Sometimes we feel weak, small and helpless and the aspect we wanted to change in our life seems more unshakable than ever. And if it were just that: which part of our life is not drowned in a series of problems, all seemingly impossible to resolve? The tax form (due two weeks ago), the pile of washing up in the kitchen (and we've run out of soap), the leaking tap (just the idea of phoning the plumber sends a shiver down the spine), not to mention a daunting work assignment. We don't even know how we got there - two weeks ago, everything looked feasible. Putting a laundry on was no big deal. What happened?
For those who strive to make conscious changes in their lives, the book Access to Power provides many tools to go through the ups and downs that accompany such a process. I was very lucky to meet one of the authors, Nancy Shanteau, during a radical therapy/ emotional literacy meeting in California last Summer. I found her inspiring, and so is the book. It is written in a warm accessible language and from perspectives that are aware of the role of power and privileges in our societies. One of the tools I particularly enjoy is the depletion-repletion scale (p.241) developed by Skills for Change coach Julia Kelliher. Like a map, it provides orientation for us to be aware of where we are and what we need in order to replenish before we begin or continue moving towards the change we want.
From despair to empowerment
The idea behind the scale is that if we become aware of where we are on the scale, we might have a better idea of what actions are appropriate for us to move just a couple of points further up. We keep our goals realistic and avoid the trap of the downward spiral, making ourselves feel worse because of what we didn't manage to do.
The scale goes from -10 [Despair/ Powerlessness] to +10 [Empowerment/ Plentitude] with various degrees of well-being in between, such as:
8: feeling great, with clear purpose and boundaries;
4: hopeful - requiring a careful management of energy;
2: feeling ok - yet vulnerable to attacks on our self-esteem;
-2: down to low energy/ slight anxiety, where it's hard to say no;
-6 "losing control - Overwhelmed and submerged in depletion" and finally -10 despair, where a person will need external support.
A sense of depletion can take many forms: a sense of exhaustion, depression, recurring diseases, reactivity, a sense of overwhelm, insomnia...
The causes for this drained state are varied and can be rooted outside or inside of us. External oppression, for instance, may demand that we do things that are difficult, painful and go against our will because we are scared we might otherwise not survive. Our financial situation may be unstable, we may not have certain privileges that make it easier to get a safe job.
Excessive caregiving on the other hand involves us giving away our time and energy for the sake of others, overstepping our boundaries and neglecting ourselves in the process.
Shame, blame, feeling guilty are powerful tools to speed up a depletion spiral. And it does not really matter whether we project the shame and blame on others or on ourselves. Those cunning little weapons work in many directions at the same time.
When we are filled up with energy, we are bubbly inside, generous, inspired, warm, peaceful, we feel balanced and are able to relax. There's a sparkle about us that might make other people want to smile.
How do we get there? We might have the experience that we can (increasingly) exert power over our lives and make plans that matter to us. We may be generally emotionally, financially and socially safe. Our beliefs and thoughts about ourselves are positive, shame and blame take little space as we tend to be loving and understanding towards ourselves, also on bad days. We know that we are valuable, independently of how much we do for others. We do things for others in a way that feels good and we find co-operative solutions.
Self-compassion, accepting and appreciating what is, has a strong nourishing effect to move out a drained state.
Practicing self-compassion is just that - a practice. We are good at it sometimes, we fall back into a pit of self-shaming, we notice it and let it be. Bit by bit, we develop the ability to climb on a little platform above the turmoil, an island of quiet where we can observe our thoughts and feelings without being caught up in them as much: "ah, hello self-criticism. Yes, you would like us to be in a different state and achieve more." We hear our inner voices and give them space until they quiet down and some peace returns. Often it helps to have someone who reminds us that we're fine and deserve compassionate patience.