I could not stop the questions: Why have I chosen to believe in my beliefs? Why have I chosen to accept that I am the things I accept about myself and the world? Why do I choose to let my history determine my reality? I questioned the truth of everything I’d just yesterday automatically accepted as true and suddenly I found each “truth” was lacking. I no longer knew if there was truth. I no longer knew what I believed. I no longer knew who I was, who I wanted to be, or even how to go back to being the person I had been before.
I was empty. Unmasked and finally ready to create the person I am.
Scattered throughout the oceans of the world are several different species of crabs which “decorate” themselves as a way to hide and defend themselves. These decorator crabs carefully adorn their bodies with mostly stationary animals and plants from their environment and when moved to a different environment they will change their decorations to fit in with that environment by the next day.
Like all living things, crabs must grow and, like other animals with exoskeletons, these creatures must give up their carefully adorned shells when they molt and in doing so they must survive a perilous period of vulnerability as their bodies are unprotected. Once their new shells harden the crabs are able to once again decorate their shells and go on with their regular life.
Last week a fellow therapist of mine described these crabs as a metaphor for periods of change that humans experience as we grow and adapt throughout life. I love this metaphor and the more I thought about it the more I realized that this process is really a great way to think about the process of Positive Disintegration.
All people grow and change throughout their lives. We all face issues or events that make us question ourselves and perhaps lead us to alter our habits, beliefs, or ways of thinking about the world. Usually this process of change is fairly linear and gradual, for instance when a person becomes a parent they usually go through a gradual shift in identity but it happens so incrementally and subtly that often the person looks up one day and realizes that they can hardly imagine being who they were before having that child. While it can be a difficult process of change it usually doesn’t result in crisis or make the person question their reality or sanity.
Sometimes some people experience an altogether different kind of change. Instead of the smooth evolution of the river as it changes course over the years it happens quickly and completely, like a fire in a Redwood forest. The fire consumes the structures and beliefs that once defined identity, taking most of even the hardiest of truths, and reduces them to cinders and ashes and emptiness. It is the destruction of the forest, the annihilation of what was, that clears the way for the new. And so, with Positive Disintegration, does the process of deconstruction of self make it possible for us to be free to design ourselves anew as the person we are truly meant to be.
Like the decorator crab it is a perilous job to throw off the shell we spent so long adorning and perfecting. It is perhaps one of the most dangerous times of our life. The process of positive disintegration is terrifying and often feels like falling apart. It might make you worry you are “going crazy” and sometimes we might fight hard enough against the process to return once again to the self we had previously been working on and the contentment of the known. Whether resulting in profound change or returning to “normal,” it is a scary ride to find yourself taking.
One big question about Positive Disintegration, I think, is “how can we support ourselves or someone else who is experiencing the disintegration that precedes the positive?” I have a few ideas and I would love it if you add to them in the comments section:
- Reassure yourself (or the person) that you are not going crazy and you will eventually achieve identity stability again. One of the scariest parts of the process can be the fear that you will never be “normal” or ok again; keep telling yourself “this too shall pass.”
- Reassure yourself (or them) that this is a “normal” experience of growth that happens to some people though maybe not to most. It is important to know you are not alone.
- Reassure yourself (or them) that it is ok to give in to this process and take on the freedom of becoming the person you need to become. Surrender to the process can reduce fear and anxiety.
- Embrace the freedom to create yourself as the person you want to be. When you’ve shed your previous beliefs you can be free to develop your own identity instead of growing and shaping the one that your past put together— and that’s kind of cool!
In terms of therapy, how do you know if a person is experiencing positive disintegration and what should you do? If your client is gifted, talented, creative, and/or highly sensitive then they may be more prone to experiencing positive disintegration. Often they may tell you they feel like they are falling apart or worry that they are going crazy and it is a very scary experience, especially the first time it happens. If you have a client who you suspect could be experiencing positive disintegration you will want to carefully investigate a few specific areas and watch out for periods of acute crisis:
- Assess your client for depressive symptoms and suicidality. This can be a hard time to handle and some people may find themselves feeling like they are “better off dead” than having to deal with the instability (that they may fear is permanent).
- Assess your client for psychotic symptoms. While your client might describe themselves as “going crazy,” “falling apart,” or “losing touch with reality,” the process of positive disintegration should not produce psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, disorganized thinking, delusions, etc…
- Assess your client’s support system. This is a tough process and it can sometimes be made even tougher when the person’s support system doesn’t know how to help and/or actively tries to keep the person from changing.
- Educate the client about the process. Knowledge about what is happening and what it means can be very helpful and reassuring to the person.
Have you ever experienced a period of positive disintegration? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this experience, how you coped, how you changed, and how you think others could have supported you during the process.