When Life Takes a Sharp Left Turn
I know this has happened to you as it has happened to me. You’re going along, having a good enough day, and suddenly life goes wonky in a most unexpected way. Your morning commute is going well; just a few blocks from your office or dropping the kids off at school, then suddenly unbelievable out-of-nowhere gridlock.
Even more seriously, the doctor proclaims that your nagging but not too troubling cough is, “Well, you look way too healthy to have pneumonia, but that’s what you have.”
Or what started as just a funny smell turns out to be mold in the bathroom and all of the walls, flooring, and fixtures have to be replaced.
Even very seriously, my friend Sally Ann was almost out the door on the way to the airport when her husband, completely fine a moment ago, experienced chest pains strong enough to have to go in an ambulance to the ER, her trip to visit their children on the opposite coast abruptly canceled. (One overnight stay for observation, the chest pain passed; her husband went safely at home, the trip was re-scheduled for two weeks later.)
Shit happens. And when we develop the understanding that shit happens all of the time, out of the blue, not convenient, scarily life-threatening at times, we can also develop the intention to practice preparing for that, accepting that, and adjusting to that. We can develop a resilience mindset that keeps in our awareness – life goes off the rails pretty regularly. For everybody, even when we’re trying really hard and have cultivated some pretty cool tools to cope. Our task is to know that, not be so surprised, not take it so personally. It helps to remember on a daily basis, “bad things happen to good people,” and to shift into our resilience mindset as quickly as possible.
Shit happens. Shift happens, too. One of the most essential features of a resilience mindset is response flexibility.
People who are resilient tend to be flexible – flexible in the way they think about challenges and flexible in the way they react emotionally to stress. They are not wedded to a specific style of coping. Instead, they shift from one coping strategy to another, depending on the circumstances. Many are able to accept what they cannot change; to learn from failure; to use emotions like grief and anger to fuel compassion and courage; and to search for opportunity and meaning in adversity.
Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick, M.D., Dennis Charney, M.D.
One practice that can help:
Cultivating Response Flexibility
1. Recall some previous sharp left turns – unexpected difficulties – you’ve had to cope with. Easiest to begin with examples where you actually did cope fairly well. Recall how you did cope. Then imagine 3 other ways you could have coped differently. Not better or worse, simply different. Notice how you feel about the event, and how you feel about yourself, as you imagine coping in these different ways.
2. In your imagination, rehearse an upcoming event you expect might turn out to be unexpectedly challenging. Taking your car into the shop for an oil change and something far more expensive needs to be fixed. You’re traveling to see family and the flight is canceled because of weather. There’s a wallop of a huge charge on your credit card; you have no idea why.
Imagine 3 different ways you might cope with what you imagine could go wrong.
The point of the exercise isn’t to find the perfect solution. It’s to create the habit in your brain of looking for multiple solutions to any given problem and to create the mindset that cultivating this habit is s super-super good idea.
[For more practice in cultivating response flexibility, see Linda’s newsletter Difficult Stuff Happens. Shift Happens, Too.]