People get upset. They just do. Most cultures, certainly ours here the West, have issues with how anger fits into polite society—it’s frowned upon, feared, scolded, and quickly associated with craziness. We assume angry people are crazy in part because we tend to see the eruption; anger isn’t expressed incrementally as it arises, rather, it’s stored up and explodes like a volcano once someone reaches their limit. That tends to look unfocused, out of control, and crazy.
People get upset. Some will try to argue with you, "Don’t be upset,” but that’s just interfering with nature. You can’t control someone’s crisis.
When we get upset, our brain's ability to make sense of things takes a hike
The Crisis Curve amazed me when I first saw it. It just made sense. It takes what we’ve all known through emotional experience and what we’ve observed in others and creates a simple picture of what goes on. It explains why you can’t get a good answer (or give one) when you’re upset: What’s wrong?
The Crisis Curve illustrates the splitting-off between emotions and cognition (sense-making) that occurs when we get upset:
Middle dotted line = normal equilibrium
Top solid line = represents emotions
Bottom dashed line = our cognition or ability to make sense of what's happening
When we’re in a normal state, our emotions and cognition are in balance and working together, supporting experiences like spontaneity, intuition, and decision-making. But when we (specifically our ego self) are triggered and dragged into crisis, the roller coaster begins: The cycle starts with the triggering event — any of a dozen forms of disappointment — and ends with a post-crisis depression. Between the start and finish, you’ll experience upset rising, reaching crisis mode, and then resolving.
Depending on the situation and your tendency to accept or reject your feelings, hold resentments, etc., you’ll cycle quickly through all of crisis territory, or spend a long time in a particular stage of it.
Ask yourself why you want to know what's wrong and if you can sit with the uncertainty of not knowing
A grade school counselor shared that Crisis Curve diagram with me, pointing out, “We tend to ask kids to make sense of what they’re upset about when they’re upset.” But that doesn’t usually yield results. (So we naively repeat the question, add pressure, and even become irritated—none of which affects the cycle. In fact it just lengthens it.)
Not only that, but we tend to interpret the seemingly calm valleys that break up the peaks during the crisis phase. Specifically, we misinterpret the valleys as resolution — as evidence that our child or partner is feeling alright again. We think it’s time to talk to them, get questions answered, and get a read on the situation. And we want their upset to end quickly of course, because it’s uncomfortable and we want reassurances. However, our ego and the path of crisis don't abide the same timeframe.
If you ask, “What’s wrong?” during a crisis, you’ll never get much
Here's my interpretation of the crisis curve, a sketch, "Crisis Territory." My hope was to capture the adventure and humanity of the cycle that we all go through, whether we like it or not, as humans who get upset.
As much as we’d like others to be able to make sense to us when they become upset, we turn the same unrealistic expectation on ourselves as well. We expect ourselves to make sense of our feelings, explain, and even resolve them during the heat of upset. And why wouldn’t we? Didn’t adults always expect us to explain ourselves when we were children? Why are you so upset? Did I make you mad? I thought you were having a good time, should we go? Usually these questions are a veiled attempt to suppress the crisis, to deny it. What we’re really thinking is: You shouldn’t be upset. We do exactly this to ourselves, too.
Give others Plenty of Time to be Upset
You are healed by healing others.
If you want to tackle your resistance to the crisis cycle and the phases of upset, you can start with your own inclination to suppress or foreshorten your upset. Do this by allowing others to become upset and completely resolve their upset before you ask questions. Resist questioning them during the valleys of crisis.
Bear witness to the upset of others in a loving, hands-off way. You can always ask, “Is there anything I can do?” That’s enough.
Begin to allow yourself that same ample room when you feel upset. You’ll know you’ve absorbed the lesson to allow your upset to run the cycle when you can tell someone else what you need. Or don’t need.