Life in the In-Between

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By Dr. Allison Belger

In the wake of a tragic accident last weekend at a fitness competition aimed at elite CrossFit athletes, there has been significant dialogue about the safety of the popular workout program, the reasonableness of such competitions, and the importance of analyzing the incident in order to learn from what happened.  With vital discussions taking place throughout the community, I do not plan to explore the subject at this time.  Rather, I would like to deal with our psychological response to devastating events and how we process them and move forward in the aftermath.

Tragedies that hit close to home propel us into thinking about our own mortality, our vulnerability, how risky our behaviors are, and how we relate to  loved ones.  They can stir in us primitive, sometimes irrational fears that bring into question all aspects of our lives.   When we are shaken in this way, we may revert to less logical and less balanced thinking along with greater emotional response than is our personal norm.  Black-and-white, all-or-nothing experience often prevails, as does a “throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water” approach to conflict or dissonance. These issues will be my focus this week.

Our response to tragedy or stressful events may be rooted in exaggerated manifestations of our personalities and normal psychological functioning—our psychological homeostasis, if you will.  For example, if you are prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, freak accidents will fuel your fears. If you typically waffle back and forth about issues, or frequently question the meaning of your actions, you may be frozen and unable to make decisions when tragedy strikes.  Conversely, you may find yourself reacting precipitously, making hasty decisions without taking the time to consider the consequences.

In psychological health, we are able to hold and accept different sides of a situation or experience.  We are able to understand the complexities of human relationships, and can, for example, love our sister even while competing with her for parental attention and approval or boyfriends. We can recognize that a high school football coach who has difficulty communicating with parents is not  necessarily unfit for the job.  We can appreciate that a particular approach to nutrition might benefit some individuals—and not others–at certain times in their lives; it is neither all good nor all bad.

There is a vast and fascinating theory in the world of psychoanalytic psychology about the “good object” and “bad object,” representing beneficent and loving caregivers on the one hand, and withholding or problematic caregivers on the other.  In some instances of psychological illness, a process called “splitting” occurs, when individuals are unable to experience one “object” (person) as being simultaneously nurturing or “good” and flawed or “bad.”  Instead, the experience of others is all-or-nothing.  There is no in-between.

Life in the in-between means tolerating the complexities of others and appreciating the nuances of the human experience.  Life in the in-between means understanding both sides of an argument and being able to engage with people representing each of those sides, without the need to demonize one in order to embrace the other.  It means having the capacity to hold two conflicting pieces of information about an exercise program or nutrition plan—while evaluating the pros and cons and arriving at our own opinion.  It means being able to continue engaging in a sport, despite some known risks.  It may mean minimizing those risks through education, without having to leave behind the pursuit altogether.  Life in the in-between means asking tough questions about our motivations and opinions and seeking the same from others.  It means not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

When a friend dies in a car accident, we do not stop driving.  When our “good enough” parent makes an emotional error in our relationship, we do not cut ties altogether.  When a political leader “misspeaks,” we do not slander her for life, tempting as it may be.  When a good friend slips up, we do not demonize her; instead we recognize that she is flawed and imperfect, much like we are.

When tragedy strikes and our foundations are shaken, we must fight to remain in the in-between.  We must call on our resources as human beings, acknowledge our pain and uncertainty, accept our lack of omnipotence, grieve, and figure out how to move on.  Some accidents and tragic events may be random and unavoidable; but where possible, where it makes sense, we should work to understand how to avoid and prevent these incidents from happening in the future.

Hang in there in that in-between; it truly is the only way to live fully and honestly.  Try to see both sides, acknowledge your fears, and allow educated, enlightened thinking to prevail over the all-or-nothing, black-or-white approach.  Accepting a world of nuance and shades of gray may not be easy but will help you navigate the inevitable pitfalls and bumps in the road of life.

*To learn more about the incident to which I refer above and to donate to a fund to help with the athlete’s recovery, please visit  www.kevinogar.com.  We all need help at some point; I encourage you to give whatever you can.

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  1. […] Love Read–Life In the In Between, by Dr. Allison Belger. Register–The CrossFit Open. It’s $20 and will be well worth it! […]

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