by Logan Cohen, LMFT-S
The Greater Charlotte Area was faced with a tropical storm this past weekend (9/15 & 9/16), which was downgraded significantly after it tore at Wilmington, Fayetville, and other cities that are farther towards the Carolina Coast. While we were not NEARLY as impacted as other parts of the state, it was enough to create a bit of Chaos about storm preparation and some down trees, property damage, and power outages. In fact, my neighborhood held many of the lucky 3200 folks in Charlotte who still didn't have power on Tuesday (this was since Saturday night). All of these factors created a bit of tension in my own household and as a Family Therapist, I know this means it's "time to talk about it."
My partner and I actually met working together at a Wilderness Therapy Program in the Appalachian Mountains, where we lived and worked among adolescents for 3 years while they were transitioning out of Youth Detention Centers and Residential Inpatient Psychiatric settings before returning to their Natural Communities. My partner only got "to the woods" (as we affectionately refer to this time period of our lives) after she also did a stint in the Peace Corp in a small/remote country called "Suriname" on the Northern tip of South America. Then after leaving the Wilderness Therapy setting, I continued to work predominantly in inpatient residential units for a period of time before founding New Leaf. As you can see, my Partner and I have a LOT of field experience managing the basic needs of dynamic social groups in less than optimal settings, where the experience of Crisis is just another Thursday.
Even though we have had a great deal of experience managing these situations, we are no less at risk to the damage that can be done when Tribe Members "turn on each other" (also referred to in clinical behavior modification settings as "redirecting") in those situations than any other couple. I would love to say that just because I had all of that experience and I am a Marriage and Family Therapist, that this somehow makes my family immune. While it CERTAINLY does not, I have learned over the years in acute settings and in my ongoing practice as a professional therapist, that these are the times that make or break relationships. This is the time when the "gloves come off" and our interpersonal connections are truly tested. This is an area that I have worked within and also provided a LOT of formal training around to other mental health professionals around, so could speak about many different important areas of responding to Crisis/Chaos. However, the most essential first step to managing these types of situations is...
KEEP EMOTIONALITY LOW!!!
"Emotionality" is merely the level of emotional dysregulation within the Tribe (family, romantic relationship, business, etc). During a time of Crisis/Chaos, the system of relationships ad individuals within it are being challenged to operate at a level of aptitude and/or flexibility that is outside of their comfort zone. While often anxiety provoking, this degree of "unbalancing" (as referred to by one of the late/great "Fathers" of Family Therapy, Salvador Minuchin) can actually force the system of relationships to grow in a way that was not an option before the destabilizing event.
This law of nature takes place amongst all natural organisms and symbiotic relationships throughout or ecosystem. For example, when you re-pot a plant, you MUST disrupt the plant roots or they will never spread to their full potential in the new container. And like the plant root, we also require an injection of fertilizer after a significant disruption in order to potentiate (remove barriers to) further growth, but that can only occur if the new container is a sound receptacle for the new soil/water. This concept of "keeping emotionality low" can be considered the way to appropriately "waterproof" your new container. If family members, lovers, or colleagues can all "keep their cool", this Crisis/Chaos (as long as we are safe) is oftentimes an INCREDIBLE catalyst for development and improvement, but ONLY if we stay adequately cool/connected with each other while growing through the tension. At the same time, it can also mark the downfall of an established way of doing things (think the Great Depression of Great Recession) that might be necessary to continue developing in novel ways that can better serve everyone involved. This is much easier said than done and many couples/families, and even individuals come to our practice to get support from a professional as to how they can carry these emotional aptitudes for growth into their own lives.