How many times have you said, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” or “That was completely unexpected!” Sometimes it’s good, but most often it’s not. Like you, I have my fair share of these surprise moments. But today, I want to offer some practical tips on how to respond when you are thrust into an unexpected circumstance.
Because of my line of work, I hear stories all the time about people who have found themselves in shock over a recent circumstance. Think about it, there are tons of examples:
- failing an important exam that will impact your career
- experiencing divorce
- receiving an unexpected bill that exceeds your emergency fund
- losing a job
- being notified of an audit by the IRS
- experiencing the death of a spouse/friend/parent/child
- finding your home or car broken into
- having your home destroyed by a fire or natural disaster
- losing significant savings over a bad investment
- having to declare bankruptcy because your business failed
These are just a few examples of the things that seem to come up more frequently than any of us would like. Some of them are way more serious than others. By themselves, they are tragic and when you combine more than one, it can feel overwhelming – like you can’t go on. But you can. And that’s the most important thing for you to remember today: you can go on.
I was reminded of this recently when my son was telling me about what was happening where he works. The company had to make some very difficult decisions about how to continue operating. As you can guess, they were having to lay people off and an impact is felt by the families of several employees who were told that it was their last day.
Yes, it was unexpected. Not shocking maybe. An incident like this generally has some signals leading up to it that might indicate a problem on the horizon. But even if every one of the people in that company could say “Yep, we knew it was bound to happen!” that doesn’t make it easier when you are watching your friends, peers, coworkers, and even arch-nemesis leaving the office for the last time with a box in their hands containing several years of blood, sweat, and tears.
It actually was very emotional for me when he first told me about it. I felt like I was thrown right back into the feelings I experienced over different periods in my career. I have been the one delivering this kind of news and I have also been the one who was receiving it. Neither is better than the other.
Trust me, I’m not downplaying the significance of these events. It can be so painful. Like you, I can literally feel what that person feels who has just been told they don’t have a job here anymore or hearing that a close friend or relative has died. These unexpected events will tear a massive hole in your heart leaving you feeling scared, scarred, confused and alone.
And there were times I didn’t think I would make it through it. So this is a fantastic opportunity to talk about it. So I am. The first thing I want to remind you of when you find yourself facing the unexpected: you aren’t alone. You aren’t the only one who ever dealt with this. People much less capable than you survived. And you will too.
The second thing to remember is that emotions flow in cycles. I talked about this in more detail in Episode 109: Leading While Leaving. Go have a listen and learn about the Kubler-Ross grief cycle to know how emotions run from denial to anger to bargaining, to depression, and finally to acceptance.
You don’t necessarily move through them in order and you might move quickly from one stage to another. In other instances, you might move much more slowly and even skip some. The point is that there is a process and you need to let that process happen. It can be a mistake to push through or past this too quickly.
Next, I want you to consider resilience and fortitude as more than just pithy words about how you go on from here. I talked extensively about the value of fortitude in Episode 35: Fortitude: Six Steps To Increase Your Ability To Endure. For the rest of this episode, I want to talk about how you increase the other element: resilience.
When the unexpected arises, you start making a myriad of choices. How you respond is within your control even though what happened might have been completely outside of it. So what does it mean to be resilient?
The technical definition is interesting: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary). Michael Kay defines it as the ability to regain or maintain a positive outlook and persevere in the face of challenge and adversity (from his Forbes article How To Prepare For The Unexpected: Before It Happens).
You might think it’s foolish to put on a happy face but there is too much evidence to support the idea that smiling improves your attitude and your outcome. Choosing your attitude is of monumental importance to increase your resiliency. You have to “go pro” in choosing your attitude.
Words can never adequately convey the incredible impact of our attitude toward life. The longer I live the more convinced I become that life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond to it.
I believe the single most significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my choice of attitude. It is more important than my past, my education, my bankroll, my successes or failures, fame or pain, what other people think of me or say about me, my circumstances, or my position. Attitude keeps me going or cripples my progress. It alone fuels my fire or assaults my hope. When my attitudes are right, there’s no barrier too high, no valley too deep, no dream too extreme, no challenge too great for me.Chuck Swindoll
Your attitude will affect your resilience.
Next, take a different perspective. I wish I could tell you the details of the people that I have spoken with who said they would never have made the changes needed if it hadn’t been for the unexpected. This is a good opportunity to look at what needs to change in your life.
I’ve shared before how going through my own personal experience of losing my job forced me to reevaluate how I was managing my career and the changes I had to make. Maybe you weren’t courageous enough to leave the safety of something you were comfortable with. Now you have a chance to start with a fresh perspective and a clean slate. Don’t underestimate the value of this chance.
I want you to always be confident that you can handle the challenge(s) that you are facing. It doesn’t mean it will be easy and probably means some pain in the process. As long as you are drawing breath, you have something to offer this world and the people around you. Continue to focus on helping others when you need help yourself. Givers gain. It simply means as you look for ways to help others, you will find help for yourself.
Finally, in the Forbes article I mentioned earlier, Michael Kay recommends the following:
Try approaching a challenging situation as if you are the only person in the world who can make it better. Ask yourself: if anything is possible right now (divine intervention and magic aside), what three things can I do to improve my circumstances?
You may not be able to take every step at this very moment, but you can start to create a plan that you can execute over time until you have started to create positive change in your life circumstances.Michael Kay
That’s valuable. Too often, we feel like we don’t have what it takes to get through this unexpected event. And while there’s more too it than “3 Easy Steps To Get Through Anything!”, you can survive and improve. So, the time you feel overwhelmed, remember to:
- choose your attitude
- try a different perspective and use this unexpected event to make positive changes to your life and stay focused on helping others
- ask yourself what three things you can do to improve your circumstance
This isn’t easy and will require practice, but it’s worth your effort!
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