“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Indeed, were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point in the journey.” ― Jeffrey R. Anderson
Where do you find yourself most often as you wend your way on life’s journey? Are you firmly in the midst of the river, going with the flow, navigating the hazards and enjoying the thrill of the ride? Or are you bumping along the banks, stopping regularly to re-appraise the situation, before venturing tentatively back in to the turbulent currents in mid-stream.
The ‘river’ metaphor is very useful, and works on many different levels. I listened this week to Dan Siegel (the neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, among other recommended reads) as he discussed the nature of the mind. He spoke about the healthy mind as being integrated and harmonious (‘in flow’), and characterised the troubled mind as tending toward being either ‘chaotic’ or ‘rigid’ in manifestation. He refers to these two states as being like opposite banks of a river. When we drop out of ‘flow’ – the balanced state of coping, experiencing well-being, and functioning optimally – we tend to drift toward one or other bank. (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for a detailed treatment of ‘Flow’). Which bank you end up on will depend on the condition and situation being experienced, but people also tend to have a dominant bank they gravitate toward.
For example, when someone experiences high levels of anxiety or stress, brought on by a particularly challenging business situation (e.g. a bid deadline, a difficult board presentation, or having to resolve conflict in the workplace) they may move toward the ‘chaos’ bank:
- On the chaos bank they are likely to resort to behaviours and coping mechanisms that see them ‘get busy’ (busier!), work themselves and others to a frenzy, become ever more demanding, display irritation, have a short fuse and so on.
- Others, whose preference is to veer toward the rigid bank, will respond in a very different way. They are more likely to withdraw, become more isolated, worry in silence, become less vocal, drift into the background at meetings, perhaps even find excuses not to attend, or take time off sick (genuinely or otherwise).
The emotions and behaviours characterised by both of these banks will, in time, create disharmony (both internally for the individual as well as in relation to others), result in relationship breakdown, and take their toll in terms of personal health.
Which bank is chosen is driven largely by our fight-flight response, and controlled by the limbic system (the old part of our brain and the seat of our emotions). Some people may consistently veer toward one or other bank across a number of challenging situations (e.g. stress, rejection, conflict, anxiety), while others may bounce around, swinging between banks depending on problems and difficulties encountered.
Understanding and recognising patterns and preferences, and using the language of ‘riding the river’, offers people a way to articulate their feelings more easily than they could otherwise. Knowing one’s bank of preference when under pressure is a very useful first step in the self-awareness required in being able to deal with it, and invaluable in helping maintain the harmony and integration necessary to experience the rewards (and exhilaration) that come from getting back into the ‘flow’.
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