Is this the time for Scales of Awfulness, Silver Linings, or Pollyanna thinking?

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The Scale of Awfulness is a psychological tool designed to help you reassess your perception of a situation in terms of its ‘awfulness.’

The idea is that placing a particular event or challenge on a scale from 1 to 100 will enable you to modify and control your instinctive response, reducing levels of stress and anxiety.

The scale is derived from the work of Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).

It works like this. Think of a scale of 0-100. 

0---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------100

Decide what would be 100 on the scale for you – the worst, most ‘awful’ situation you could imagine.

Whenever you are faced with a challenging situation, you can quickly assess its awfulness by giving it a score, bearing in mind what is 100 for you.

Clients, coachees and delegates on our coaching courses have taken the scale of awfulness to their hearts and into their lives. Many have found it an invaluable tool to enable them to re-frame and re-calibrate the severity of a situation, control their emotional response and reduce stress levels. 

It seems to work a treat if you are stuck in traffic, experiencing road rage, your laptop crashes, you are going to be late for a meeting or if the children won’t eat their broccoli.

But is it appropriate and does it work for major life events and challenges, such as the current global pandemic?

I tried it myself when I experienced a sudden and wholly unexpected family bereavement. I was grief-stricken and cast around for anything which might help me. I tried using the Scale of Awfulness. I felt this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me so immediately gave my current situation a score of 100. 

“Great,” I thought “Where do I go from here, then?” My sense of despair just deepened. I tried to revisit my score in the days that followed. I managed to persuade myself that perhaps, objectively, it wasn’t actually 100 and that perhaps even worse things could happen. But that was pretty frightening and was complicated because I felt guilty as I really didn’t want to minimize my loss in any way. 

At around the same time, someone sent me an article on ‘post-traumatic growth’. I threw it in the bin. I was angry and could not contemplate the idea that some good might come from this painful loss. 

I reflected then, and am reflecting again now, on the fine line which needs to be trodden between trying to re-frame, to find positives and silver linings, and the need truly to acknowledge and “sit with” all the conflicting emotions which are brought about by an ending or a sudden change in our circumstances.

So what can we do for others in times of crisis and loss or in extreme situations? 

Here are my thoughts:

  • The most useful response we can offer is “I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for you” …. followed closely by listening. And listening. And listening.
  • There are no rules and no hierarchies in loss or fear or uncertainty. We each feel what we feel.
  • It is ok (and normal) to feel powerful, conflicting emotions. It can be helpful to express them and to be heard and understood.
  • Kindness, compassion, kinship and support are precious and powerful resources in times of loss and uncertainty.
  • It’s not our place or our job to re-frame, rescue or offer Pollyanna statements.
  • By invitation only, in time, we may gently encourage enquiry about whether there are any aspects of the situation they can control. With care, we may offer techniques such as the Scale of Awfulness to reassess perspective.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. ...live in the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Go to the profile of Kim Morgan

Kim Morgan

CEO, Barefoot Coaching Ltd

With 25 years’ experience working in the coaching industry, I have seen what it takes to create great leaders, engaged individuals, successful teams and outstanding organisations. I believe in the power of coaching for everyone, from CEOs to parents and families. I am a practicing coach, trainer of coaches and coaching supervisor, a keynote speaker, an author and Psychologies Magazine columnist.

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