How to Turn a Crisis into a Personal Revolution
As the saying goes, life is not about what happens to us, but how we react to it. I would go a step further and say that life is about what we do with what happens to us. How we see the crises or transitions in our lives and how we ultimately frame them are crucial to the benefits we eventually reap from them.
Did I say benefits?
Yes, there is a silver lining around this cloud we call crisis. But don’t think I’m trying to minimize or make light of this. Not for a moment.
Having just gone through major life changes myself, I wouldn’t dream of sugar coating the intense pain, fear and loss that often comes with exchanging the familiar for the unknown. Instead, I want to show how riding a change the way a surfer rides a wave, rather than let it knock us down, can give us a huge advantage in terms of the length of time spent suffering and in the powerful personal gifts it yields.
I’ll frame it for you in a series of steps.
Don’t resist. A crisis can feel as though someone removed your rose-colored glasses and whacked you across the forehead with a large 2X4. Any major change brings with it a jolt, a blowing up of what was. The intensity varies depending upon the person and the circumstances, but the shock is there nonetheless, in the same way that jumping into a cold body of water is shocking. The shock wears off after a while, or we at least adjust to it, but it is undeniably there and rather convincing. This is when we have a choice: to resist it or accept it. When we resist, we tense up and this tension actually sharpens and prolongs the pain. Acceptance, on the other hand, smoothes the rough edges and lets you relax and breathe. If you’re in the middle of a crisis, this can sound trite and annoying, I know, but bear with me and try something. Just for a moment, stop struggling, stop bracing yourself and try letting go and allowing it. It may take a few attempts, but you soon you will begin to see the overall difference (however subtle) in how you feel.
Don’t identify with it. When you identify with a crisis or trauma, you hold it close to you, take ownership of it, and strengthen it by making it yours. While it may be yours temporarily, it is not you; you are not defined by it. It is happening within you and around you; it is having an impact on you. That is all. And though it may feel that way when you’re in the middle of it, it is not all that you are. It is a houseguest that has dropped in for a visit, but don’t invite it to move in long-term. It can stay until it wears out its welcome. After that, by all means, show it the door.
Allow yourself to grieve. I mean that. Like it or not, the feelings must be expressed. Grieving is extremely uncomfortable and painful, and at times, our feelings can be so strong that we are unable to function or socialize or do basic daily tasks. However, if we deny ourselves this release, it will only delay our evolution and movement forward. Expressing rather than repressing emotions is healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Yes, we will probably feel as though we’re going to die or we can’t go on, but our feelings are just that — our feelings. They’re quite real and convincing, but feelings are not facts or even the truth, they are just our experience and if we let ourselves have them fully, they do pass. It’s when we deny them that they go underground and wreak havoc with our psyche, our relationships, our immune system, and just about everything else that matters. So indulge. Give yourself a permission slip to be with your feelings. Everything else can wait. You have an excuse now. Use it.
Release the past. This sounds simpler than it is. First, because it cannot be done all at once, and second, because it means in order to let go of it, we have to actually face it, sometimes even immerse ourselves in what was, until we are truly finished and ready to let it go. Finally, as ready as we may be, it isn’t always possible to make a clean break. For many of us, we still find ourselves surrounded by people, places, and things that are reminders and emotional triggers, which pull up the past in all its glory when we least expect it. Each of us must decide how much of this we can realistically tolerate. If changes in relationships, a job, or location must be made, then they must be made. Only we can decide that. But while we cannot expect the past to be wrapped up neatly with a bow, we can do a great deal to keep the corners of our lives free of past shadows.
Embrace the present. To help ourselves heal from any pain associated with change, the best medicine is to put our attention on what’s right in front of us. No more. No less. It keeps it simple and helps keep us from getting overwhelmed by the intensity of what is happening. We can ask ourselves the simple question, “What’s the next right thing to do?” And just keep moving from one moment to the next, not thinking about where we’ve been or where we’re going, but where we are. If that doesn’t work, sometimes we need to just stop and regroup. Talk to a friend, take a walk, meditate, take a nap, read a book, anything just to clear the mind of the congestion that’s making us feel overwhelmed. Then we can approach what is in front of us again with a clear head. What we’re trying to do at this stage, is to stop the frenzy that change can instigate, the flight or fight response that keeps us in a hyper state of alert, which can lead to burn out and exhaustion.
Create a vision for the future. A major life change shifts everything, but it also can open up new possibilities and opportunities to do things differently. However, when the world already feels rather groundless, the very idea of the future can be terrifying. This is precisely the time when we can harness the energy and momentum of change as a catalyst to propel us into the future. For example, on the other side of the loss, pain and grief that accompanies major life transitions, feelings of anger often surface. We can channel this anger to help us move past the fear of the unknown. Anger, when used in this way, becomes a resource of energy that can knock down huge obstacles. By this, I don’t mean to direct your anger at another person. Instead, feel the anger, face it, acknowledge it, and then use it to do something about the circumstances that made you angry in the first place. Tell yourself, no more or never again — feel the power in that, recognize your past mistakes, forgive yourself and others, and then take this power and use it as fuel to get you back on the horse.
Connect with Others. Going through a major change can either isolate you or it can be a bridge to use to connect with others. While you’re grieving, you may need to hide out for a while and lick your wounds. You may even convince yourself that you’re the only one going through this particular situation. But hopefully, eventually, you will hunger for connection, and climb unsteadily out of your dark cave. When you do, you may be surprised to discover your feelings of weakness, aloneness, and vulnerability actually make you more available and receptive to others. When you’re no longer identifying with the comfortable person you used to be, you discover you need people. Your veils are down, you’re raw and open, and believe it or not, people respond to that. If, of course, you’re willing to let that be seen. When you’re down and out, you will naturally be drawn to people who have at one time felt exactly the way you do. They will be able to offer comfort, suggestions, or even just listen with understanding. And that, my friends is worth its weight in gold. You may even get a little glimmer about how your experience may someday allow you to be there for someone else recently slammed by a major life change.
The above steps are by no means to be seen or approached in a linear manner. Rather, I see them as unfolding in a spiral; we cycle through these steps many, many times, sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly, and each time we do, we are healing various aspects of ourselves. Our movement through the different steps allows us to return the next time through with greater wisdom, strength and familiarity, making each level of healing easier to get through.
This is how life works — a cycle of experiences that keeps us growing and expanding and in the midst of it all, we help each other along the way.
Often the times we feel most alive are during a crisis when our capacity is being stretched and tested beyond our imagination, so much so, that when we look back we don’t even know how we made it through. But we did, and we are here to tell the tale, share our wisdom and insights and rest up for next time.
The revolution that change invites is powerful if we use it in that way. It is a rare opportunity to take a leap of faith into the unknown and start again.