Suffering from a major setback in your life? My thoughts on recovery

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What do you tell someone suffering from a major work setback? 

I was recently asked to answer this excellent question on a public forum. 

Well, what do you say? And do the same principles apply when the traumatic event occurs in your private life, or in that of a child? I think they do and even with many types of loss - though I’d have more to say on bereavement - and here’s how I would respond.

Attend only to how the other is, right now

Firstly, I wouldn’t tell them anything. I wouldn’t try to fix it or say that things will be OK. However strong the urge to reach out and help relieve another person’s pain immediately, my hard learnt lesson has been that well-meant ideas offered too hastily, can make people feel less understood and even more alone. You end up pushing them away.

I would start by just being there with them, acknowledging how painful it must be and offering them kind and compassionate attention.

When we acknowledge someone’s painful experience with compassion, they calm down and soften up. It is a powerful way to help people feel connection and care and offers them the safety of really landing in their pain and becoming present with what is. You indirectly show them how to hold their own grief, with compassion and kindness.

This is the moment when something shifts. They start to calm down enough to be able to think more clearly and take some suggestions on board.

Attend to their emotional needs

Now’s the time to help them take a step back and see the bigger picture; to be reminded of what really matters in life, and how much more there is to call upon.

·     Our closest family and other social connections are key in troubled times. Their support is vital for our emotional nourishment.

·     Absorbing hobbies and the process of learning skills can also take our attention away from the pain and help us re-inhabit our larger selves. 

·     Exercise - however shattered we are - is a great way to change how we feel.

By attending to our human needs more fully like this, we naturally put our pain into perspective. Though it may not immediately be diminished, you are expanding the rest of your life and creating a sense of spaciousness.

Encourage them to look for new meaning

Major setbacks or traumatic events can be so devastating because they simply don’t fit in the narrative of our lives. They literally shatter our assumptions about ourselves, others and the world around us, as psychology professor Janoff-Bulman describes in her book ‘Shattered Assumptions’. Our strongly held views about the world as safe, predictable, just, benevolent and so forth no longer hold true. Who are we, now that those certainties turned out not to be true and we’ve discovered that bad things happen to good people?

As nature has it, the majority of us find new meaning and growth through our suffering. This is called posttraumatic growth, but is by no means a linear path, nor does it always take away the pain. The paradox is that suffering and setbacks can hugely increase our appreciation of life and the people in it.

 
As the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously said, even when everything has been taken from us, we still retain the last human freedom of choosing our attitude.
 

So, I am inclined to ask people to look back to earlier setbacks and childhood disappointments - even if they were smaller in size - and be reminded of how they coped and perhaps became bigger, wiser versions of themselves in the process. Often setbacks pave the way to opportunities we didn’t know we had.

When working in the BBC many years ago, I was declined the promotion I expected at my annual review. In my fury over the injustice of the situation, I resigned there and then. Going down in the lift after the interview, in a discombobulated state, I explained the situation to a man I vaguely knew. By the time we reached the ground floor, I had the position I was after.

Although I hesitated to draw on this all too jammy an example of what I mean, it does illustrate the point and shows that the course of our lives really isn’t linear. 

I would encourage people to tolerate the discomfort of ambiguity, of not knowing what will happen, and always be open to the possibility of surprises that are better than what your mind can think up. 

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