Adversity. The difficult, unpleasant moments when we don’t want to be there. Setbacks and obstacles, the pain they inflict—this cocktail of impediments confronts us as we move through the world.
We tell ourselves to push through the pain, or to make the most of the situation. We try our hardest to power through the adversity and get to the other side.
But trying harder isn’t always the answer. Like all the finer things in life, the more we put our attention on overcoming adversity, the more it will escape our grasp.
Instead, by daring to be with adversity we can eventually overcome it.
Learning From The Darkness
Edith Eger, a holocaust survivor and therapist, knows more about adversity than most. As a child she was sent to Auschwitz, was forced to dance for Josef Mengele — a Nazi physician who performed unspeakable experiments on prisoners in concentration camps — sat on top of a Nazi train as a human shield, and escaped death by a whisker countless times.
The strength to overcoming adversity doesn’t come from blindly powering through, Eger says.
“Strength isn’t reacting, it’s responding—feeling your feelings, thinking them over, and planning an effective action to bring you closer to your goal.”
And it’s in the depths of darkness when we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves most intimately.
Seeing ourselves as a bridge to the future we want to create is the blessing of adversity — if we dare to be with it, that is.
Here are five strategies that can change your relationship with adversity, to be with it, and to one day look back and see that you’ve overcome it.
Strategy 1: Identify The Right Level And Belief
Whether something is adversity or not depends on your level of analysis.
Pain is pain — we can’t get around that.
But we have a tendency to add more weight to the load.
We add our stories of victimization, and interpretations of what it means about our self-worth.
This all adds weight to our adversity, creating boulders of tragedy from what were just pebbles of pain.
To take one example: is losing your lucrative, corner-office job a massive, devastating setback?
If you have the belief that your self-worth depends on your output, and that your value as a human being is measured by the seniority of your title and the zeroes in your bank account — then yes, losing your job will be a catastrophic event.
But if you have the belief that you have an unconditional right to be you, that you will learn through trial and error, and that you are OK and valuable as a human being no matter what happens — then no, losing your job won’t have the same devastating impact.
In both cases, it will, of course, be a serious inconvenience; there are mouths to feed and bills to pay after all.
Since you don’t add more weight to it, then you don’t waste energy on digging a deeper hole for yourself.
Instead, you have the resources to look toward what’s next.
Adversity is difficult enough as it is. By keeping your gaze at the right level analysis and separating fact and story, you keep the adversity at its natural weight.
“The truth is, we will have unpleasant experiences in our lives, we will make mistakes, we won’t always get what we want. This is part of being human. The problem — and the foundation of our persistent suffering — is the belief that discomfort, mistakes, disappointment signal something about our worth. The belief that the unpleasant things in our lives are all we deserve." – Edith Eger
Strategy 2: Be Your Future Ancestor
When we look back on our past adversities, those difficult episodes appear different than they first did. Our outlook has changed over time.
We tend to have one of two perspectives of these past experiences.
- Sometimes, we look fondly on the adversities of the past.
Even though they were painful at the time, with hindsight we know that we grew from them. In fact, we know we couldn’t have grown without them.
Whether it was a personal crisis or a debilitating illness, with enough time we develop a form of nostalgia for these moments, almost a schadenfreude (defined as “an experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another”) for our past selves.
- But when we look at other past adversities, regret takes us over.
Maybe there hasn’t been enough time to mend our wounds.
Or perhaps the pain we endured was just too much to bear.
Try as we might to move on, our regret keeps us locked in a never-ending past.
These two perspectives might seem like they’re worlds apart, but they are actually one and the same.
Whether we look back with nostalgia or with regret, it is all still learning.
The nostalgia reminds us that we have grown, learned, and evolved. We look back at a younger, more innocent version of ourselves like a parent smiles at their young child.
The regret, on the other hand, tells us that we are human. It directs our attention toward a better future. And although we have not yet moved on, the seeds to do so are at our disposal. We know there is something we want to be different.
Adversity is learning … eventually. The sense of growth comes afterwards — in the fire, what you get is the fire.
But knowing that the inferno will one day subside and that you will grow, as a result, can change how you make choices and how you dance in the fire when you’re there.
We are always living the life of the ancestor of our future selves.
The question is: what future self do you want to help create?
“When we grieve, it’s not just over what happened — we grieve for what didn’t happen … As my fellow survivors taught me, you can live to avenge the past, or you can live to enrich the present. You can live in the prison of the past, or you can let the past be the springboard that helps you reach the life you want now.” – Edith Eger
Strategy 3: Don’t Go It Alone
We love adding weight to our adversity.
But our adversity becomes even heavier because of our insistence to carry that weight alone.
When we think about friendship, we know that it is in the despair and the heartache, the trials and tribulations, when friendship comes to the fore.
Strange as it may seem, we have a certain hunger for our friends to come to us with their baggage, heartache, and pain.
We want to feel needed.
We want to belong.
We want others to come to us with their pain, so that we can offer a level of connection and service that day-to-day interactions can’t provide.
But even though we want to be there for others, we’re terrified of letting others be there for us.
We shy away from help, keeping our adversity locked up inside, hidden away from others and ourselves.
When we keep adversity inside, it starts feeding on itself.
Sooner or later, it finds a way through the cracks and comes to light without our permission.
So overcoming adversity is an invitation to ask for help.
Reaching out is the first vulnerable step of healing our pain.
Asking for help can have different forms and outlets. Our friends, families, mentors, colleagues, bosses, investors, and customers can all be sources of help. So can prayer and sacrificial rites.
Whatever the form, asking for help is to acknowledge that the walls of control you’ve hid behind are false constructions. By opening up, you admit that you’re not omnipotent. Instead, you acknowledge that you are vulnerable — and therefore very human.
“A certain amount of risk is always inseparable from healing … It takes willpower and choice not to step back into the confining roles we mistakenly believe will keep us safe and protected.” – Edith Eger
Strategy 4: Dive In
Adversity will remain adversity as long as it’s not met.
It keeps itself alive through avoidance and neglect.
But when you grab it by the horns and sink into it, it takes on a very different character. It becomes murkier, yet richer.
Like a hearty stew, the flavors of feelings get to know each other, enhancing and bringing forth the essence of what is there.
And so as you dive into the adversity and swim in it, you become intimate with it.
You understand its essence.
By breathing into it and giving it space, adversity unveils its riches and richness. You don’t look away. You look right at it.
The word “adversity” tells its own story. The original Latin root of adversity is advertere, meaning to turn towards.
It’s those who turn toward their adversity that thrive and even survive in the darkest hours.
As Laurence Gonzales, extreme survivor expert, says, “turning fear into focus is the first act of the survivor.”
Adversity is a way in.
It’s a swimming with.
It’s a waking up.
“Only after many years did I come to understand that running away doesn’t heal pain. It’s makes the pain worse … Our painful experiences aren’t a liability — they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.” – Edith Eger
Strategy 5: This Is Life
We don’t go to the cinema to watch movies without drama. And we don’t go to the theatre to watch plays without emotion.
It’s the drama, the sensations, the highs and the lows that bring us to life.
The hero’s journey lives within us, its narrative arch resonating with the deeper, rawer frequencies of who we are.
Adversity is part of drama’s appeal. In fact, adversity is what allows dramatic tension to happen at all.
Our lives are stories.
So adversity is part life.
While it would be easier if life had no drama, it wouldn’t be much of a life.
Despite this we still have an expectation that we shouldn’t have problems. We act as if everything can and will stay stable forever.
But to demand that things remain as they are is to deny the nature of things. It’s a fruitless fight against the fabric of reality.
And this is what keeps us stuck in suffering, adding even more weight to our already heavy adversity.
So just as we would be silly not to enjoy moments of delight when they arise, we would be missing out on one of life’s richer vintages if we didn’t fully feel our despair.
“We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt. But we can choose to be free, to escape the past, no matter what befalls us, and to embrace the possible … To heal, we embrace the dark. We walk through the shadow of the valley on our way to the light." – Edith Eger
How To Overcome Adversity
Overcoming adversity takes many shapes and forms.
Overcoming adversity is the delicate analysis of separating interpretation from fact, and releasing the extra weight of outdated stories and beliefs.
Overcoming adversity is a gift you can give to your future self as your own loving ancestor.
Overcoming adversity is an invitation to open up, ask for help, and acknowledge the vulnerability of being human.
Overcoming adversity is a practice of sinking into the unpleasantness, swimming in its richness, and turning toward it.
Overcoming adversity is life.
So overcoming adversity is not about overcoming anything at all.
It’s about being with it.
And then, like a bird leaving the nest, letting it go when it’s ready to go.
Alex Carabi is a certified coach and the founder of Kodawari Coaching. He coaches entrepreneurs, startup founders and leaders from around the world.