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How Will You Feel When...: A Discussion of Auto-Empathic Exploration

We all face crises in life. These experiences have profound impacts on who we become and who we're close to. They can range from mundane to drastic, but we all experience them sooner or later. The phrase "auto-empathic exploration" is about considering how your future self will react to a particular situation. While your reaction to positive events is probably predictable (you'll feel good in some capacity), your reaction to negative events is more varied (1). This post focuses on the exploration of negative events due to their highly variable nature. It's scary to experience the worst parts of your life, though it's a less scary to consider them when the stakes are low.

There are two aspects in how you respond to a crisis: the technical activities (things you need to do) and the emotional ones (feelings you experience and must process). For example, if you get into a car accident, you'll need to deal with the insurance: getting pictures of the accident, working through the bureaucracy, and so forth. You'll also have to handle the anger you have toward the person whose car collided with yours. You must "do" them both to complete the experience. When the technical aspects become overwhelming (the insurance company is really difficult to work with), the emotional expression may be stunted or delayed (you can't forgive the other driver until you've processed your anger with the insurance company). Delays can leave those necessary emotions unexpressed. If not dealt with directly, you may find yourself carrying emotional baggage for much longer than is healthy.

The idea here is to explore those feelings ahead of time. Getting into the state of experiencing an unfortunate possibility provides evidence of the technical aspects that are sure to surface if it ever comes to be. These technical worries limit your capacity to experience (and process) the full weight of the emotional side of that event. No one wants something bad to happen, but it's far worse if that person is unable to process the emotions related to that bad event. Clearly there's a continuum for this exercise, from easy to explore minor inconveniences to events so difficult that mentioning them out loud leads to feelings of guilt.

The Vacation You'll Never Forget

Imagine for a moment that you're away on vacation. You're enjoying a view of the ocean while waves hit the shore in a soothing rhythm. The sun warms your body and you feel totally present in the moment. Suddenly, your phone rings. Your neighbor quickly gets to the point; your house is on fire and the firefighters didn't make it in time to save anything. He mentions that they were able to stop it from spreading, so no one was hurt. In just a matter of moments, everything you owned went from being safe at home to gone forever.

Given this reality, what comes to mind? Most upsetting may be the loss of irreplaceable keepsakes, like family photos. Knowing this, you're now free to devise ways to avoid that trauma (e.g., backing up photos or storing them in a fireproof container). Since you don't need to process the real emotions associated with the event, you can use your creativity to make a rational plan for dealing with the technical aspects. If you take action on the plan you've made, then the potential situation where your home catches on fire becomes less traumatic. Now, your future is less likely to contain unsolvable problems like losing Grandpa Joe's fishing pictures or the guilt that comes from not buying that fireproof safe.

Going Deeper with Layering

The previous scenario is one we can imagine without too much anxiety. When we incorporate an additional problem layer, we deepen the challenge. Since we have a portion of the problem already solved, though, it isn't as difficult to deal with. For example, an additional problem layer would be the inclusion of your vehicle(s) in the fire. You can focus solely on that portion of the problem since you already know how you'd react if the vehicle(s) weren't destroyed. Once you've solved that issue, and assuming you aren't emotionally drained, you can take it one step further with the loss of the family pet in the fire. You can imagine taking it another step where a family member is injured and, finally, to the worst outcome, where a family member is lost. [Note: as I write this, I'm experiencing an emotional response, the tears welling in my eyes are proof of how difficult such an experience would be and how important it is to think about how to avoid such an outcome.]

These scenarios are not meant to be dwelt upon. They are to get you in the best position to handle adversity when it occurs and prevent major negative outcomes. If you can reduce the likelihood of the irreversible, then your life will be smoother. Advanced planning, like what this exercise leads to, prepares you to handle the emotions during difficult times. In many instances, the most severe downsides can be limited and the major disasters can be converted to inconveniences.

During the coaching process, there are often difficult situations to consider. For personal financial coaching that might include the sobering realization that your current financial habits lead you to a retirement many years after you'd prefer or never. For productivity coaching, you may come to realize that you're doing things that take you further away from your goals. As a coach, I'm here to help you come to and work through those realizations. We cannot change yesterday but, with a proper view of what's true now, we can change so tomorrow can be better than today.

(1) This is related to the concept of loss aversion: you'd prefer to lose a smaller amount (if you're losing) than gain a larger amount (if you're winning).