Have you ever felt thankful for adversity? I think a lot of us have, but usually not until the hard stuff is over and we can look back and see what benefits were gained. How would it feel to live as a person who welcomes adversity? I am not talking about being self-destructive here, or enjoying painful experiences. What I am referring is being able to embrace hardships, conflicts and disappointments, because you know they will be good teachers. Sounds good, huh? So how do we get there? I am on this journey with you.
There are 2 parts to this path: First is becoming aware of the fact that the emotional reaction to an event stems directly from your beliefs about the event, not the event itself. The second part is about changing the nature of your relationship to problems- viewing them as a necessary part of life- often life’s greatest teachers.
Let me say, before we continue, that although big traumas can spur posttraumatic growth, turning past traumas into opportunities for growth is multi-layered work, and can be very challenging without therapeutic support. Sometimes trauma responses need to be addressed before a person can sort out where their emotional reactions are coming from, making the techniques I am suggesting difficult and confusing. Doing this work may bring awareness to how a trauma response gets triggered, but I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that the way to heal trauma is to just change your perspective- that is a dismissing and damaging thought. Working with past trauma can require brain and body interventions, going beyond just working with the mind/thoughts. The path that I am describing below is meant to be applied to the inevitable bumps in the road we all experience, not extremely painful, shake you to your core events. Learning to build and practice resilience skills can help you navigate future traumas, but does not replace interventions aimed at healing from trauma.
One of the ways that humans can build resilience, or the the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, is to dispel the belief that adversity sets off emotions directly. We can see this in action when we hear stories about people who use tragedies to strengthen their determination and become more successful then they would have been, had things been easy for them. One failure may cause one person to quit, and another to learn from their mistakes and achieve their dreams. A group of people can share a traumatic experience and have very different emotional reactions.
Often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dr. Albert Ellis’s ABC model is one way to work with this truth and bring awareness to how our beliefs create our reactions.
A is the adversity—the situation or event.
B is our belief—our belief about the situation.
C is the consequence—the feelings and behaviors that our belief causes.
To tease out how our beliefs are creating emotional consequences, try this:
Vividly recall a recent adverse event-
Record the A: Describe the even objectively Who? What? When? Where?
Record the C: Your feelings and actions.
Record the B: Record your thoughts about the event.
We can begin to find connection between our beliefs and the consequent emotions. We may start to see patterns- that thoughts about danger drive anxiety, or thoughts about rejection fuel depression. If done regularly we will find that sometimes our beliefs about a situation are not accurate, and our reactions undermine resilient responses.
For more details on the ABC method, see this link: https://www.dartmouth.edu/eap/abcstress2.pdf
Once it becomes clear on how our beliefs are the cause of our reactions, not events themselves, we can move a step further and began to change the nature of our relationship to problems. You will be able to understand what beliefs are causing subsequent reactions and then move to seeing what the reactions have to teach you.
For example: Your husband is late coming home from work and isn’t answering his phone. You notice that you begin to feel anxious and as time ticks by, also a bit angry. Ask yourself what you believe about this scenario: Are you worried he might have been in an accident- hence the anxiety? Or are you worried he is cheating on you, and that is why he won’t answer? Or maybe you think he is inconsiderate of your feelings, otherwise he would have called to say he would be late? When he arrives a few minutes later, you learn that there was a meeting that ran late where he was offered a much desired promotion. His excitement caused him to rush home, forgetting his phone at work. He walks in the house happy to share the news but you are still upset and can’t share in the excitement. You may also feel pretty annoyed by your thoughts and the trip they just took you on.
Using the ABC model, you can see how your beliefs created your emotional reaction. Then you can use this experience as your teacher by exploring the beliefs you hold that caused you to interpret the situation the way you did. Do these beliefs serve you, or not? In this example, maybe the person has a fear of being alone, which might be expressing itself in many different ways that diminish the persons well-being and effect their relationships.
Negative feelings that arise when we have a conflict, or life takes a turn we don’t want it to, are so uncomfortable. When you feel that negative experiences have nothing good to offer you, it makes sense that you just want that feeling to end ASAP- causing us to use food, substances, entertainment, sex, etc. to distract from the painful feeling. What if you operated from the view that even though these experiences are painful, there is always something to learn from them? Could you keep yourself from numbing or distraction, if you believed something great would come out of sitting with your reactions and exploring them?
With practice, it is possible for all of us to become less focused our reactions to situations that cause inconvenience, conflict, or fear, and more focused on what our reaction has to teach us. We may even begin to look forward to these opportunities to learn more about our minds, and become thankful for these experiences.
“What we are doing is cultivating an attitude where problems show up and rather than run or shun them we think, Ah here is another area where I am under the control of my harmful emotions. Instead of running, I’m going to open my door to my enemy and see what he has to teach me. By knowing my enemy, I can defeat him. By being interested in my enemy, I disarm him. He gets his power from my habitual, unconscious reactions to him. Now, I’m going to develop a different relationship with my enemy. When I do not hate my enemy, there is no longer “an enemy,” only information that remains.”
Our problems can become the resistance that build mental muscle. Instead of fearing problems, we can view them as an inevitable part of being human, and one of our best opportunities for growth.
Thanks for reading ❤
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW