How To Deal With Bad News
3 Simple Cognitive Strategies to Handle the Climax
Neel Burton, M.D :
Your partner cheated or walked out on you. You've been fired. Your house has been burgled. You've been diagnosed with a life-changing condition. Bad news can leave us in a state of dread and despair. It seems like our whole world is falling apart, almost as if we're being driven into the ground. We fear the very worst and cannot get it out of our mind, or gut. Often, there are other emotions mangled in, like anger, guilt, despair, betrayal, and love. Bad news, we've all had it, and we're all going to get it.
So, how to cope? Here are three cognitive strategies that can help us to deal with bad news, and that can also help us to test the concept of wisdom as perspective.
1. Contextualization. Try to frame the bad news, to put it into its proper context. However bad it may feel, it is probably not the be-all and end-all of your life on this earth. Think about all the good things in your life, including those that have been and those that are yet to come. And think about all the strengths and resources-the friends, facilities, faculties-that you can still draw upon in your time of need. Try to imagine how things could much worse-and how they actually are for some people. Your house may have been burgled. Yes, you lost some valuables, and it's all such a huge hassle. But you still have your health, your job, your partner... Bad things are bound to hit us now and then, and it can only be a matter of time before they hit us again. In many cases, they are just the flipside of the good things that we enjoy. You got burgled, because you had a house and valuables. You lost a great relationship, because you had one in the first place. In that much, many a bad thing is no more than the removal of a good one.
2. Negative visualization. Now focus on the bad news itself. What's the worst that could happen, and is that really all that bad? Now that you've dealt with the worst, what's the best possible outcome? And what's the most likely outcome? Imagine that someone is threatening to sue you. The worst possible outcome is that you lose the case and suffer all the entailing cost, stress, and emotional and reputational hurt. Though it's unlikely, you might even do time in prison (it has happened to some, and a few did rather well out of it). But the most likely outcome is that you reach some sort of out-of-court settlement. And the best possible outcome is that you win the case, or better still, it gets dropped.
3. Transformation. Finally, try to transform your bad news into something positive, or at least into something that has positive aspects. Your bad news may represent a learning or strengthening experience, or act as a wake-up call, or force you to reassess your priorities. At the very least, it offers a window into the human condition and an opportunity to exercise dignity and self-control. Maybe you lost your job: time for a holiday and a promotion, or a career change, or the freedom and fulfilment of self-employment. Maybe your partner cheated on you. Even so, you feel sure that he or she still loves you, that there is still something there. Perhaps you can even bring yourself to understand his or her motives. Yes, of course it's painful, but it may also be an opportunity to forgive, to build a closer intimacy, to re-launch your relationship-or to find an easier or more fulfilling one. You've been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Though it's very bad news, it's also the chance to get the treatment and support that you need, to take control, to fight back, to look at life and your relationships from another, richer perspective.
In the words of John Milton: 'The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.'
(Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England).