Adversity is part of life – I don’t know anyone who has said that they have always had it good and have never been hit with the s****y stick. We have all had to face challenges such as rejection, failure, loneliness and loss. And guess what? It’s not over yet my friends. There will be more of that to come. It’s what happens when you’re human. Unless you’re an avenger, you don’t have the power to change the fact that unwelcome experiences will happen, but you can sure as hell change your attitude to them so that you overcome them more peacefully.
The normal societal attitude towards adversity is fear and resistance. It’s natural really: everyone wants to live a peaceful and happy life and we don’t want anything to come along which interferes with that or which throws us off course. But if we want to be able to cope better and prepare our mental health for the bad times we need to be more accepting of them.
Being dumped, losing a loved one or being rejected feels painful, sometimes excruciatingly so. The first key to lessening your suffering of something rotten is to realise that you are not alone: there are thousands if not millions of others who are likely to experience or who have experienced what you are feeling; some not so bad and others worse. Whilst feeling severe emotional pain is hard, it is by no means uncommon. It is a shared human experience. So be compassionate.
Secondly, each time you have an experience of loss, rejection or disappointment you are developing your adversity muscle. Each kick in the emotional cajones is a practice run so that you can build resilience. As the old adage says, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When I look back on my life so far, I feel that most of what has defined who I am has been the adversity – and I’ve had my fair share thank you very much. I have developed resilience and have discovered more about myself by the way I have coped with difficult times. Through my experience of suffering I have been able to feel into others’ suffering more sensitively too: it has developed my empathy.
Thirdly, we have to be mindful of our own judgments and about whether we label experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They may be experiences that deliver emotional pain or shatter expectations but they may also deliver some positive consequences. Divorce, for example, shatters both the expectation of being together forever and delivers grief that takes a while to get over. On the plus side, most divorcees enjoy the fact that they have creative freedom to redesign their lives to improve them for the better. For example, as a bi-product of her recent divorce, my friend turned from couch potato to marathon runner. She has (quite literally) never looked back. It would be inaccurate for her to label her divorce as necessarily a ‘bad’ thing in her life, sad though it was for a time.
Fourthly, in a very, very ideal world (perhaps one in which we were all living totally consciously, doing yoga three times a day and living on sustainably farmed mung beans), we might be in the habit of ‘flexing’ those aspects of our characters that we have developed as a result of the blocks in our path. This would be a great way of making us accept adversity as less of a bad thing and of seeing it more as a constructive means of furthering our personal development. For example, imagine this: bumping into a friend who you haven’t seen for a while who says, ‘hey – how have you been?’
You then say: ‘Well, not bad. The divorce was sad but it was fabulous for my emotional resilience and single motherhood has been great because it’s made me patient and has given me more fortitude. How are you?’
‘I’m great!’ says the musician friend, ‘my hand was injured in a recent accident and I can no longer play guitar but it’s ok because I have developed my creativity and adaptivity by taking up singing. I have my recently released an album.’
‘Marvellous, so pleased for you!’ you say.
Ever heard such a conversation down the local pub? No I didn’t think so. The point is; if we relished our mastery of adversity with the same level of pride as we did the number of metres’ elevation we had done after our Snowdonian peak challenge, wouldn’t we be flexing our resilience muscles like some sort of sanctimonious strava user? Or would that simply be too cringey (especially for us Brits)?
The reality is, we are more likely to hear people draw sharp intakes of breath when we break the news of our latest woes, as they gawp at us with pitying stares. This attitude of ‘pity’ (characterised by words such as ‘poor thing’, ‘what a terrible thing’, ‘what a shame’ and ‘how unlucky’) can often send us into victim mode, making us think that the giant grey finger of doom in the sky has been pointed at us and only us. It is not an attitude that helps to foster recovery and resilience.
People often fear adversity and their fear affects the way that they respond to yours. It’s true that some people are genuinely empathic and sorry that you have had a hard time. But I wonder whether, if as a society, we were able to big up the silver linings and be altogether more positively supportive of those suffering from hard times, it would help people’s recovery and lessen their suffering. Whilst not being totally insensitive or coming across as truly sanctimonious, we could perhaps be encouraged to talk about how otherwise negative experiences have made us see parts of our characters that we did not know we had, or how we now appreciate all the things we are now grateful for.
As a recent accident sufferer, I did not jump for joy when my bike bucked me off. I was in pain and suffered from anxiety and shock. I also had to cope with the social stigma of having a temporarily disfigured face (I broke my nose). Rather than react with horror and run away from myself (my first instinct), I took steps to accept myself in my newly-found disfigured state. Whilst I had to avert my eyes at first, I made an effort to look in the mirror and to massage cream into my broken face every evening. I was compassionate to my anxiety and let it be. I wasn’t able to ride my bike but I didn’t let it interfere with my leisure time. I enrolled on a new course and took up some new activities. I spent more time at home which made me appreciate the small mundane everyday things much more.
I can’t say that the accident was particularly welcome. I would rather not have broken my face. But what I can say is that because I shifted my attitude towards my pain, I was able to recover quicker and find the collateral benefits in my adverse experience. Whilst on the face of it (excuse the pun), it was a ‘bad’ thing, the reality was that ‘good’ happened to in the form of my new-found appreciation for the small things, my creative pursuit of new activities and my discovery of self-compassion.
And so it falls to me to finish with a cheesy metaphor in the vogue of Swiss Tony. Ahem – here it is:
The trials and tribulations are part of life and your attitude to them is like suspension on a car. Your can either absorb those bumps in the road and ride on unscathed or you can allow them to launch you into the nearest ditch headfirst.