Recently I had another* young woman crying in my office. She had been in an ongoing conflict with another student, and the resulting discussions had her feeling completely off-balance and unsure. Like everyone else who is surprised to find herself in a bad situation, she has participated in the dynamic with good intentions and a belief that she is not responsible for the conflict. She was In the Box with her classmate but didn’t know it.
When we told her she was equally responsible for the tension that had been escalating in the lab, she was caught completely by surprise. She felt she was being treated completely unfairly, that this was in no way her fault. Despite her protestations, she was now having trouble working and concentrating, seemed to be in an ongoing tailspin, and could see no way out of her growing despair.
Her situation reminded me of the times in my life that I felt the same way, though sometimes to different degrees. Once when I really felt like I had hit rock bottom was right around the time I was going up for promotion. I had spent the previous six years as part of a dual-career marriage with two small children at home, trying to survive – no, succeed – in the publish-or-perish academic game of roulette. The stakes were either tenure or my walking papers, with no middle ground.
Unfortunately I was not managing the work-life balance at all. My health was down the tubes, my marriage was seriously on the rocks, though work was progressing well enough. I didn’t realize I had a problem until one day, out of the blue, I just burst into tears while walking down the street. In hindsight, I was probably depressed and creating my chronic pain conditions from my out-of-control stress. Clearly, my self-awareness was nil and my denial absolute. My lack of awareness meant I was probably taking out my stress, frustration and resentment on those around me while thinking I was being helpful and loving.
At the time, I felt my situation was hopeless: I was stuck in a ridiculously demanding job and in an unhappy marriage with no end in sight to my miserable situation. I did not feel I could change jobs or get a divorce with two elementary school-aged children at home. I had no one I could really talk to since I rarely felt safe sharing my vulnerabilities with others. I was on my own.
The breakdown was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Hitting rock bottom was the beacon that broke through my denial about my life and my role in creating my situation. I soon realized that I was at a crossroads: to either continue my blame and denial game, or to do whatever it takes to fix my life. Continuing to feel that bad did not feel like an option so I pulled myself together and made a plan to regain my sanity and save my family.
That decision caused me to begin a lifelong journey of introspection, self-care and self-discovery that has led me to find my life’s passion. I am grateful that this crash occurred while I was still relatively young. The crash forced me to get off a negative and destructive path and instead, to follow the light.
When facing a set-back, a disaster, a change, no matter how bad or hopeless it seems, we all have a choice. We can either choose to continue our downward spiral or to view the event as an opportunity to grow and improve. Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, calls this choice falling up, i.e. creating opportunities out of setbacks. Falling up is a hallmark of successful people.
Thus, I told my student that I’m really happy this happened to her while she’s in school with supportive people here to help her, since a conflict of this nature was inevitable given her false self-image. I also felt she was lucky that this happened to her at such a young age as I was at least a decade older when I was first forced to really confront my demons and finally set out on a healthy, happy journey.
I’m not sure yet but I think my student has decided that she will fall up too. I will be here to fall with her, either way.
*This is a surprisingly frequent occurrence in my office, but since criers usually come back to talk some more I have to assume that I am not the source of their tears.