The South is always in the news. Be it their power play in politics, unforgiving rains, fervent farmers or their worship-worthy movie stars. I would love to talk about their gorgeous temples, colourful culture, glorious food and the deep mystery behind every other child being highly intelligent and taking up most IT and engineering jobs in and out of the country. However, the timing does not allow a psychologist to indulge in a laidback conversation about her love for the southern states, their artists, their food, and exquisitely rich culture.
When things go south, idiomatically speaking, it means for life to become unfavourable or to take a turn for the worse. And that’s where we psychologists must focus.
Let me put it this way, who has not experienced “things going south?” While that seems to be a near-constant, we are deeply varied in our perceptions and reactions to things taking an unwanted turn. And that says a lot about us. Unfortunately, often made into a character judgement, it is just an ability to make choices in the face of difficulty.
We make different choices in perceptions depending on our exposure, education, culture, and experiences all bundled up in a way of thinking, i.e. our personality.
Clearly, no one wants things to go south, but our different reactions and further course of action decisively change the quality of health, life and the way forward for us and those around us. We experience difficult emotions when things don’t go our way and it’s imperative to discover the place of birth of these emotions, that they arise from “our choices in perceptions”.
Anger: It is one of the most common reactions of people when plans fail. This provocative emotion comes from our expectations or demand from others or from life. We believe that since we planned or desired something, we must have it. Anger arises from a delusion of control and entitlement.
Fear: The entire anxiety spectrum comes from our desire of the future turning out exactly the way we foresee it. Fear is an emotion that arises from our hypersensitive and hyper-alert perceptions, averse to mistakes, failings, and obstacles. Threatened of the unknown future, we perceive hurdles and mistakes as completely our doing, and panic in the advent of problems. When things go south, this is a challenging, unacceptable report card for those who plan well and it takes away from a precious sense of self, setting them up to expect the worst in the future. They judge and internalise failure.
Guilt: This person typically lives in an irrational time zone of the past. Regrets about what he should have done or what she could have done to prevent this from happening. These are usually people whose strengths are taking responsibility and carrying them out successfully. The side-effect, however, is guilt when things don’t work out. Not recognising the irrationality in their thoughts and beliefs regarding control, they believe they are the cause of things going south in retrospect, and hold themselves responsible, feeling guilt.
Dejection: Ever heard of helpless and melancholic exclamations like “why me”, “destiny has treated me unfairly”, “this always happens to me”, or “life always treats me poorly.” As you can imagine, these are people who are constantly disappointed in destiny or have an external locus of control believing that it is life that treats them unfairly. These are the people who always like to believe that they were served the tiniest piece of the pie and feel relief in blaming the stars, astrology, astronomy, numerology, and the like for not getting up and taking a second helping.
I have deep empathy for all of the above feelings because very often people are not aware of where these emotions are coming from. Not knowing is never a fault. These are real challenging and debilitating emotions and often felt by people who have tried extremely hard and put everything they’ve got into achieving something.
I am a psychologist and out of sheer habit, I can’t call this article conclusively done until I have suggested some perspective and thought changes to pivot these emotions and choose better. In therapy, I have not only vicariously experienced the pain of things going south for my clients, but also felt it personally in my life. So I understand the natural, often subconscious choices of negative emotions. What has always helped me is a radical change in perspective of what transpired and a conviction in what I wanted to make of it.
Acceptance: The most difficult part has always been the acceptance that something can go against my wishes and honest ambitions. We delude ourselves that we are born with guarantees for fulfillment and realisation of dreams, especially if we make no mistakes, which in itself is unrealistic. Mistakes are the best way to learn.
Accepting instead of denying that things need correction, learning and exploration, may actually help you intervene, slow down and prevent further damage.
Grit: It is only in challenges or difficult times where one can test themselves for this life-changing construct. As Angela Duckworth put it, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” Grit is the ability to get up and strive for our goals despite difficult times, repeatedly. It is a potent amalgamation of courage, resilience, persistence and perseverance. Endurance and grit have now become a significant measure in people’s chances of success in life. The most promising thing about grit is that you are not born with it, you have to resolve and practice it to develop it.
Motivation: It is rare to hear of people who find motivation when things are going south but it is not unheard of. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic and often both get damaged in the face of challenges. On good days, it is not hard to be motivated. But adjusting to sudden changes in plan, failure to touch the finish line, and the inability to achieve as imagined, and pivoting those into a rumbling hunger in the belly to ensure value is the highest form of motivation.
Learning and growth: We like to count successes. We notice achievements. We applaud success. These give us a sense of achievement, a sense of self, grandiosity, confidence, pride, joy and reason to celebrate. However, ask any successful person how many failures they overcame for that one observable success and they will have many more valuable stories of obstructions to tell. It is from the hurdles, hindrances, and struggles that we learn and grow.
As Sir Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” This doesn’t come easy to everyone. An attitude to look at tough times and challenges in the eye, and find precious lessons in them is the best way to steer things back northward and stop them from going south.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)
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