Our challenges can be our greatest teachers

I recently wrote about how you can deal with set-backs, which are inevitable in life. As a nation, at this moment, many of us are feeling like we are experiencing an emotional set-back, feeling significantly challenged. I’ve been grappling with and thinking a lot about how we respond to challenges that are big, small, or huge.

Our typical challenges can be related to something like working on an important project and finding things going well, but then suddenly getting paralyzed and feeling unsure about how to get going again. Or, maybe you’ve had a great idea, done your thinking, research and planning to implement it, and then have found it daunting to get started. Or, you’ve been offered a great opportunity and feel thrilled, but then a deep-freeze overtakes you just when you need to take action.

You may be reflecting on a day-to day challenge, or you may be contending with a more emotional and existential challenge — like the fear and anxiety that have come up for so many people after an election result that feels frightening and overwhelming.

It is easy to find yourself in such situations, and to respond in ways that do not serve you. Sometimes we beat ourselves up, letting our self-critic go wild. Responding like that digs us into a deeper hole, and what follows is despair. Sometimes we simply curl up into a ball and “go fetal”, or numb ourselves with binge eating, getting lost in distraction for hours on end, or turning to alcohol. Sometimes we lash out at others.

So, what can be done when challenges grip you? And, what can we learn at these times?

1. First, get quiet. Start by sitting with yourself and breathing. Just breath deeply and get calm. You might want to place your hands on your heart and feel the rhythm of your blood pumping. Don't try to “fix” anything and don’t judge yourself. Instead, simply let the anxiety you are feeling settle down and soften. Let yourself connect to the feeling of love, and love whatever comes up for you. Witnessing your fears lets your emotions and thoughts become clear. You can be present with them, name the emotions you recognize, and trust that doing that will make it easier to begin to move ahead.

2. Remind yourself of what you have lived through before, that felt impossibly challenging at the time. When you recall times that you suffered grief, or feared external threats, or were able to find your way to taking action after being totally stuck, you give yourself a gift. Maybe you will recall how you were comforted, or that you felt better when you comforted someone else, and how that freed you to take action. Maybe you will recall that a trusted friend was able to help you see a way forward when you felt you were in a dark place with no path forward. Consider the fact that the situation you are facing now may be calling on you to show up in a bigger way, to move beyond your fear, to do something important.

3. Steer clear of drama, commit to taking a small step toward what you want, and find the lessons in these moments. When you are quiet and focused, you can keep drama at bay — your own drama, or that of others around you — so that you can stay clear and centered. You can notice when your self-critic has intruded, or irrational thoughts are getting in your way, and know that they are just thoughts and do not have to be given power. You can appreciate that you are able to impact the world in beautiful and meaningful ways when you commit to taking a small step forward, then another. And, you can commit to continuing to take those steps until you approach, or reach, the outcome you desire. It may mean persevering in the face of discomfort, but taking those small steps (even taking imperfect action!) will create positive momentum. You can appreciate that you have learned new ways of responding to a challenge, so that when this kind of stress hits again (which it inevitably will), you will have new ways of coping, rather than feeling defeated as you may have been in the past.

These challenging experiences offer you a way to practice being kind to yourself, to be open and willing to accept the way you tend to react, and to celebrate that you are changing old patterns. I urge you to recognize and celebrate each step you take, and celebrate all of your progress — even if you backslide from time to time (as we all do). The key is to gently get back on the right track, and celebrate that you have learned to keep moving forward with small, positive steps.

The wonderful thing about living consciously is that you learn and grow from every situation you experience. Let me know what you think about these ideas, and if they help you.