Bad things happen to good people. Some of those people live the rest of their lives defined by those bad things.
Most people would agree that it’s better to overcome those bad experiences, and move on (not to say it’s easy to do so). A life fueled by resentment is a life wasted.
The question I want to raise is not whether to recover, but when. Just how long does it take to recover from a low point and move forward? How fast can a human being recover from grief, betrayal, and anger? I’m not talking about short-cutting by means of denial; I’m talking about genuine recovery from emotional disaster.
Is there a four-minute mile barrier of recovery? What are the natural limits to human change?
I know Julie. She was estranged from her alcoholic father, reconciling only on his deathbed. A few years later, her mother, with whom she was very close, died as well. Julie was grief-stricken, worn down with sadness at work and with her children; she was barely functioning on autopilot.
After a year, she visited a psychologist. “I spent the entire first meeting crying,” she told me. At the second meeting, the counsellor asked her, “What do you admire in both your parents that you’d wish to perpetuate?”
“I was dumbstruck,” she said. “I sat there for 3 full minutes, thinking about the implications for my life. Everything fell into place. I thanked the shrink profusely, left before my time was up, and never went back.”
That was five years ago. Julie is upbeat, strong, productive and a huge positive force for good in all those she meets.
I know Rachel, an extremely successful woman. She told me her husband had cheated on her some years ago, but that they had reconciled and were now very happy.
“You look fine now,” I said, “but that must have been hard. How long did it take you to get over it?”
“It was awful,” she said. “It must have taken me a week.”
“A week?” I asked incredulously.
She explained that she had let work get in the way of their sex life, but that she enjoyed sex too and why let the past get in the way of a great and full life going forward?
“And if he cheated again?” I asked.
“Oh, it’d be all over,” she laughed. “You only get one second chance with me.”
I don’t know Jill Bolte Taylor, but she has given one of the more powerful TED talks of all time, as well as having written a powerful book. A brain scientist who had a stroke, she was uniquely qualified to observe what was happening to her – and, it turns out, to learn from the experience.
To over-simplify, she already knew the profoundly different perspectives of the right and left hemispheres of our brains. One is logical, cognitive, ego-protecting and fearful. The other is universal, joyful, connected and without fear.
But through her stroke, Jill discovered we have enormous control over which part of our brain we choose to live through. In her words:
“Before my stroke, I thought I was a product of my brain and had no idea that I had some say about how I responded to the emotions surging through me. On an intellectual level, I realized that I could monitor and shift my cognitive thoughts, but it never dawned on me that I had some say in how I perceived my emotions.
“No one told me that it only took 90 seconds for my biochemistry to capture, and then release me.”
How long does it take to achieve escape velocity from our responses? How long is the emotional 4-minute mile?
A brain scientist tells us: 90 seconds. You are a slave to your neuro-chemistry – for 90 seconds.
After that – it’s all on you. If you stay there, it begins to be your own doing.
Making It Work
Jill Bolte’s recommendations are along the lines of meditation.
For others, the serenity prayer works powerfully.
And if sweetness and light is not your cup of tea, there’s the in-your-face-cold-shower-with-obscenities approach embodied in Julien Smith’s excellent eBook The Flinch.
I can’t tell you how – you must work with what you’ve got. But I can tell you – or rather, Julie, Rachel and Jill can tell you – that the four-minute mile of emotional jiu-jitsu is 90 seconds.