden opportunity to learn much more about yourself. Difficult situations bring to the surface tendencies that are not generally noticeable, or kept under control, in everyday living. Crisis is a test that is even more critical. By learning to observe ourselves in crisis we also improve our skills for helping others to learn about their selves. We can offer them these skills and quality of attention when needed in our daily and professional life.

What can we learn about our self? Here are some questions that occurred to me. You are welcome to start your inquiry with these before going on to come up with your own:

• What does fear do to me?
• What is my relationship with time?
• How do I deceive myself?
• Who am I when the usual professional role, social status and even close relationships are stripped away?
• What thoughts and feelings do I try to silence in my meditation practice? What do they say about me?

For further learning, you might want to read this article about self-deception in leadership. It was published in 2013 in an open-access journal that is not very well known. I think it might still be found to have relevance.

You can also send me a message to receive two more articles on this topic if it triggers your interest. One is on self-deception in coaching, and the other sets out a new theory of self-deception.

Tatiana Bachkirova is Professor of Coaching Psychology and Director of the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University. This article was originally published in Coaching Content Research and is reproduced here by kind permission of Tatiana Bachkirova.

Photo by Tim Dennell under CC BY-NC 2.0