Real Leaders

How to Grow from the Storms in Your Life

There is a common myth that we are all resistant to change. I nearly always hear this when I’m working with an organization to bring about a cultural change of beliefs and behaviors that are necessary to thrive in a challenging environment.  But it’s wrong. Brain science and new advances in cognitive psychology reveal that we don’t resist change… we resist loss. It seems that human beings place a high-value on certainty.

We are constantly making predictions about our future. To the extent our predictions are true we feel secure and capable of meeting the challenges that show up every day. If, however life throws us a nasty surprise it triggers our insecurities, which immediately spurs us to write a mental screenplay about losing some things in our lives that we really value. This can turn into a personal horror movie, causing sleepless nights, relentless anxiety and dysfunctional coping. The three dysfunctions stimulated by fearing loss are:

  1. Denial. I see this constantly when businesses are merged or sold and employees are reluctant to embrace the fact they will need to find a new job. If there is any possibility that we might be retained for a job that we like then there is no disruption to our personal life and that’s what we cling to.  We hang on to low probability futures because it helps us cope with our fears of loss and the uncertainty of change. Denial is also at work when we refuse to take positive action to strengthen our health when we know we’ve gotten a little too overweight, become inactive or noticed our stamina is waning. We might also embrace denial when an important relationship is collapsing. When fear is strong, denial is our personality’s first line of defense but it is foolish and will inevitably make things worse when change is forced upon us.
  2. Blame. Our second dysfunctional strategy is to invest gobs of emotional and intellectual energy blaming others for the loss we fear. When a business is sold we often blame the greed of the owners. When a relationship is dying we blame the ‘other’ for betrayal. When our bad habits threaten our health we blame whoever is causing us the stress that stimulates our bad habits.
  3. Rationalization. This is essentially giving up. It means you accept that the loss is inevitable and are willing to dumb down your life to accommodate the negative impacts of things you do not control.  Common phrases your inner-voice might repeat are… “There’s nothing I can do, it is what it is or… once again, I am screwed.” This kind of self-talk sets you up for mal-adaptation.  This means you adapt to conditions that were previously acceptable because you’re unwilling to invest your energy to proactively create your new future.  This is not a small problem. People with little power and few resources are constantly mal-adapting because they have become hopeless. And hopelessness is a rational response to continuous failure.

However, hopelessness is a completely irrational response from highly capable people with reasonable emotional intelligence who are feeling beat down by change they do not control and fear losses that freak them out. I talk to people in these circumstances all the time. Here’s how I counsel them. Next to death our most primal psychological fear is that we won’t be happy in new circumstances. I point out that there are happy people in virtually all life circumstances.

Not to make light of real human suffering, there are people who are happy who have been paralyzed or have terminal cancer or whose spouse had an affair or who lost their job. Of course it’s true that virtually no one feels happy when they are going through sudden or deep suffering. The point is our fearful minds spin stories that we will never be happy again which is just not true unless we cling to our suffering and make it part of our permanent identity.

Research confirms that our emotional brains tend to overestimate the happiness caused by pleasure and the duration of sadness caused by life-changing disappointment. What this means is that we are wired to amplify the pain of our actual loss by expecting to control the uncontrollable conditions of our life. We are all like sailors in small boats trying to cross a vast ocean. Those of us who think we can control the wind and the weather are constantly frustrated and fearful. Sailors who pay attention to the changes in the weather and the direction of the wind actually learn to enjoy the journey.  Sailing through storms actually increases our skills and makes us wise sailors who can teach others.

Expert sailors do two things. They use a compass to make sure they’re heading in the right direction even when the winds are blowing the wrong way. And second, they focus their minds on optimism. They are solution-focused rather than problem obsessed. Our compass is our values. Our values are the character choices we make that we believe will make us both happy and fulfilled. Our values are always challenged when we face stormy changes in our lives. But it’s exactly at the time of our most fearsome challenges that our values are needed. This sailing journey we are on seems to be precisely designed to test our values. This is important. We have all inherited values from our parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and the overwhelming force of popular culture.

Our highest human capacity, our greatest gift is to evaluate all the values promoted by others and thoughtfully decide what is essential to our own character. 

Our choices shape our identity. Staying true to them is the basis of self-respect. For healthy people their values evolved over the course of their life as they became wiser. People who are guided by there 20-year-old identity are likely to be very unhappy and at least slightly irresponsible.

Since this evaluation of who we are and who we want to become never ends, daily reflection on the question… “What is most important to me?” is essential. As we become increasingly clear and committed to our values our lives improve as we develop the habit of optimistic thinking. Optimism is like having a powerful diesel engine in your sailboat. When there is no wind in your sails or when you’re trying to stay off the rocks in a storm, optimism becomes your power source to keep your boat on the path your compass is charting.

Optimism is fundamentally developed by changing the questions you ask yourself. 

“What can I learn from this mistake?” is a much more powerful way of talking to yourself than… “I am so lame, I always blow it.” Optimism thrives when you are clear and calm. When you’re clear on what you truly want for your work, your life and your relationships you will make the small daily choices as well as the big important ones that move you to a fuller and fuller life. As you train yourself to stay calm by taking the long view and reminding yourself that you can be happy no matter what happens you will find this calmness makes you both wise and powerful. This doesn’t mean you become emotionally dead.

Rather it means that you decide when and how to express your emotions rather than being driven by them. When either your exuberance or anger originate from your inner calm you will discover that there is a positive use to virtually every emotion.

So, no matter what you might be facing or denying you have a great capacity to successfully sail across the vastness of your personal ocean.  Be clear about who you are and what your soul desires. Stay calm. You can be happy no matter what.

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