Screwed or Unglued: Holding Fast Through Adversity

So many of the conversations I have with patients seem to repeat the frustrations they have about changing things: other people, circumstances, even themselves. I hear about people and from people who come unglued by adverse situations. The reports of these happenings are composites of people assimilating and integrating their interactions, often in a state of overwhelm. They are partly venting, partly rationalizing, and partly seeking validation and support for the impropriety and stress of life's intrusions. Sometimes the teller is even remorseful about coming unglued or overreacting-but even this self-recrimination is almost always accompanied by an appeal for pity, comfort, and an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of overreacting and umbrage.

Surely, we all want support and understanding. We want to connect with people who feel our pain and offer solace. The truth is, however, that overreactions and taking offense are maladaptive. Such reactions debilitate our nervous systems and countervail the spiritual blessings of the One who oversees everything. Adversity is a routine part of life. Dealing sanely with it is necessary for health, adaptive functioning, and productive and rewarding relationships.

Holding fast through adversity is not a matter of repressing feelings, stoically "manning up," or avoiding conflict. Rather, it is a set of skills and attitudes that can be learned and practiced. Coping effectively with adversity builds character and perseverance, but you need to confront and understand certain fundamentals in this process. We live in a universe that often doesn't give you what you want and when you want it. Most people can intellectually accept this truism, but when things don't go your way, it's easy to be led by pride, a sense of entitlement, and the negative emotions that can so easily sway you from self-control and the better paths of interpretation and response.

Several factors shape and reinforce the tendency to overreact. First, most of us have a propensity to be selfish and we tend to act in accordance with what seems to support our own self-preservation. Although this is vital for self-care, protection, and the acquisitions necessary for survival, self-interest can easily morph into an overblown sense of importance and entitlement. It is easy to believe that life owes us.

Second, our culture reinforces self-orientation and egotistical self-aggrandizement. We are fed commercial inducement to indulge our impulses and desires for gratification. The "me-first" culture ratifies that we deserve what we want and that we must be strong, fierce, and first, or the dog-eat-dog world will prey upon us. Aggression and defense are taught and touted as elite methods and values.

Third, most people have developed highly overaroused and sensitized nervous systems. This sets the stage for easy provocation and dramatically excessive responses to the challenges and annoyances that routinely ensue from life's demands. We all have genetic vulnerabilities that can make us overly impressionable to the intrusions and affronts we face. This is why we feel threatened, become ill, and even succumb. Whereas we truly need defenses against what will harm us, the great preponderance of our defense mechanisms is targeted to protect us against perceived threats—and this is what revs up the brain and nervous system into a constant state of vigilance that makes it seem like the world is out to get us. Living this way is unhealthy and illusory. It is perpetuated by the nervous system’s addiction to fight-or-flight adrenaline, social reinforcement for winning and showing power, and the basic human instinct to justify self-importance and entitlement.

To some extent, we all have a subterranean context of "poor me, I don’t deserve this, I'll show them!" This selfish and reactive side can emerge when we are depleted, traumatized, blindsided, frustrated, taken advantage of, or simply overwhelmed. The mind springs to action in response to neuronal and hormonal alarms, and we rationalize the need for battle. This is not assertiveness or conscientious demand for accountability. This is the nervous system run amok in desperate protection against a perceived threat to integrity. It is what leads to coming unglued. And it can become a devastating habit. Here are some tips for dealing with situations when things just don’t go your way:

  1. Don’t be surprised. Expect hardship, trials, and people not behaving as you would like.

    Becoming miffed or upset is a habit. So is taking things in stride. This process begins with the receipt of bad news or the observation that things are not going well. Expecting the worst can be self-defeating, but accepting unpleasant events is an adaptive mindset in adjusting to reality. You will be often tested, sometimes victimized, and intermittently affronted by the unfolding of events and behaviors that are not to your liking. If you take for granted that this is the nature of things, you will be much less frequently blindsided or enticed into volatile or irritable reactions. Your subconscious and your spirit will be prepared to weather discomfort and adversity as another routine function, inconvenient though it may be. Thus, you will handle it better than you would if your initial response were an overreaction.

    I remember vividly a time I reviewed a telephone bill as I scanned my mail in front of a colleague. "WHAT?" I exclaimed petulantly. "Again?!" I was reacting to something in the bill I didn't like. "Yes, Mark," said my colleague in mock patronage, "the phone bill comes every month." Indeed, he was "on the mark."

    Though I was reacting to a specific annoyance, his comment broadened the perspective to the habitual reactive surprise I had attached to a routine burden.Don’t be surprised when people displease or blame you, even when they are just being themselves (objectionably, as the case may be). You may not quite embrace the situation, but omitting the surprise/indignation factor raises the probability that you will respond with dignity and efficacy.

  2. Identify your negative emotions in your reactions.

    Self-awareness is key to controlling your feelings before they get the better of you. Learn to observe yourself with the objectivity of a baseball umpire. As the pitches arrive, call balls and strikes without taking sides. Recognize the "heat," the curveballs, and the pitches in the dirt for what they are. When you accept the call, you will be better prepared to adjust your play.

    Recognizing and identifying emotions are not just a labeling exercise, a cathartic end in itself, as many well-meaning guides would practice. They are a prelude to taking conscious and assertive action in planning and executing more meaningful, organized, and effective responses.

  3. Use cognition and reason to establish whether your negative emotions that are embedded in the reactions are necessary or useful.

    If you are angry about something, ask yourself if the angry feelings are necessary. This question may seem ridiculous when you are worked up, but it serves as a meditational tool to counteract the adrenaline. Our mind narratives always invent justifications for wrath (“The lousy so-and-so did this; can you believe it?") and vindication. However, is anger-though instinctive-really necessary? I challenge you to provide evidence that truly supports utility instead of the self-serving rationale and rationalizations in which it usually masquerades.

    The next question to ask yourself is whether the anger—whatever the circumstantial justification—is useful in putting you in a better position to deal with the particular issue. Again, the question seems silly if you are in the context of obligatory neuronal and social response. ("Of course I'm angry… who wouldn't be?") But the proposition of utility transfers your energy to the mode of consequences and their functional link to planned and purposeful action and control.

    I am not advocating logic and reason as a means of reframing distressing emotions so they don't bother you as much. I am suggesting that logical thinking can engage your capacity for evaluation and planning so that the habit of negative emotional reaction does not become self-sustaining. If you analyze and decide that negative emotions are neither inevitable nor helpful, then you are ready to employ tools to successfully rid yourself of these hindrances.

  4. Eliminate your negative emotions.

    There are many ways to calm down and/or shake the shackles of distress. I have found that in the grip of turmoil or obsessive preoccupation with potentially explosive issues, many techniques for gathering composure yield limited value. The technique I recommend that yields rapid and reliable positive results is Thought Field Therapy. This is a systematic taping procedure that you can apply to yourself and which will eliminate your negative emotions consistently in a matter of minutes.

    In its various formats and incarnations, this method has been validated by many thousands of people, and it is effective for any and all negative emotions. You can teach yourself these techniques by following the procedures outlined in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times.

    The simple and methodical sequence of identifying your impeding emotions, questioning their inevitability and utility, and implementing a quick intervention to free yourself from their detracting effects will clear the path for you to deliberately conceive and carry out a more organized and appropriate response to your quandary.

  5. Plan your responses, and execute your plan.

    As the saying goes, plan your work and work your plan. Once you are no longer responding to strangling emotions, you are better able to figure out a way to achieve what you want and can achieve under the presenting circumstances and constraints. You may be able to make inroads against an injustice, or you may have to settle for airing your grievance diplomatically and holding the other party accountable, whether or not you get relief.

    Sometimes you can right wrongs, and in many situations it is challenging just to assert your rights. The more you take things in stride and accrue experience with a level head, the more wisdom, discernment, and discretion you will develop for dealing with the next wave of adversity and challenges.

    Even though you can't always change someone else's habits or keep the cookie from crumbling, you can definitely exert more control over your own behavior and how you will deal with the broken pieces.

  6. Assess how well you did and what you might change next time in a similar situation.

    Taking charge of your habits in weathering adversity is progressive. Your intact emotions and developing powers of objective observation and analysis will help you make small and significant adjustments to how you respond and what emotional attachments you want to preserve and integrate in similar situations. Handling adversity requires learning from experience, and that implies assessing the situation and making adjustments. This is intelligence in its purest form.

  7. Reinforce yourself for small steps in reacting more adaptively and strategically.

By noticing minor positive changes in the ways you respond to adversity, you will program and train yourself to be a person who increasingly weathers hardships astutely and who maintains an integrity and identity that are not significantly altered or perturbed by things not going your way. You will hold together through the petty annoyances and storms that invariably come your way. Little by little, step-by-step, you will build more flexibility and a more sanguine and adaptive repertoire of answers to the confounding questions, challenges, and intimidations you face.

When you get less angry, impulsive, sarcastic, or inclined to complaints, do pat yourself on the back for such small steps, which are truly major accomplishments on a journey toward building your ultimate disposition and moral fiber.

When something arouses your desire to respond negatively or a "hot button" instigates your "need" for correction or restitution (in attitude or action), consider your response to the adversity. Pause and ask yourself if you are exercising choice and flexibility, or whether you are being programmed and controlled by uncomfortable emotions and habits masquerading as justifications. Circumstances are the above-water icebergs of reality, and they warrant awareness and navigation, though only a portion of their mass and potential impact may be visible.

Circumstances trigger feelings and behavior patterns that trick us into believing that events and people make us react in certain ways. It is not the circumstance or the provocation that forces the response, but the perceptions, emotions, and habits that influence the response. Circumstances rarely outlast habits. Consequences usually outlast feelings. A trying circumstance will pass sooner than your practiced and habitual responses to the challenging circumstance usuallychange. We all tend to use the same tools repeatedly because we are accustomed to them. Feelings, too, are transient, even though they may recur, often unwelcomed. But behaviors acted out in response to emotional provocation tend to result in consequences that have enduring ramifications, long after the feelings have subsided. The repetition of response patterns and feelings are what constitute the habits that determine how you handle adversity.

When you feel victimized (screwed) and become negatively reactive (unglued), you are reinforcing a character of resentment and powerlessness. Life gives us plenty of adversity as practice to develop perseverance, hope, and compassion. We are not owed a prerogative on fairness. Choose to hold fast through adversity by exercising the principles and skills that make you the benevolent commander of your responses.