How to build courage in difficult times…
Losing your job, experiencing serious illness, loneliness, divorce, bankruptcy, financial loss, uncertainty, losing someone you love – these can all be very difficult things to bear.
Difficult times are part of life – and life can be hard.
A few years ago, after the sudden death of someone I loved, I read The Wheel of Life by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In the book she talks about a choice we have when life puts us through the mill. She states that we can come through the experience one of two ways: crushed or polished.
As I read that, I remember mentally comparing two futures I could have for myself: the first was where I continued to feel as lost and hopeless as I did at that time (crushed), and the second was a future where, somehow, the sun would shine again (polished).
The first option was too awful to contemplate, and so I chose the latter.
Making a choice about how we want to feel doesn’t take away the pain, chaos and challenges we face. It does however give us a light at the end of the tunnel to aim for – and a degree of hope that, small step by small step, we’ll find our way through.
I’ve faced some really tough times in my life and I’ve learned ways to step forward. Having strategies to face forwards can make all the difference.
Here are 3 ways to find courage in difficult times:
1. Release the hope that things could have been different
One of the most natural things to do in difficult times is to rail against the situation and keep throwing ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’ up against a brick wall.
Wanting things to be different and longing for them to be like they were before is totally understandable. At some point, though, we have to let that go and find a way to deal with the ‘now’.
In his book, ‘Nothing is Impossible‘, the late actor Christopher Reeve talks about the seventh anniversary of the horse riding accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. He says that on that particular anniversary he found a new perspective. He no longer found himself thinking about ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’ and sinking into a state of regret. He says that, instead, he found that year to be a turning point – in that he was finally able to look to the future. He had learned acceptance.
Not always easy – and it can take time. I remember a particularly dark time I my life when I could not accept what had happened and longed for the future I had previously planned. A good friend said six simple words to me: “It was never going to be.” Over time, those words helped me reach a place of acceptance and start to look forward. They helped me give up hope that the events of the past could have been different and instead focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.
2. Find specific personal meaning in the experience
This can sound really glib, but it really can really help – even if it’s hard to do at first.
Think about how you will change and grow from the difficult time you’re experiencing – and who else you may be able to help. If you’ve lost your job, for example, there could be an even better one around the corner and this time between jobs could be the perfect time to upskill or retrain online – or decide to start your own business.
If you’ve lost someone you love or you’ve been diagnosed with serious illness, finding meaning right away can be very hard. It’s my experience that something like this is both an ending and also a beginning – it’s the end of an old life and the ‘you’ that you were in that old life, and it’s the beginning of a new life and a new kind of you. The new life will hold new joys and new perspectives, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.
For me, loss and grief is like a bridge between those two lives. In hindsight I can see how much I’ve changed each time I’ve gone through difficult times and also the things I’ve gained as a result, such as new friendships, greater wisdom and more resilience. I value that growth, and for me it gives the difficult times some kind of meaning.
3. Create something
Times of turmoil can actually be very creative times. The emotions we feel, the upheaval or the new life situation we find ourselves in can result in needing to physically express what we’re going through.
In 2019 I lost my gloves while I was out one day. That in itself is of course a very minor thing – but those gloves were the only thing I had left that belonged to my mother. (She died in 2009.) I was so upset. I searched everywhere but couldn’t find them. In my despair when I got back home I started painting (something I don’t normally do), and I was amazed at what I created. It also, somehow, helped me feel OK about the gloves. I realised I had what I needed in my heart, not in a pair of gloves.
During another particularly difficult time of loss I started writing, and I ended up writing a book about my experience. It was extremely cathartic and helped me heal.
So don’t think about the result of what you’re creating, just express what you’re feeling. Write, paint, make something, draw. Do whatever helps you – just get it out. Express your fear, anger, love, regret, confusion, pain… even if what you’re feeling is a whole jumble of contradictions.
No one else has to see it, read it or hear it unless you decide they will, but it can be an extremely helpful process.
When we feel crushed, it can be hard to look ahead, but if we can decide that somehow we will come through the experience polished in some way, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross sugests in The Wheel of Life – even if we don’t yet know how – it can give us the footholds to step forward.