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When Something Can’t Be Fixed: Walking Your Black Dog

Most people, there are always exceptions of course, do not like uncertainty, like to be in control and definitely do not like conflict. Yes, I know you like challenges and a bit of uncertainty but it will usually be of the kind that you feel you can handle. So, we like to fix things, make things better, make bad feelings go away, repair damaged relationships, do something about that boss who doesn’t seem to like us, and get rid of anxiety and sadness, for example.


So, what we tend to do is fight against the bad feeling or work really hard to change the situation. We worry about what we cannot change or have influence over. A typical example might be someone who has a conflict with a boss at work and it is causing a great deal of stress as the person seeks ways to fix it, has to cope with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, stays awake at night and drinks a little too much alcohol. We’d just like the problem to go away and nothing we seem to do to ameliorate the problem seems to work.


Another situation might involve suffering from depression. Depression even in mild doses can be overwhelming. Apart from motivational issues the main thing about depression is that sufferers hate the feeling, and why wouldn’t they? Nothing weird about that. We hate it to the point that we just wish it to go away and we try and fight it or avoid it, defuse its importance. We fight it, push back and just wish it would disappear.


This article is not about depression but about any problem we might have. But depression is a good example of one of these seemingly unsolvable problems that we feel we cannot fix. Winston Churchill suffered from chronic depression and probably had what would now be called Bipolar Disorder. He also drank very heavily, which was probably a result of the extreme highs and lows that he experienced. For quite long periods, Churchill would be very productive and have lots of energy. Then he would fall into depression when he would find it really difficult to function for weeks on end. He called his depression the black dog.


While Churchill called his illness his black dog, it could refer to any problem that we might have.


Rather than fighting our black dog, wishing it away or trying to fix the situation, none of which is working, we can try something different. We can imagine that our black dog is on a leash, rather than just running free. Now we can pull the leash as tight as we like and make the black dog walk right next to us, letting us control it. We walk with the dog rather than willing it to go away, hating its presence and fighting it. We can let the leash out sometimes or we can pull it closer, depending on the situation at hand.


This idea involves the notion of acceptance, described by Russ Harris and others. It requires the sufferer to take a different attitude to the problem. This involves accepting that one has the black dog, learning to move with it and adapt rather than enter an endless struggle.


We do this more readily with physical injuries. A person might have a broken leg and can either accept it and adapt to impaired function, and work with it, or deny it and pretend the leg is not broken at all. We know what the outcome of the latter will be and most people do the former and work with it, annoying as it might me.


Once the leash has been brought short and we are walking with the dog, we can work on how to control it, how to manage it rather than wishing it away or giving into it. In fact, there are many situations in life that we cannot change and the only way forward is to manage them more effectively.


This approach increases our sense of power over the situation and makes it much easier to apply techniques that we might need to make ourselves feel better.


Two points to note, however. Firstly, sometimes the best solution is to walk away from a situation and this is perfectly valid. Abusive relationships, toxic work cultures, or a situation that is causing stress or anxiety, are some obvious examples.


Secondly, when it comes to depression or anxiety or some other mental illness, walking the black dog does not mean giving up. Instead, it provides a way forward when nothing else seems to be working.

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