Setbacks

Setbacks, challenges and losses are inevitable, but it's how you respond that matters.

Painful, life-altering experiences, devastating setbacks - we’ve all had them.

Maybe it’s a frightening diagnosis or the death of a parent or loved one. Maybe it’s a rejection from a friend or lover. It could be an illness and resulting disability. Perhaps it’s a partner’s infidelity or the loss of a job. 

The inescapable reality of our lives is that eventually we will lose everything that’s important to us. This includes our parents, our siblings, our closest friends, our pets, our health, our youth and attractiveness, and even our independence. 

In her compelling book "Necessary Losses" psychologist Dr. Judith Viorst argues that to a great degree our contentment with life depends on our ability to navigate changes and loss.

We all can think of someone who was able to persevere through an unimaginable loss such as the death of a child or a progressive, disabling illness.

We also can all think of someone who, in comparison, has experienced a much less devastating setback but remains stagnant. These “stuck” individuals become overwhelmed and never seem to recover to find meaning again in their life.  

So how about you? As you think of the life challenges, setbacks and losses that you’ve experienced, how successful have you been at navigating through them? 

Researchers Lawrence Calhoun and Rick Tedeschi have studied reactions to grief and loss. In particular, they have attempted to understand the coping strategies of individuals who have successfully “risen from the wreckage” to find purpose and satisfaction again. These individuals are, in some cases, able to be transformed in profound ways, and undergo what Calhoun and Tedeschi describe as “Post Traumatic Growth.” 

To illustrate the process of Post Traumatic Growth, we produced a video Trapped which depicts the life story of my oldest son Blake III. In the video Blake describes how “in the blink of an eye my whole life fell apart.”

Blake suffered a spinal cord injury followed by the decline and death of his mother to cancer. His grief became complicated as he became immobilized by denial and anger while numbing his emotions with alcohol.

To move forward, Blake had to navigate the four tasks of grieving. These tasks are to: accept the reality of the loss; to work through the pain of grief; to adjust to altered life circumstances; and to find new sources of meaning and purpose.

Author and theologian C.S. Lewis has written that “getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point to move forward.” 

As depicted in Trapped, Blake’s areas of growth included a newfound appreciation of his strength and resilience, strengthened relationships and a deepened spirituality. He also developed increased compassion for others and the ability to recognize the important parts of life. Blake was able to redirect life priorities and to live more mindfully with a sense of gratitude. 

My prescription to you: take five minutes to watch Trapped and complete the “One Door Closes, Another Door Closes” exercise that is detailed at the end. I welcome your stories of “Post Traumatic Growth” in the comments section below.

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Dr. Blake Wagner is a clinical psychologist and president of New Directions Counseling Center in Mansfield. New Directions provides employee assistance and wellness services to over 30 local employers.