The Value of a Crisis
Alison Ruffoni & Irene Brambilla
What is a crisis?
What do we mean by “crisis”? A crisis is essentially what happens when a person reaches a “breaking point”. This can emerge in the workplace, in the personal sphere or in other areas of life. We see this for example in cases where a person suffers from “burn-out” or alcoholism (which can often be linked).
It is not only individual people who reach this kind of breaking point, but it can also be working teams, companies and societies in general.
The view we have of a crisis is generally negative and those who are going through this are usually labeled as “inadequate”. The crisis itself is seen as something negative, hoping that it will pass quickly and frequently becomes a taboo subject that is not discussed.
We think that there is a different, more functional and positive way of looking at, and approaching a crisis.
A systemic approach to a crisis
We would like to talk about this topic starting from a book.
There are moments in a person’s life when we make discoveries that radically change our vision. For Irene, one of these moments was when she read about Gregory Bateson’s theory of the cybernetics of self, applied to alcoholism.
According to this theory, human relationships are divided into symmetrical (I am equal to you, and I am in competition with you) and complementary (I am different from you and I am in relation to you).
Western society strongly pushes us towards symmetry and rivalry with others.
Life seems to be a race full of different stages (graduation, getting a job, having sentimental relationships and sexual experiences, marriage, children, purchasing a home, etc.) and those who cannot reach these stages in time are left behind. They feel like “losers”, excluded, inadequate.
Interactions with others are also marked by this strong rivalry and often based on “mirroring”. This can lead to people trying to establish which of the two is the winner, whether we are talking about the working field, the sentimental sphere, family, etc.
For example, when we drink, we re-establish the complementary relational mode, based on the sense of brotherhood and sharing.
According to this theory, which is the basis of the Alcoholics Anonymous method, the causes of alcoholism should be explored in the life of the alcoholic when he is sober.
It is not alcoholism in itself, but the symmetrical, harmful relational forms that characterize a person’s life and that he tries to remedy through alcohol.
It is rather generally believed that “causes” or “reasons” for alcoholism are to be looked for in the sober life of the alcoholic — Gregory Bateson
The alcoholics’ family and friends, tell him that he must “be strong”, and “fight” the urge to drink, but this only increases the symmetrical interaction that led him to drink.
Fundamental to this program, to heal the condition of alcoholism, is the understanding that drinking is an unhealthy response to a healthy need, that of connecting in a complementary way with others.
The key to healing is to admit to being “an alcoholic forever” and accepting this condition instead of fighting it. So, it is not the alcoholic who has to change, but his relationship with himself and others.
Against the obsession of happiness
According to Bateson’s theory, the more we try to deny our fragility, the more we worsen the problem.
This theory made us think deeply and wondered if the wrong and counterproductive answers we give in the case of alcoholism (resist, be strong, fight, etc. ) are also those that we use in many cases of crisis.
We live in a society that offers us unreachable and unrealistically happy models. Fragility and suffering are not accepted in the contemporary model of man and woman, who is vital, energetic and performing, with clear medium and long-term goals and serene relationships with others.
Every day, without even realizing it, we are being told by society who we should strive to be. Simply browsing the internet, social media, adverts and magazine articles we find ourselves constantly subjected to an unrealistic idea of what a person should be, achieve, think and look like.
Often disguised as “inspirational” we see quotes, slogans, and images of successful and happy people who have overcome great difficulties and reached a kind of “perfection”. The message behind these posts often seems very positive, but if we analyze it on a deeper level we can observe how this “positivity at any cost” can become problematic. Images of busy mothers with a youthful and perfect body, men who claim to have reached the top in their careers starting from the bottom and quickly working their way up, only show one side of reality.
Where are the images of real people struggling? Why are we never shown the passages in-between the starting point and the ultimate goal? But most importantly why do we need to be seen as constantly happy, positive and successful? The idea that a person can have an unproductive day, sometimes feel quite low, have many setbacks and yet still lead a good life and make small but important personal improvements simply don’t ever seem to be “enough”.
Should we really be so hard on ourselves all the time, or could this simply lead to frustration and a propensity to give up? Could it not in the end be more productive to accept, show and not constantly have to hide our struggles? We see a great lack of representation regarding this in the media and society in general.
For example, people who suffer from a mental disorder, are led to hide their pain, in the name of an ancient sense of shame and the obligation of happiness.
Conflict is often not accepted, being seen as a sign of “poor relational ability” rather than as a growth opportunity for the relationship.
Failures and mistakes made at work are hidden. They are considered something to remove from our career path as soon as possible.
And finally, death is often not even mentioned, as is our spiritual faith, considered an intimate and private matter, not to be shared with others.
This is a serious topic and not something that is always easy to talk about. Often humor can help. If you would like to see this from a more humorous perspective check out this video.
Embracing our fragility
A social environment that does not admit fragility will sooner or later develop problems. As human beings, we encounter painful moments throughout our lives, we face conflicts, we carry insecurities, we make mistakes.
Hiding these elements like dust under the carpet can only lead, sooner or later, to collapse.
To prevent this outcome, we should fight the idea that expressing one’s own fragility is a sign of weakness.
Otherwise, accepting everyday life crises as natural events encourages the processing and the overcoming of these types of situations. It strengthens the person’s feeling of being part of a group, self-esteem, resilience, and flexibility.
Celebrating a crisis in order to find meaning
People often say that suffering helps us to grow, and somehow we think it’s true. A society that accepts fragility is also a place that values transition and transformation to a higher level, be it individual or social.
Physical or mental illness often leads us to discover resources we did not know we had, and become more resilient.
The conflict between two people can be the stimulus for advancing and strengthening their relationship.
Failure leads groups to learn and to reorganize themselves.
Even death, as an extreme transformation, can be celebrated in its beauty and leads us to look for meaning in our lives, also through spirituality.
Welcoming and celebrating fragility does not make us weaker than others, but more able to react and adapt to changes.
Finally, we would like to remember the ancient myth of the phoenix, which rises from its ashes. The crisis has been a turning point on several occasions, the drive to create the change that had long been needed.
It’s the most powerful way of transformation and regeneration of social environments and interpersonal relationships.
Do you think it is possible to use a crisis to improve our environment or you have a different thought? Leave us a comment
Bateson G., “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”,
American Psychiatric Association,(2013), Manuale Diagnostico e Statistico dei Disturbi Mentali, Raffaello Cortina, Milano
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Elbogen EB, Johnson SC “The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions”, Arch Gene Psychiatry 2009, 66, pag. 152–161.
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