Crisis – reflection time

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough…If you don’t know where you want to go it doesn’t matter which way you choose…

Lewis Carroll – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”


From the very beginning of their existence, people have been facing crises. They constitute an inherent part of our existence. The life of each human being is marked with continuous changes resulting from critical events. Human behavior is not fully controllable and predictable, as it is also the case with the forces of nature. We are, however, able to limit the situations resulting in a crisis and minimize its outcomes. Nevertheless, it is impossible to totally eliminate them.


Crisis is a particular phenomenon, occurring within a general, sometimes very long process of changes in ourselves, around us, often independent of us. Everyone has their own story. Some of them make us go up, other pull us down, depriving us of power and hope and overloading with their burden. These are the stories which make the people take part in therapy sessions. I meet people in crisis, who sometimes see their lives as one big series of crises. In my next article I would like to show you and discuss many different faces of crisis.


The word “crisis” comes from the Greek “krisis”, which has multiple meanings. “Krisis” meant separation, choice, preference, judgment, explanation, interpretation, struggle etc. In Polish, the word “crisis” has negative connotations linked with pain and tears, and thinking about crisis makes us want to run away. It is impossible to define crisis only in one way, especially when we consider the fact that we use this word in connection with different areas of our life, science and in different cultural circles. In Japan, the word “crisis” consists of two characters. One of them means “danger”, while the second “occasion, opportunity”. In this way, crisis unites something which constitutes a danger and a chance at the same time, a hazard and a new opportunity.


Fr. German Arana SJ describes crisis in the following way: “In a broader sense, crisis refers to the moment of uncertainty within the process of personal or social transformation. It is the turning point between one system, which is losing its legitimacy, and the second, which is being born”. As far as current psychological concepts are concerned, W. Badura-Madej defines crisis as a “temporary lack of internal balance, caused by a critical event or other life event, requiring important changes and solutions”. American psychologist Gordon Allport suggests the following definition of crisis: “It is the situation of emotional and mental stress requiring the change of perspective within a short period of time. These perspective changes often result in the modification of the structure of personality. They can be progressive or regressive. A man remaining in a critical situation is unable to stay calm, i.e. to reduce their current traumatic situation to already known routine behavior patterns and is unable to refer to simple habitual adaptation activities”. Let these several attempts to define “crisis” depict our field of interest.


It will be difficult for me, for the purposes of the present article, to describe all forms of crisis which people have to face. I will analyze a few of them which are for me the most common in the context of my work. I hope that their presentation will broaden the horizon of crisis perception.


Apart from teenage crises connected with adolescence, which constitutes the period of entering the adult life, so called midlife crisis constitutes another important stage of human life, falling between 34 and 45 years of age. Jung devotes a lot of attention to this subject and divides human life into periods metaphorically called morning, zenith and evening of life. In this period we face the realization that we have devoted the first part of our life to preparing for it, acquiring skills and collecting resources necessary for our life to continue, while in the critical “midlife” period, the time comes to reflect on what we have achieved in our life and what we have not.  It is also the moment of self-assessment – Who have I become? What have I realized and accomplished? What have been neglected? Which values have I followed? Which values have I neglected or betrayed? What is more, we ask ourselves a question about the purpose of life in general, in particular of our life. We are aware of the fact that something has changed in our life, we may even not understand it well enough, but we realize that we have to set ourselves totally new tasks, resigning from some things, but gaining other ones.


According to Jung, this period is not only a crisis which may last for a long time as it requires radical change, assessment, reevaluations, or even transformation of our lifestyle, but it also gives the possibility of creative internal change. Jung reminds that this period is very difficult due to frequently occurring crises, which are similar to neurosis, but in fact do not form part of this mental disorder. Midlife crisis is rich in deep thoughts and reflections. Religious reflections are also present, even among non-believers. Jung notices one more positive characteristic of this crisis, which encourages a human to stop for a while, consider and think about their life, as if somebody deep inside was screaming: “Where are you hurrying? Stop!”. Midlife crisis poses one more problem for a human – a special task should be discovered for this period.


In the first stage of life a human has somehow prepared for adult life, while the second stage comes and we are obliged to search for new tasks, as life is approaching its evening. Jung poses here a question concerning the purpose of death, which may not be considered as the end of life, but we should consider life as heading towards fulfillment, towards completing tasks. Death does not make it finish, but it constitutes the border after which new life becomes a fact. We need to be strong to perceive life and death in this way, it is always the question of maturity. Midlife crisis ensures a new perspective and shows the purpose. The fact that it is so long and acute demonstrates human struggle with themselves.


For some people this period is particularly difficult and they need help. Jung points out to the fact that development of the personality of an adult is hard and emphasizes the positive role of this struggle and suffering as they may constitute the source of energy and power. Going through the crisis in a positive way does not mean that all problems will disappear. Great values, ideas and tasks add meaning to life not because they can be obtained but through continuous effort to achieve them and this effort fills the life. It is worth to consider and accept the truth that in spite of our weakness, we are able and we should set ourselves remote and demanding goals, both in the first as well as the second half of our life, before and after the midlife crisis.


Situational crisis constitutes one of the most dangerous forms of crisis. Situational crises are the crises which were caused by some sudden and unexpected events, such as for example losing a near and dear person or something important. The essence of this crisis is the fact that the situation surprises us. The key to differentiate between situational crises and their other types consists in such characteristics of the event causing the crisis as its unexpectedness, sudden appearance, shocking character, intensity and catastrophic traits. They usually pose a threat to such important goods as health, life, image of ourselves, important relationships, future life plans and other. While faced with such crisis, we become helpless towards these difficulties which require some modification of our actions or behavior, accepting the loss of somebody. We tend to undermine the values which we have been following and the purpose of our life. We begin to defend ourselves through trial and error as we are unable to refer to rational solution. We become helpless. Situational crises constitute an important danger. The sensation of helplessness, hopelessness, undermining the system of values, losing the sense and purpose of our life, fear and anxiety sometimes lead us towards inappropriate solutions. It is the moment when the risk of reducing unpleasant emotions appears, and it may be reflected in abusing alcohol, medicines, drugs or else in auto aggression or suicide attempts.


Situational crises, similarly to their other types, also have some creative potential. After a positively resolved situational crisis we become stronger and reinforce the system of our values. Very often somebody else’s help is necessary to live the crisis through. The person experiencing situational crisis needs understanding, patience and the feeling that they are not left alone, no matter how helpless they seem. It should be remembered that a human being needs another human being. We are social creatures who need presence and support. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Do you understand (…) what it means when you  have absolutely nowhere to turn? (…) for every man must have somewhere to turn…”. It is worth to emphasize that each crisis constitutes the occasion for growth. Each new day opens for us new opportunities of which we had no idea yesterday, it may be better, new horizons may open, those which we wouldn’t notice without going through the crisis.


The third crisis which my clients often have to face is the crisis of personality. Erik Erikson is the creator of the concept of this crisis. He himself had a lot of difficulty in finding answers to the questions who he was and who he would like to be. His versatile interests and talents made him unable to choose the most appropriate path to follow. As a young man, Erikson was interested in art and wanted to become a painter. During his stay in Italy he got familiar with the works by Michelangelo but he came to a sad conclusion that he would never be as good as Michelangelo had been and there was for him no point in becoming a mediocre artists, so he started searching for another career path. His wandering began as he was often changing accommodation. Finally, he decided to settle for a longer time in Vienna, where he discovered Freud’s theories and got involved in children’s psychoanalysis. He extended child’s and adult’s personality development scheme suggested by Freud.


According to his concept, the adolescence stage is of major importance for the entire life. It is the period when the battle for our own personality is in progress, i.e. the battle for being ourselves. This period in life is characterized in particular by searching for our own role in life, the meaning of our existence and paving the way to the realization of chosen values. Young people all over the world share, shared and will share similar thoughts. I think that in some circumstances we get obsessed with questions concerning the sense of our existence, and when they occur, it becomes impossible not to search for the answer to them. The process of shaping our own identity can be divided into several parts. In the first stage of our life we all get our own name and then a little one becomes “somebody”. Than the moment comes for the positive stage of deepening our own identity through identifying with “somebody” who I am and who I would like to become. There also exists negative identification, which consists of what I am ashamed of, what I would like to hide from the others. Erikson used to say that the shaping of our own identity consists in fact in the restructuring of all previous identifications. We change according to what we expect from ourselves and what we are aiming at. For this reason preferred future is so important to be determined.


Personality crisis also considers voluntary emigration, and even more to forced one. It is difficult for the people leaving their home country to adapt to new circumstances. It can be said that this crisis is born as a result of difficulty in finding the answer to such questions as: Who am I? Who am I as a husband, a wife, a parent, a student, an employee, a friend? Where am I going? What values do I want to realize? What is important for me?


I — I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

Lewis Carroll – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”


Crisis makes us stop. It forces to generate questions which we do not ask ourselves every day. Time for reflection begins. Something wakes up in us and is demanding attention. Internal dialogue begins, which may change our way of seeing and interpreting the world. Going through a crisis alone may boost the feeling of being lost and increase emotional tensions. During this period it is worth to stay open to the contact with other people, to discussions with them. Exchanging thoughts and discussing various matters provoke to the generation of ideas how to solve the crisis. It is worth to remember that one of the most mature ways to reduce emotional tensions is to share our emotions or feelings with somebody else. The crisis demands from us to change and to take up new challenges and tasks. Behaviors to which we have got used undergo verification. We have to find the answer to numerous questions: What can I do to change the situation? What can replace what I’m currently doing? What will it require from my part? What will it change in my life, in my relationships with other people? What will be your first step towards approaching the change? How will you do it and when?


Tłumaczenie/Translated by: Agnieszka Zielińska

Zdjęcia / Photos by : Anna Fotyma