“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis
Life rarely goes exactly as planned, even for the most conscientious people. Sometimes life’s surprises are joyous, such as falling in love when you least expect it or stumbling upon a fantastic business opportunity. At other times, unanticipated events can be devastating, such as losing a loved one or becoming very ill. It’s quite difficult to anticipate how you might respond to an unexpected and painful life challenge. No matter what life brings, it is possible to find authentic meaning and value in the darkest of times… and even to thrive in the face of adversity.
If one of your dreaded worst case scenarios actually comes true, it may feel impossible to regain joy and meaning in life. It’s understandable to feel burdened by the weight of pain or heartache when the unthinkable happens. You may respond by isolating yourself from other people, engaging in self-medicating behaviors, or denying the impact of your emotional pain. All of these are forms of experiential avoidance, which may provide temporary respite from psychological suffering… but the core problem remains.
Transform Poison Into Medicine
When in the midst of an emotionally painful or challenging time, the last thing you probably want to do is express gratitude for the event(s) that are the apparent source of your suffering. The notion of cultivating gratitude during painful times doesn’t mean you’re “glad” something terrible has happened… nor is it about finding some sort of “silver lining” within pain. The idea is to transform poison into medicine. Alex Lickerman, M.D. explains:
From the Buddhist perspective, all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how awful or tragic. Unlike the idea that every cloud has a silver lining—that something positive can always be found in everything negative—the principle of changing poison into medicine explains that we can transform even the most horrific tragedy into something we need to become happier than we currently are.
The process of labeling an event as “bad” tends to happen when things feel out of control, unsolvable, and are causing personal pain. It’s understandable to jump to the conclusion that unwanted and painful events are simply “bad” in some way… or perhaps in every way. The trouble with this reaction is that it often leads to unnecessary suffering and missed opportunities for growth.
Changing the Significance of “Bad” Events
We must challenge ourselves to step outside of emotional reasoning and knee-jerk responses to painful events. This begins by recognizing a couple of things about the real significance of “bad” events:
The significance of events changes depending on the circumstances. You might judge losing your job as unequivocally bad… until you discover the company was involved in illegal activity and under investigation. You might judge a physical injury as unequivocally bad… until you realize that you were working yourself to death and in desperate need of self-care.
The significance of events changes depending on what you choose to do next. You have the power and the freedom to choose how to respond to events, no matter how painful they may be at the time. The significance of events in the grand scheme of things can change dramatically based on your chosen responses. For instance, you can shift the overall significance of a personal or professional failure by using it as a tool for increased self-awareness, accountability, and personal development.
Looking for Solutions…
It’s natural to begin trying out different problem-solving strategies when faced with difficult events. As someone with a unique life history, circumstances, personality traits, and so forth, you probably take different problem-solving approaches than another person selected at random. Try taking a moment to reflect on how you tend to respond to painful events as you begin to untangle false beliefs that may be interfering with more effective problem-solving.
Perhaps you take the approach of staying in perpetual physical, mental, or emotional “motion.” Or maybe you have a tendency to slow down and methodically analyze different variables related to the event. Or perhaps you try to avoid the pain associated with problems by self-medicating with drugs/alcohol, food, exercise, excessive spending/gambling, or some other form of potentially destructive behavior. The idea is not to judge the way you tend to respond to difficulties, but rather to mindfully observe how your current problem-solving strategies work… and how they don’t work.
Take a New Approach to Problem-Solving
If you’re not satisfied with your current problem-solving style, it might be time to take an alternative approach. Sometimes, the “best” solution is the one you’ve never thought of… the one that’s never even occurred to you before… the one that you’ve dismissed in the past as impossible or ridiculous. So how do you identify the solution that might be just what you need?
It’s not necessarily an easy task to find the solution(s) that can transform emotional pain into self-made medicine… but it’s entirely possible. Try noticing some of the subtle cues that you may be reaching an effective alternative solution:
- … it pushes you just outside of your comfort zone.
- … it requires more courage than you believe you have.
- … it challenges you to take healthy risks.
- … it comes in an unexpected form or opportunity.
- … it provides you with the chance to face – and overcome – the worst case scenario.
When you begin to identify patterns/themes that lead to desirable results (and are not harmful to yourself/others), it’s up to you to choose whether or not you’re willing to make a willingness and action plan. You have the power to initiate lasting changes in how you respond to painful events by practicing new behaviors.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy… it doesn’t mean that change happens overnight. It does mean that change is possible, no matter how deeply entrenched you may have become in a certain habit or pattern of responding. If you find yourself believing change to be impossible or having difficulty envisioning any viable solutions, try to reflect on an adage I’ve mentioned in previous articles: Change happens when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go.
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Useful CBT Worksheets:
- Vertical Arrow – Learn how to respond to stressful events in a more realistic light by examining “worst case scenarios.”
- Cognitive Conceptualization Diagram – Apply connections between core beliefs, assumptions, & coping strategies to events.
- Effective Problem Solving – Utilize self-awareness of cognitive distortions to overcome barriers to change.
Lickerman, A. (2013). Turning Poison Into Medicine, Redux. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201306/the-good-in-feeling-bad/turning-poison-medicine
Featured image: the changing face of firefighting by torbakhopper / CC BY 2.0