4 practical ways to grow and learn from hard times
It’s no secret that we’re faced with a growing mental health crisis right now, and many of us are experiencing incredible amounts of pain and suffering.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll reported that nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. It’s predicted that “deaths of despair,” mostly through suicide and substance use, will add to increased mortality and reduced life expectancy of Americans during, and after, the COVID-19 pandemic.
It should be no surprise that sales of self-help books, articles, products and services, and apps for our mobile devices has skyrocketed. The only items more in demand are face masks and hand sanitizers.
Self-help products promise to change us, make us better people than when we started, as if an essential part of our thinking is missing and needs to be added. They are full of promises to reduce or eliminate what is wrong with us. We’re told how wonderful we are, that we’re unique and special. They bombard us with weak platitudes and feel-good crap that emits the odor not of sanctity but of sanctimony.
I have no idea when “life should always be fair and easy” became popular. Before rich parents thought it was OK to buy their mediocre kids’ way into top-notch schools? Certainly before political correctness stifled free speech and dissenting opinions at universities and newspapers. And most definitely before every little thing that goes wrong is a crisis.
Johnny didn’t get an A on a term paper. Crisis! Bunny’s new boss doesn’t appreciate her special talents. Crisis! Skippy didn’t get praised by his teacher for an art project. Crisis!
You want to hear about a crisis? Read about concentration camps and gulags. Watch a documentary on people starving in Africa. Spend a little time in the homeless encampments in California. Now those are legitimate crises, not your precious ego and selfish worries.
People didn’t always point fingers and look to the past; they joined hands and looked to the future.
Studies have shown that one of the best ways to overcome the anxiety that accompanies pain and suffering is to connect with others. Don’t go it alone.
Here are four practical ways to grow from your pain and suffering:
1. Get a grip on the true state of your circumstances
Make no mistake: A repeated cycle of abuse can create post-traumatic stress disorder, a serious mental health problem. However, while abuse and trauma can create negative side effects, they're equally likely to spur positive coping skills that leads to personal growth.
Growth from crisis is not a new concept. Throughout history, humans have witnessed struggle and victory as well as pain and healing. Post-traumatic growth describes a person who becomes stronger because of their trauma.
While this may surprise some, the reason is simple: Pain and suffering provide clarity for us. It can clear out chaotic thoughts that cloud our thinking during a tough time and create the space we need to think about how and why the situation occurred.
Often, a calamity packs a hard punch that we can’t ignore, while a gentler intrusion into our life wouldn’t get our attention. It can break us open and move us to change our ways.
How to make it work for you: It’s not easy to find comfort in the midst of pain and suffering. The only way out is to consider whether there might be some benefit to your circumstances -- even if you have no idea what it might be.
The simple act of being open to the possibility allows you to shed your victim mentality and feel empowered. You’ll need to grit up and hunt for the positive in your difficult situation, because it won’t miraculously land at your feet. Once you find it, however, you’ll begin to see the gift that your crisis brought you.
2. Use the opportunity to build endurance and resilience
We live in a culture that’s in a pursuit of constant happiness and praise for everything we do. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s made us a bunch of weak and fragile wimps who expect our lives to be perfect. When something doesn’t go our way, we catastrophize it. We’re offended by everything because, hey, everything is about us, right?
Pain and suffering remind us of how the real world works, not the one invented by vacuous YouTube videos and mindless entertainment. We don’t become resilient by feeling good all the time. In fact, endurance and resilience are the byproducts of pain and suffering. We need to feel bad -- we just need to get better at it, because bad feelings create our most powerful incentives to become stronger and smarter.
Both endurance and resilience require us to get up close and personal with our negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety. It’s the only way we can examine them, trace their roots and uncover why they popped up. Only then can we understand how to improve ourselves
The key to growing from your pain and suffering is learning how to leverage your negative feelings. You won’t become more resilient from fluffy experiences. You will need to experience failure and wade your way through difficult times if you hope to become a stronger and smarter person.
How to make it work for you: Our anxiety about pain and suffering stems from our relentless focus on self. We become obsessed with how to prevent more pain. Instead, psychologists suggest we should spend our time preparing for the pain in the future. Because guess what?
Shit happens. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional. It’s your choice.
3. Fine-tune values
If you were to ask most people to list their most important values, they would stall for time as their mind frantically searched for the meaning of the word! Values, aren’t they the things we insure in case of fire or burglary? Our minds often go to physical possessions, the things we place value on.
Part of the clarity that pain and suffering brings is the mental toughness to define what is truly important to you. When you fine-tune your values, you’ll see which values are the ones worth suffering for and which ones are crap and should be thrown out.
Pain and suffering cause the ground beneath us to shift. It’s no longer about a bigger house or a newer car. They create a need to ask the more significant question: “What was I meant to do in life?”
The answer to this question will help us identify things that will bring us value and meaning. Those are the values for which we are willing to run the risk of pain and suffering because we’re motivated to protect them.
Good values lead to a life of contentment and joy -- emotions that have far more heft than happiness, which is transitory and completely dependent on our external circumstances.
Good values also form our character. It’s easy to confuse character with personality, but the two are very different. Personalities can be introverted, extroverted, confident, energetic, etc., and most of us become experts at this about the time puberty hits.
Character involves traits that only reveal themselves in specific, and often turbulent, situations. Traits like kindness, honesty, patience, and justice are based on beliefs we have about ourselves and others.
How to make it work for you: Good values are achieved internally; bad values rely on external circumstances. Take the time to find the stillness that resides deep within you, and reflect on the values you place above others. Identify the times where you felt joy and contentment, and then trace the origins of those emotions.
4. Find your hope
Hope in our world feels a little strangled right now, but it’s always felt like that. The world has always had problems and yet life finds a way, even in the midst of a pandemic full of pain and suffering.
What if hope and despair are paths to the same destination?
If we are to grow from our pain and suffering, we need to embrace it and tease out a constructive meaning around it. If we experience pleasure without sacrifice, it’s meaningless. What are we willing to give up in order to grab hold of something we cannot lose?
Hope is the reason we get up in the morning. It’s our mind’s go-to button so we feel the things we do every day are worth it. Hope gives our mind structure and without it, our brain collapses into a pity puddle. Anxiety, depression and suicide are a crisis of hope.
You have hope because you care. It’s as simple as that. It gives your life a sense of purpose that will carry you to the end of your days with gratitude and meaning.
How to make it work for you: For hope to grow, you need to find a meaning in your pain and suffering. That meaning must be tethered in reality, however, and not some fantasy where you lean back and point fingers of blame because your world is not perfect and then expect a bigger version of your parents to put a bandage on it so it feels all better. While you cannot control external circumstances, you do get to choose the influence that your pain has on you.
Note: St Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:3-5), English Standard Version, provides this wisdom:
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
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LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.