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Frogs in Hot Water and the Five Stages of Grief

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I’ve noticed that the experience of being a frog in hot water shares aspects of the five stages of grief that Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler identified as what people experience when faced with imminent death, a theory later adopted to apply to what survivors experience after the loss of a loved one. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What follows is a description of what I mean about the relevance of these stages to frog-in-hot-water experiences.

  1. Denial: I’ve described how my machinery used to block my experience of pain, which held me captive as a frog in hot water. I believe that all people in frog-in-hot-water situations experience denial about aspects of their situation.
  2. Anger: The disappointments that arise in relationships can always be traced back to unfulfilled expectations, thwarted intentions, and incomplete communication (things that you didn’t express or things that you expressed and the other person hasn’t really heard). All of these trigger our upsets and generate anger in relationships. Some people hide this anger from them­selves and are unconscious of it; others are consciously angry.

You cannot be a frog in hot water without having anger either at the other party or yourself and/or the situation itself. As I look back on my life, I see that I shoved that anger into my shadow side, which had the net effect of keeping me in hot water a lot longer, until even my shadow side couldn’t hold it, creating a breakdown big enough to have a break­through. But even venting the anger doesn’t solve the prob­lem. You can be angry for years and still remain a frog in hot water. Simply expressing anger will do nothing; you have to choose Door 1, 2, or 3. But acknowledging and expressing your anger is a stage that can lead to that choice.

  1. Bargaining: I see bargaining as a handmaiden to denial because it is a strong desire to alter the painful situation by negotiating with an “If I do this, then that . . .” strategy. You are hoping, praying, that things in your relationship will mag­ically change for the better if you approach the problems “this way” instead of “that way.” The clue to why this doesn’t work is in the words magically change. Bargaining is an activity of your machinery bargain­ing with itself; while you’re negotiating, hoping, and praying for a change, you’re remaining on automatic pilot and letting your default programming run you so that you’re not making mindful choices about your behavior. I did this a lot, and each time I did, I would tell myself everything would be okay!

It’s another prime example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I always thought that simply tweaking my actions a bit would do the trick. Again, these little tweaks and an “If I do this, then that . . .” bargain­ing strategy are very different from making a commitment to acting mindfully to transform the situation by choosing Door 1, 2, or 3.

  1. Depression: It’s par for the course to be depressed about it when you’re a frog in hot water.
  2. Acceptance: What does acceptance mean in this context? Kübler-Ross and Kessler define this last stage in the context of grieving a loved one as accepting the fact that someone you love is no longer physically present and this is how things will be from now on. Thus, in the grieving process, acceptance is the stage when you accept the new reality and start to go on with your life fully acknowledging and coping with the absence of a loved one.

In terms of frog-in-hot-water situations, acceptance is the last stage as well: It is the stage when you stop denying (or at least stop believing your denials); stop merely being angry about it; stop bargaining (because you finally recognize that mindless bargaining won’t work); and stop just being depressed. You accept that you are a frog in hot water.

Of course, in this stage, at times you may still find yourself in denial, you may still be angry, you may still bargain, you may still be depressed, but when you are in the stage of accep­tance, you fully acknowledge that you are a frog in hot water.

But whereas grieving cannot bring back a lost loved one, you do have the ability to stop being a frog in hot water. You can choose Door 1—accept the situation fully, warts and all; Door 2—change the situation; or Door 3—remove yourself from the situation.

The stage of accepting the fact that you’re a frog in hot water doesn’t constitute resigning yourself to the situation; it means that you have accepted that being a frog in hot water is your current reality. Only when you reach the point of accepting it as your current reality are you capable of choos­ing Door 1, 2, or 3.

When I felt the pain in a relationship in the marrow of my bones, that was when I was able to accept that I was a frog in hot water and to use mindfulness to see that I had the right to live life without that pain.

Thus, for frogs in the water as well as for people grieving whose experience Kübler-Ross describes, acceptance is the final stage before going on with the rest of your life. What you do with the rest of your life depends on how you respond after you accept the fact that your current state is as a frog in hot water.


An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon.

  • 27 Apr, 2015
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 19 Tags

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