Dying a Slow Death
June 19, 2014
January 31, 2011
There is a saying among therapists that goes like this:
If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out.
If you put the frog in lukewarm water and heat it up very slowly, the frog will stay there until it cooks to death.
Last week I was at the Isle of Palms for a writer’s conference. During an afternoon break, I took a walk on the beach with a friend. We noticed dozens, maybe hundreds of starfish dead on the beach. My friend said she had heard or read about this awful phenomenon, and that it had to do with the fact that the unusually cold water had rendered the starfish paralyzed. Then, when the tide brought them in, they couldn’t use their normal means of locomotion to get back in the water. Would they have wanted to, anyway? Maybe death is better than freezing.
All of this is to point to the fact that our environments do change. When it is sudden, like the frog being dropped into boiling water, unless we are unconscious, we usually know what happened. We jump, run, scream, move out, go to the ER, or whatever we need to do to accommodate to that changed environment. That can be difficult and traumatic. Forced change, so to speak. We might be battered, bruised, broken, or burned, but we are usually still alive.
Sometimes, though, it happens so slowly that we don’t recognize what is going on. Like the frog in the simmering pot and the starfish in the sea growing slowly too cold, we don’t realize what is happening until it is a real crisis, and sometimes it is too late.
I see this kind of slow death frequently in my office. A marriage that has been simmering one or both of its partners to death. A work environment that is toxic, slowly draining the life blood out of someone or many someones. A body that is vaguely sick, that seems to get just a little sicker week after week until suddenly it seems to be beyond repair. Teens who have been slowly losing their way, edging ever closer to a big disaster.
Here is my best advice to you. Pay attention. Stay conscious. Then find a way to take action.
Does that seem too simple? It is simple, but it is not easy.
Pay attention to your relationships, especially to your primary relationship, your relationship with any children you might have, and your work environment. Do you have a sense of being enlivened, safe, nurtured, and supported or do you feel like you are slowly being cooked to death? Do you dread going to work? Coming home? What is real? Just noticing is the first step and can be very helpful.
When you notice this in your life, don’t act as if it isn’t happening. If it is in a relationship, try to find a safe, nonjudgmental way to talk about it. Use “I-statements” like, “ I am feeling tired,( bored, lonely, or hurt) in this relationship. Take responsibility for changing yourself. Do you need to make your world larger by taking up a hobby, learning something new, reading something interesting, spending time with friends or children? Avoid judgment but don’t avoid noticing and speaking what is true for you. Remember, seeking therapy can be preventive! And it’s cheaper than a divorce!
So many parents know there is something wrong with their children months if not years before they take action. Don’t wait! If you are talking with a child or teen, also use I-statements. “I am worried about you. You aren’t acting like your self. I am concerned that something in your life is hard to deal with and you don’t know how to fix it.” By the time help is sought out, many children have been struggling for years with depression, anxiety, learning problems, and grief.
Toxic environments at work can be very problematic because we spend so many hours there! Begin weighing the pros and cons of the job. Focus, if possible, on what parts of your work you do enjoy and try to spend more quality time on those and less on the parts that are bringing you down. Avoid the energy vampires at the office and stay focused on what is important to you. If you must, start looking for a different environment.
Pay attention. Listen to your body. Open your eyes and ears. Listen to what you say to yourself. (Yes, most of us have conversations with ourselves frequently!) If you think you are cooking to death, get some help to turn off the heat and get out of the pot before irreversible damage is done.
Amy Sander Montanez, D. MIn,
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