“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I used to think that I had some degree of control over what happened in my life. Work hard, follow the Golden Rule, and good things will happen. But as I moved through life, I learned that things don’t always work out that way—things often turn out differently than we anticipate. While challenging, these situations can offer us opportunities to grow, if we remain open to that possibility.
Being flexible and adaptable is very helpful when dealing with life’s unanticipated roadblocks and detours. The control you have over your situation lies in how you react. You cannot control what has happened, but you can control your reactions. Below are some strategies that can help you navigate the challenges that can accompany unanticipated change—and help you begin to carve out the life you want.
Allow yourself time to grieve your loss (whatever that loss may be). We all work through change at our own pace, and only you know how much time you need to adjust to your new normal.
Express your emotions in the way that is most comfortable for you. This expression can take many forms. Write in a journal, draw a picture, paint or dance or sing. Remember, this is for you—nobody else needs to judge. This creative expression of your emotional life can be an important part of the healing process. Set aside some time for it each day.
If your situation requires that you process a lot of new information—perhaps in doctors’ appointments or other meetings—ask a friend to accompany you and help you review the information. It’s always helpful to have another set of ears and the support that a close friend can offer.
Deal with the situation in bite-sized pieces. You would not try to eat a steak without cutting it in pieces and then chewing and swallowing each piece, would you? It is the same with information. It is usually not necessary to digest it all and act immediately.
Breathe. Breathing from your diaphragm can help relieve anxiety. Concentrating on breathing takes your mind off what you are dealing with, if only for a brief moment. Try it: take the deepest breath you can and feel the breath go from your toes to your nose. I challenge you to think about something else while doing this exercise!
Be in the present. If you are in the moment, you cannot worry about what will happen in the future or what has happened in the past. (Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now is an excellent resource for learning more about living in the present.)
Recognize the humor. Every situation offers humor. Spending time trying to find the humor or seeing funny moments can take your mind off the situation. Smiling uses fewer facial muscles than frowning. Try to smile, if only briefly, and you will feel better.
Claim your power. Often when facing challenges, we feel like we do not have any control over our lives. What can you do to regain control? Focus on what is important to you. Set a daily schedule that includes these things. Is it taking a walk? Meditating? Making time to speak on the phone?
Allow others to help you. We often find it difficult to accept help from others, but people want to help. Don’t worry about reciprocating now. When you accept help, you are allowing others to give and experience the joy that comes from giving.
Remember that the only thing that is permanent is change. Try to be flexible. It is easier than digging in your heels and resisting.
Take an inventory of all the good things in your life. Make a list of them and add one thing, no matter how small, each day!
It’s not always easy to understand why things happen, but in many cases we can make peace with our situation when we look at challenges as opportunities for growth. What have you added to your “good things inventory” today?
Denise King Gillingham, MSW, CPCC*, is a certified co-active coach who specializes in helping people achieve enduring life change through accessing their inner wisdom. Her international practice includes clients from all walks of life. Denise received her master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and has been a mental health professional for more than 15 years. She shifted her focus from therapy to coaching in 2006. Her professional experience includes private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic; crisis intervention with New York University; in-patient therapy at Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City; and substance abuse counseling at Bronx VA Medical Center in New York City. She develops and conducts workshops on emotional intelligence for organizations in the United States and Europe. Contact Denise at* firstname.lastname@example.org.