Have you ever been in a situation where you had the feeling that you do not necessarily need to make this specific experience? Well, we cannot change the facts or undo a negative event, but we can change the perspective, our interpretation, so that we will eventually appreciate that we have made this experience.
Are setbacks necessary?
“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Nobody wants to experience negative events on purpose, like getting laid off, filing our own company for bankruptcy or just receiving a no as an answer. That would be masochistic. But sometimes, besides all the good planning and forecasting, these things happen, because they are outside of our area of influence. Much more reasons than we can control come together. We are simply dealt a bad hand.
The question is how are we going to play this hand?
One way, which is the easier way, the one with the least resistance, is to complain about it. Get angry about it. Blame all the other people and things we could not influence. Tell everybody that the world is a miserable place. Start believing that everybody and everything on this planet is against you. Create conspiracy theories. And finally hope for compassion in your own misery.
Will we get it? Maybe. But will it help us in the long run? Certainly not. It will only create a negative spiral which goes downward faster and faster every time we have a negative thought or believe that we are a failure.
Turn towards the problems
OR we could bring back the event into your area of influence and do something about it.
“A river is crossed most easily at its spring” – Unknown
Instead of continually suppressing our problems, we are going to face them. Reducing the impact of negative thoughts and beliefs will benefit our long-term healing process. In fact suffering from emotional distress is the most prevalent reason for people to begin therapy according to Pennebaker and Seagal. Dealing with our problems creates the ability to let go and it can reduce pain as well as medication use. Managing the problems we have, will let us focus on our future again, instead of living in the past. Disclosure is relief.
Make sense of the past
“There is something intrinsic in our drive to explain, order, and extract meaning from the chaos of our lives” – Susan Gregory Thomas
By creating meaning from past events and memories, we are able to define how we feel about ourselves. It will also shape the identity we create throughout our lives. Once an experience has structure and meaning, the emotional effects are more manageable. It gives us the feeling of predictability and control of life.
Story editing might enable us to see negative events as opportunities or way points instead of the end of the road. We can recognize our mistakes, move on and start to embody a different story. We basically can’t escape stories, because we are living one. And we are the stories we tell ourselves.
The facts of our story will not change, but our perspective might.
“We do not forgive and forget; we remember from a different place” – Judy Mullet
When we can tell ourselves a coherent and honest story, we are able to find some meaning even in the most terrible events. For example getting laid off or closing down our own company offers us the possibility to engage in new projects we find appealing and interesting. There is no failure in life, there are just learning opportunities.
“If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means “First Attempt In Learning”
End is not the end, in fact E.N.D. means “Effort Never Dies”
If you get No as an answer, remember N.O. means “Next Opportunity”.
So Let’s be positive.” – Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Writing proves to be an efficient tool for making sense of the past. It serves the function of organizing complex emotional experiences. Writing down experiences can help reframe perspectives and reshape our own stories. Immediate improvements in distressful situations can be achieved through writing. It could prevent us from visiting a psychotherapist. The changes in both situations are comparable, as Pennebaker and Seagel point out. Being more reflective, emotionally open, and thoughtful are beneficial attributes, but I believe that writing can benefit everyone. Especially if we acknowledge the problem, deal with it in an emotional way, but keep an optimistic outlook. In that way we can build up a reasonable story over time.
“Constructing stories facilitates a sense of resolution, which results in less rumination and eventually allows disturbing experiences to subside gradually form conscious thought.” – James Pennebaker
Pennebaker writing exercise
The Pennebaker writing exercise has been introduced and studied in a scientific paper by Pennebaker and Seagal. The idea is to write for 15 minutes on three consecutive days about what has happened in an emotional way. The best way to make sense of past events is after the event has taken place. In that way we are able to step back and give it some perspective. In order to move on we need to find some meaning or explanation in the past event. We get the most meaning if we tell ourselves a redemption story. In these stories we experience a negative event as necessary to experience a new more positive event, so that our suffering becomes more meaningful.
That can be achieved by asking why and how a negative experience has happened.
Some more specific questions for guidance could look like the following:
- Why did this happen to me?
- What exactly happened? Who was involved? What were the circumstances that lead to this event taking place?
- What did I learn from it?
- How could I use this knowledge in the future?
What negative event have you experienced that made you stronger?
The research referred to in this article are:
Mullet, J. D., Akerson, N. M. K., and Turman, A. (2013) Healing the Past Through Story. Adult Learning Vol. 24 No. 2. American Association for Adult & Continuing Education.
Pennebaker, J. W. and Seagal, J. D. (1999) Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, VoL 55(10), p. 1243-1254, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.