Adjusting to the Unfamiliar Is an Emotional Process

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In the last post, I hope I made the case that both logic and emotion are employed in successful transformational initiatives. Although a balance between the two is our ultimate aim, there are times when we need to attend more to the client’s emotions than to their rational processing of change, and that is the focus of this series.

When working with clients, it’s important to note that there is a wide range of situations that evoke strong emotions:

  • Some surface positive feelings, others negative.
  • Some are transient, others sustained.
  • Some are easy to interpret; others are complicated with conflicting signals.
  • Some are indicative of singular issues; others reflect multiple dynamics.
  • Some dissipate once “venting” takes place; others linger and become embedded.
  • Some are associated with holding on to the past, others with the ambiguity of the present, while still others are associated with the dangers/opportunities of the future.

I’d like to share with you some observations and learnings around what I consider the most challenging emotion-based work our profession engages in with clients…addressing cathartic-level feelings tied to letting go of the status quo and migrating to the unfamiliar. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences in this regard.

Cathartic emotions are not typical.

Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing first pointed out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The word originally referred to an audience’s strong emotional reaction to a tragic play. The reference was later picked up as a medical term meaning purging. It has also been applied extensively within psychological contexts to describe the process of emotional release or, more precisely, one emotional energy giving way to another (e.g., the discharge of a long-standing, pent-up resentment that leaves a void, which can then be filled with compassion).

I’m applying the term catharsis here in a very specific way. During major change, it is common for clients to express their feelings in strong, definitive ways. Whether positive or negative, powerful emotional reactions to the transition process are certain to surface. Cathartic feelings are not the normal reaction to change, however. They are the ones that live at the “deepest end” of the emotional pool. These are the breakthroughs that clients sometimes experience when they finally accept new circumstances after a long struggle to keep the status quo intact.

This kind of emotional release has three phases: 1) an extended period of hanging on to the way things have been, followed by 2) letting go, which then opens the way for 3) opening up to new possibilities. Although each phase has its unique characteristics, all three play a vital part when someone transitions from a strongly held position or viewpoint to a dramatically different perspective.

Because there is a big investment in each stage (hanging on, letting go, and opening up), there is a corresponding release of energy associated with each movement. In fact, each stage’s  resolution fuels the next with energy. For example, the amount of emotional energy that goes into hanging on is often reflected in the amount of emotional release displayed when letting go takes place. The deeper the resolve to hold fast to the status quo (regardless of the positive or negative implications for maintaining it), the greater the emotional discharge when surrender finally takes place (see box).

Cathartic Post 2 Graphic

This can be seen when people who have been highly invested in the old status quo finally let go. Letting go can unfold in one of two ways:

  • People may shut down and stop exploring new options. When what was once familiar is no longer available, they sometimes decide the best defense against ever feeling vulnerable again is to close themselves off from believing too much in new people or things. This is the route taken by those who prefer to detach themselves from new possibilities rather than run the risk of ever being so distressed again. (This was explained in depth as “D-type reactions” in my series on reshaping mindsets).
  • People may open up to new possibilities that could fill the void. They decide that the vulnerability and pain that comes with lost attachment is an inherent part of life and refuse to hold themselves back from venturing into new, uncharted territory. This is the route taken by those who tend to learn from their mistakes and continue to grow, rather than become stagnated and buffer themselves from the discomfort of subsequent disappointments. This was explained as “O-type reactions” in the same series.)

Whether we find ourselves in one-on-one coaching exchanges or facilitating groups in workshop settings, as facilitators of change, our role is to guide people away from D-type and toward O-type reactions to change.

Successful cathartic breakthroughs require all three phases (hanging on, letting go, opening up), which explains why some people start the process of deep change but never complete the journey. Not all who struggle extensively to preserve the current state will reach a point of surrender. (These are the ones who tend to go down fighting.) Some can surrender to the reality of losing the way things were, but never find a new way to fill the opening that was created. (These are the ones who tend to remain lost and stuck in resentment.) In this series of posts, I’m describing clients who resist mightily but then face “what is” and find a way to reframe their viewpoint and support implementation of the change. When they do, they tend to experience extremely strong emotions. This is cathartic-level transformation, and we need to ensure we are prepared to provide the proper guidance to those seeking this passage.

Cathartic emotions run deep.

Cathartic breakthroughs are always accompanied by a flood of emotions. Remember, we are not dealing within the client’s logic realm; we are in his or her emotional space. Cathartic release is not the result of some rational evaluation of the “cost/benefit ratio for continuing to fight for the status quo versus capitulating to the new circumstances.” It takes place when the emotional energy associated with letting go and opening up overrides the struggle to hang on.

Here’s an example: If the hanging on is intense and has gone on for a long time, it’s likely the person’s identity has become enmeshed in the struggle. People who fight the good fight for extended periods sometimes reach a point where they fear that letting go might mean they will lose a part of who they have become…the protector of the status quo. The unspoken (and usually unconscious) question in play here is, “If I’m no longer a guardian of what was, who am I?”

This question can create a powerful void between hanging on and opening up. After “what was” is gone, but before the “what is to become” space is filled with something new, there is a psychological opening that is extremely uncomfortable (and therefore avoided at any cost). As a species, the ultimate existential anxiety for us takes place when we are unsure of who we are.

Although most people think their fight to hang on is about what is right or wrong, good or bad, in large part the struggle’s intensity is actually tied to preserving one’s self-identity. Few people are aware of it, but one of the primary reasons we try so hard to protect what we have is because the things we try to preserve have become part of how we define ourselves. We battle so profoundly because we are not only fighting to conserve what is around us; we are also fighting for our sense of distinctiveness. Given how invested people become in the outcomes of these battles, when they are lost, the emptiness can be profound. And with intense loss comes intense emotions, thus the cathartic-level release.

We must be prepared to help clients deal with deep emotion.

Cathartic experiences are personal by nature and therefore different for each individual. Two people in different relationships can experience divorce at the same time yet their responses will likely vary dramatically. That said, they will have one thing in common: If they don’t surrender and then “purge” their hearts following their respective break ups, they won’t likely be open to a new, deep relationship. It is this relinquishing, clearing out, and adopting that allows something fresh to unfold.

In our role as change practitioners, it’s important that we design and conduct individual interactions, meetings, workshops, etc. in a way that creates space for various kinds of “surrender/vacate/acceptance” experiences, including those of cathartic intensity. For example, helping a client develop a business case for change is an opportunity to reveal why his or her status quo is so untenable. Facilitating controversial, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue among key players about the business implications for failing or succeeding with their initiatives can create a cathartic moment for the sponsors. This is when they realize at a deep emotional level that they can no longer continue on the same potentially catastrophic path. As a result, they release their vice-like grip on the established, familiar way of thinking. This can open the way for new perspectives to emerge that lead to a desired future state, less encumbered by the anchors of the past.

As change practitioners, an important part of our work involves encouraging clients to face the reality of their circumstances:

  • We can help them recognize when they are holding on too long, letting go too early, or prematurely grasping something new.
  • We can help them see the right timing and approach for harvesting what has worked, release it, and move on to what is to come.

When this happens, we are engaged with our clients at deeply meaningful, emotionally expressive levels and we need to be prepared to recognize these cathartic situations and respond appropriately.

In the next post, I’ll describe some of the ways we can prepare ourselves for cathartic work with clients.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: February 14, 2012 05:52 PM | Permalink

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Solutions are not the answer.

- Richard M. Nixon