Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

5 Ways Loss Can Create Growth: An Interview with Cole Bitting

cole bitting.jpgToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Cole Bitting, who writes an intriguing blog called “Good Fables,” a site that distills lessons from the science of our complex human nature. Cole writes essays and fables to demonstrate valuable life practices and enliven our intuitive sense of psychology. He focuses on the topics of personal development, recovery from emotional distress and nurturing well-being. Check out his blog by clicking here.


Question: I loved your post called “How Loss Creates Depression and Growth.” Your subtitle: “Can We Grow More Than We Wither?” Excellent question. So here’s mine to you. Give me five ways we can grow instead of wither.

Cole: We organize our lives around three main drives and motivations – the need for physical resources such as food and shelter, the need for social connections and attachment figures, and the need to live in a world which makes sense and gives us context for the events in our lives. I name these domains Achievement, Social relationships and Knowledge: ASK for short.


I am going to relate my collection of five ways we can grow to these three domains. In a way, we can ASK ourselves where and how to grow.

1. Need only so much.

Money is the measure of access to physical resources. Nobel Laureate, Paul Kahneman has shown money makes us happier until we earn roughly $60,000 per year, and then, more money matters little. In other words, it’s not that more money isn’t more good, it’s just that the time spent on other things is more, more good. After providing the reasonable comforts of life, other activities generate greater reward.

To be successful with this approach, we should avoid what’s called the hedonic treadmill: we get a thrill getting things we want, and we keep chasing that thrill. In other words, getting stuff begets getting more stuff.


2. Share your life.

For many, this point simply means to strive for a marriage built around a reasonably functional relationship. The literature on American marriage makes two basic, general points. In general, we are happier and healthier in a functional relationship. In general, we are serial monogamists, rather than life-long mates. In other words, we benefit tremendously in relationships and are willing to incur the hardship to leave one which fails our needs and find another.


3. Talk.

Maintain access to interpersonal, sociobiological regulators, which simply means find people who will listen and support us in our crises. These people might be near strangers, but their ability to step up makes them great friends. Therapists are just as valuable.


When we talk about our troubles, we get to hear ourselves, and we get to watch someone else process our experience. If life is indeed one damn thing after another, then this interaction provides relief to distress and engages our abilities to make sense. It’s much harder to find relief and make sense on our own.

4. Create insight.


Life is fragile. The world is random. Our beliefs will always share these qualities and can break apart for no understandable reason. The audience for Beyond Blue is here to find help with make sensing of life (and also to share with each other and to lend a supporting ear).

Where else can we find guidance, involvement and support? We can read books and attend workshops. We can sit and talk with our minister or other spiritual guides. We can find other people who are struggling like we are. When the world doesn’t make sense, do the work to find sense and peace. Insight doesn’t just happen to you. It’s something you do. Some people are too passive, or worse, give up.


5. Embody grace.

Develop the visceral understanding – the physical sensations, the internal feelings, and the welcomed recognition – of three states of grace: I am able, I am worthy, and I am wise. All personal growth is a consequence of these three states.


Embodied grace is primal and found in the body. It is not trite reassurance. It is a testament to what’s known, not what’s hoped for. It takes contemplation, solitude and time to develop. It’s work. We must study how we feel when we are most enabled. We must know we will feel this way again.

We want to remember this visceral understanding more easily than our favorite picture. When crisis puts us at a loss, growth starts when we invoke our own grace. We remind our body, our subconscious, and even our thinking brain what wellness feels like. We show ourselves the way home. The journey often takes time, as healing does, but on the way, we grow.


Question: There has been much discussion on the “Upside of Depression” and why we attach such refinement to depression but not to, say, colon cancer. Where is your position on the debate?


Cole: From the pe
rspective of our immune system, colon cancer is a consequence of being too lax, and arthritis is a consequence of being too vigilant. Our immune system has a style of behavior.

We have a style of behavior when we suffer a significant loss. If our responses are too lax, we are at greater risk of death. If our responses are too vigilant, we are at greater risk of depression and other mental illness.


In civilized society, the prospects of death are greatly diminished. People with lax emotional systems don’t die as often as they might have only 200 years ago. Those who are too vigilant, however, are likely to deal with episodes of depression which like arthritis can become chronic.

Because of the lack of death, some might argue that the value of vigilance is greatly diminished, or that vigilance is a vestige of our past, inapplicable to today’s society (or at least America’s version of today’s society). People who live in war-torn or disaster-ravaged places are likely to find excessive vigilance well rewarded. At an extreme, the cost of being alive is PTSD.


The study of posttraumatic growth shows upside comes from the struggling. Vigilance and neuroticism increase the burden we struggle with: We notice the first hints of a possible threat, minimize the consequences, make appropriate, detailed plans to address the threat, and are the most creative at reconciling a deep sense of violation with the demands for realistic insight.

The cost of such burdensome efforting, especially when unsuccessful, can be depression. Like an immune system gnawing on joints, depression eats up life. Caught in the middle is our very sense of purpose and energy, as if our spirits are born of suffering.


I believe if we acknowledge “upside” or “benefit,” we still are not excused from facing and responding to the ravages of depression. Just as colon cancer compels treatment, so to does depression.

Question: Why is your site called Fable?


Cole: A fable narrates the experience of others to show a life lesson. I often write out personalized experiences to show the things I examine in a more analytical vein. My e-book Furies! has many such fables.

Fable also stands for Fictional Autobiography aBout Life Experience. When we tell a story from our past, we grab a small residual of sensory detail and combine it with the narrative and structural force of our beliefs. We recreate stories rather than retell them. These recreations reflect useful beliefs as much as they reflect truthful facts. Our stories are always fictional – Fables we tell others about ourselves.


We author these Fables, literally composing them on the spot. If we change our beliefs, we change our stories. Above, I write about “embody grace,” which is a powerful way to change our beliefs. If we create this visceral understanding, our whole understanding of our lives must change.

For more about $60,000 per year, see Daniel Kahneman’s TED presentation: The Riddle of Experience vs Memory


Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • SMS

    I have no idea what I just read. I even went back and just reread the first sentence of each point. It’s just all so complicated for me at this time. Therese, please know that I always understand your style. It’s something I can relate to in simple words.

  • Cole Bitting

    Sorry for the confusion. Let me try this summary. To grow, particularly after loss, don’t focus on material gains, talk with people about your experience, make sense of what happened and focus on your intrinsic worth.

  • blanche

    That’s what we bipolar alcholics do in AA :)

  • Cole Bitting

    One of the things I wish I had done over the years is contemplate what it feels like to feel really effective, both the emotional kind of feelings and the sensations in the body. When I struggle, it is helpful to set aside the struggling and spend some time inside these feelings.
    It’s hard though. Our mind messes us up. It’s as if we defend ourselves against feeling good. Setting aside a small amount of time to relive these good moments can help us work through and grow from calamity.
    There are a lot of things we can do to feel better. They all sound pretty easy, like opening the too-tight lid on the peanut butter jar. Yet we struggle. If we doubt ourselves, we cut short the struggling which is to say we cut short the possible growing.

  • Yolanda

    Cole, I understand what you write up thru no. 5. I myself have gone through deep depression and all kinds of economic upheavals since my divorce eight years ago. My children and I lost everything. We have been homeless three times, and have had to start all over again several times. We keep plugging away, always managing to survive. I recently lost my job after working with the state for 22 years, and when I was given the proverbial pink slip, my first reaction was to cry, not so much for me, but because of my kids. I’m a single mother of 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 12. At the same time, my youngest had to be hospitalized for an unknown intestinal problem, and my 17 year old had to switch schools. My oldest son is in college, and he too lost his job but is now happily employed once again.
    It’s funny, but, somehow after the initial shock of the loss of my job, I put things in perspective and have come to terms with the sudden loss of income. I am less stressed now because we have learned to do without a lot of unnecessary things. My youngest son has recovered, my 17 year old is in another school, and my oldest son now has a better paying job.
    Things work out if you hang in there and refocus.

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  • Cole Bitting

    The last one can be tough, but more for cultural reasons than anything. It’s a contemplative idea grounded in modern neuroscience. So it combines two concept which are not part of what we generally know.
    Modern neuroscience says our experience starts in our body as physical reactions to emotionally-significant things. Our body changes before we have any mental experience. Think of how peoples faces changes when they are suddenly frightened, or see someone throw up, or are told of a horrible loss. These facial reactions are involuntary, and in fact, are part of the triggers for the mental experience of fear, disgust and sadness. Beliefs are very sophisticated concepts and incorporate significant emotionality. That emotionality means these beliefs create unique body-states, similar to facial reactions. These body-states are part of the triggers for the mental experience of our beliefs.
    The three horrible beliefs we all hold are 1) I’m not able, 2) I’m not worthy, and 3) I should have know better. Depression fuels our identification with these beliefs. If we are going to live with a spell of darkness, it’s nice to know there is light. LIght is the ability to evoke the sensations of feeling 1) able, 2) worthy, and 3) wise. How do we learn this?
    Contemplation and meditation are techniques for explore and learning beliefs. Buddhist monks spend years practicing compassion meditations before they are considered adept at them. We must spend time learning and believing we are able, worthy and wise. When depression hits, it tries to cut us off from these beliefs, so the better we know them the better we can manage the struggle. We grow from the struggle.

  • Cole Bitting

    I put up a post on Fable – – which directly relates to this interview. Here is a snippet.
    One of the biggest categories of TV shows is the police procedural, for example, NCIS, CSI, and Criminal Minds. These shows portray two types of characters – the lax victim and the vigilant criminal.
    We all understand the lax victim. We watch someone drunk or distracted or lost in some darkened alley, and we think, “Do go there! Watch Out! Run.” When the criminal approaches we get anxious, our hearts race, our breathing quicks, our palms sweat, blood runs into our legs, and we furiously search for what we might do to get away. These scenes inspire our vigilance as if we are trying to compensate for the victim’s cluelessness.

  • SMS

    I appreciate Cole Bitting expanding on his interview to help me understand. My cloudy thinking has finally seen the sun. It all takes searching and effort.

  • archermanthos

    bariatric surgery Charlotte
    hese facial reactions are involuntary, and in fact, are part of the triggers for the mental experience of fear, disgust and sadness. Beliefs are very sophisticated concepts and incorporate significant emotionality. That emotionality means these beliefs create unique body-states, similar to facial reactions. These body-states are part of the triggers for the mental experience of our beliefs.

  • owen bitting

    i’m sorry i just can’t take this anymore you guys all know my dad loves to post psychology and do fun things like that on the internet but do you guys know how my dad became good at psychology. Well it started a little after he and my mom broke up he spent like 5 grand on books spent all his time with his girlfriends and completely ignoring his three children me eliot and liam. I am tell all of you this don’t listen to my douche of a dad instead read the books because my dad may have some knowledge but he really is a horrible person and i’m telling you this my dad get sooo mad its unbelievable if you think he actually follows his teaching then your wrong.
    Email me if you have any questions

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