Ceaselessly, the earth careens through space, forever at the mercy of the unforgiving sun. Just as the earth is helpless to escape the very gravity of its own condition, we too are helpless to escape from life’s insatiable lust to exert pressures upon us. We can either adapt to these pressures, or be obliterated in the wake produced by life’s rapacious march. When we find ourselves struggling to recover from a recent devastation, an undesired outcome having forced its way into our lives, we’re said to be “Picking up the Pieces.”
Unlike many colloquialisms in our vernacular, this phrase describes the situation it’s designed for acutely and directly. Hidden within it is found a rejuvenating elixir; it offers hope in situations of despair. Obstacles that we abhor, that stir up the most vile emotions within us, also offer unique opportunities for change and growth that are inaccessible to sailors casting out to calmer seas. Confronted with the task of ‘picking up the pieces’, if we so choose, we can leave behind those pieces no longer serving in our best interests. In our bleakest moments, escape from a sepulchral situation might call for even more drastic action. This is life imploring us to burn each particle of our very being to ash, and cast ourselves in a new form.
Opportunities for growth are always present, but we are rarely offered chances for unbounded transformation in times of peace. This is a product of our compulsive reliance on a so-called “Self-Concept.” The human need for socialization has deemed it beneficial to craft, and cling to, a singular identity . Determining our place in the world is a relational activity, and having a consistent self-concept in a world subject to constant fluctuations is essential for succeeding in this endeavor.
The Self-Concept, at most times, is extremely durable. This is fortuitous for our species, as it supports the ability to make successive decisions all in accordance with a single end. Our decisions and behavior constantly engage in a cycle of reinforcement with our self-concept that serves to continuously increase its resistance to external pressures. We attempt to make decisions that are in alignment with our self-concept, and in turn, we rely heavily on our actions to help us define who we are.
Every aspect of our personality is interwoven, making it very troublesome to divide into all of its components. Much like the blocks in a pyramid, it is difficult to manipulate a single aspect of our personality when it is held fast by so many others. This necessitates an event that exerts a considerable amount of pressure upon our Self-Concept to allow the removal of an element that is no longer benefitting us. In relation to our self-concept, this pressure is applied in the form of emotional strain; the exact strain resulting from a life event that leaves us “picking up the pieces.”
Let’s view our self-concept as a cup, not containing our morning coffee, but our very personality. If this cup is shattered, and we identify shards that are better left behind, we can’t simply glue the pieces we deem worthy back together and move on. This will leave our personality perpetually spilling onto the floor, rendering us unable to maintain any sense of stability. We must demonstrate great care in rendering a new piece of the same dimensions to replace each one we leave behind.
Regaining equilibrium after leaving a harrowing relationship is a common situation that results in ‘picking up the pieces.’ Assume we find ourselves in this situation, and when we attempt to locate the dust pan, we find that it’s already out of the closest due to frequent usage. Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working– after collecting the pieces, we must refrain from reassembling the cup in the same shape we have so many times before. Sifting through the fragments in the dust pan, we discover that many of them are aspects of our self-concept that we cherish, and don’t require disposing of. The task at hand becomes determining which shard is responsible for making the cup so susceptible to repetitive breakage.
Matching up so many jagged edges can take a lot of time. If we work in a bar, and this is where we meet most of our partners, then perhaps we need to stop going on dates with people we meet in this environment. We know that simply determining to stop responding to propositions at work is not enough; the piece must be also be replaced with another that forms an airtight seal. Substitution of an activity that places us in more suitable locations to meet potential suitors, whether it be an exercise class, spending more time with single friends, or even joining a social dating site, is also an integral part of our restorative journey.
It’s also possible to implement a decision to give relationships a break altogether. In this case, some of the other fragments of the cup may expand to fill the void. Increasing the amount of time we spend on activities that we enjoy achieves this end, providing they are increased in equal measure with the amount of time previously invested in relationships.
Of course, we might replace a piece only to discover we incorrectly hypothesized the source of instability. The magnifying glass is then retrieved from the drawer and the search continues– perhaps the true culprit is a particular quality we’re lured to in mates that functions as a negative presence in our lives. Success relies on our willingness to continue experimenting with different pieces, and to always maintain a specific plan to replace whatever piece we hold accountable for our shattered state. And remember, absolutely everything you throw in the trash ends up there for a reason. Never reduce yourself to digging through the garbage.
Sometimes something so detestable happens, perhaps death or losing everything to addiction, that restorative efforts prove woefully inadequate. During these times, it becomes necessary to melt everything down to clay and build something completely new. This requires colossal effort, demanding exponential stores of time and dedication. The only realistic way to approach this elephantine task is to reengineer the cycle of reinforcement the self-concept is constantly engaging in. Durability of the self-concept prohibits its direct augmentation- believing ourselves to be other than we are is an exercise in futility. We must formulate a strategy to attack the other half of the cycle, an endeavor contingent upon our ability to alter our decision-making, and thus modify our behavior.
This means engaging in antagonistic behavior in relation to our perception of our own identity. Prior to our most recent decimation, if we generally reacted in a singular way when faced with particular situations, we must now react in an antipodal fashion to the way our self-concept will undoubtedly seek to initiate. Activities that we opted out of participating in, and behaviors that ‘people like us’ simply don’t engage in, serve as the precise stimuli we must embrace to reprogram the cycle of reinforcement.
By definition this will feel uncomfortable at first, and our very identify will be engulfed in feelings of conflict. We will occupy places we perpetually feel like an outsider, and foster passion for behavior that we used to laugh at others for exhibiting. With patience, repetitively making the decision to act in new and challenging ways will alter our very perception of our own self-concept, and make it easier to engage in activities harmonious with our understanding of who we want to become.
Temptations luring us to regress to a previous state will continually surface, whether we’ve amended a single aspect of our behavior or reemerged in virginal form. If the reinforcement cycle responsible for the self-concept is not actively bent to our will, it will quickly resume working against us. We must at all times be aware of what shape we’re seeking to embody, and also every previous shape that didn’t serve our interests, and be aware of whether our behavior is moving us in the appropriate direction. If we remain vigilant, the grim labor of ‘picking up the pieces’ can be realized as the ephemeral opportunity for unbounded transformation that it really is, and we can grasp it before it dissipates back into the shadows cast by our pernicious behavior.