❝It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.❞ -Epictetus
I wake up in my work clothes on my couch. I'm in college and quite confused. I don't remember falling asleep on the couch. The clock reads 8:00, yet it's dark outside, adding to the confusion. I wonder what I did last night that I would go to sleep in my clothes on the couch. I try to replay last night's events in my mind to try to figure out what happened.
Then it suddenly occurs to me that it is not 8:00 am on Thursday morning; it's 8:00 pm on Wednesday night! I've been stressed out and busy with school and work, so I left school in the afternoon to take a nap. I had turned my ringer off because I was in class, so I didn't hear my boss calling when it failed to show up to work! I slept through work! I check my phone and see that I have six missed calls and three voicemails!
I realize I'm in trouble. I just...didn't go to work. I have no savings to rely on, and if I lose this job, I'm in trouble. Simultaneously, I feel embarrassed, scared, angry, and sad.
Now I have some choices to make. I know I'm going to be in trouble if I call my boss back, so I don't really want to. I wonder what it would be like if I just walked away from this job because it would be easier. I could call my boss back and defend myself, trying to persuade my boss that I'm not a bad employee and that I deserve to keep my job. I could recognize that what is already done is done, and I can't change that, so I can move on to more solution-focused thinking. Or, I could just simply call my boss and apologize.
After an unexpected negative event happens, my choice of what to do next can either help my situation or hurt me.
THINGS IN YOUR CONTROL
When a setback happens, it is important to think about things over which you have control. This can be difficult because some things feel like they are more controllable than they actually are. If we can learn to recognize the things that are in our control, then we will be able to match our actions accordingly. It's equally important to recognize when things are out of our control so that we don't waste our time, energy, money, and mental capacity on things that we can't control.
Think about the amount of control you exert in the given situation and how that relates to its effectiveness. If you try to exert too much control and try to control the uncontrollable, then you're just wasting precious resources. On the other hand, if you aren't exerting enough control, especially when there are things in your control you can do, you're not doing the things necessary to help you bounce back and be resilient.
In addition to thinking about what you can control, you can start to think about your actions. Are you doing the things that can help you out? Or are you not taking action? Examples of not taking action include denial, avoidance, withdrawal, and wishful thinking. It's not accepting responsibility for your situation. This could be not knowing what to do, so you do nothing instead or even avoiding the situation because you don't want to feel negative emotions in the short run.
Examples of actions you can take when you experience life's setbacks include educating yourself on things you can do going forward, reaching out to your family members and friends for support, taking responsibility for your situation, and planning for what you intend to do.
Taking both our actions and the things that are in or out of our control into account, we can think about coping strategies to get us through tough times. When it comes to coping strategies, we can think of them in terms of two buckets. There are coping strategies that are more likely to help us get through our setbacks and coping strategies that are unlikely to get us through our setbacks. Coping strategies that are less likely to work are called maladaptive coping strategies.
One form of maladaptive coping is refusing to do things that are in our control. Maybe we can reach out to family members, friends, or mentors to help get us through our situation, but we don't, perhaps because we may feel embarrassed. Perhaps we can make an appointment with a professional, like a financial planner, attorney, accountant, or therapist, but we don't because we are in denial about our situation.
Not doing the things that are available to us is maladaptive because we are choosing not to help ourselves.
Another form of maladaptive coping is trying to control the uncontrollable. This is doing things just to say that we're doing them even though we may even know it does us no good. This is the illusion of control. One example might be to tinker with your portfolio in a down market even though you know staying the course is the right thing to do. At least by selling, you can tell yourself that you're doing something about it. Yet just because you are doing something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Spinning your wheels on things you don't have control over takes your time and energy away from doing things that are in your control.
Coping strategies that have a good chance of working for us are called adaptive coping strategies. One form of an adaptive coping strategy is to do the things that are in your control. Reaching out to your support system, hiring professionals, educating yourself, and taking appropriate positive steps are examples of doing the things that are in your control.
Another form of adaptive coping is surrendering. This is when you let go of what you can't control. You give yourself permission to stop worrying about things over which you can't control. For example, you can't control the stock market (but you do have control over how much exposure you have to the stock market). Getting comfortable with letting the market do what it is going to do – even if that means seeing it fall – saves you time and energy for things over which you do have control. You don't have control over the stock market, the economy, other people's opinions of you, other people's actions, whether or not the company you work for gets sold, or whom the hiring manager decides to hire. Instead, you have a lot of control over your interpretations of these events and can use them and learn from them going forward.
Getting clear about the things that are in your control and aligning your actions with the things that are in control will help you overcome setbacks and obstacles in your life. It helps you understand things are outside of your control so that you can let go of them. Doing the things that are in your control and letting go of things that are not help you choose adaptive coping strategies and steer you away from maladaptive coping strategies.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Emmons, Robert: THANKS!
Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!
Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus
Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient
Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face
Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge
Pigliucci, Massimo: How to Be a Stoic
PositivePsychology.com: Realizing Resilience Masterclass
Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.