Dealing With Disappointments and Setbacks

Sure, our lives often don’t unfold as we planned.   We had hoped to get hired, a negative biopsy, that raise, award, invitation or appreciation that we’ve been longing for.

Then it doesn’t materialize.

Or maybe something bad happened. An assault, a theft, an accident, an illness.

I would imagine our first reaction is, “what’s wrong with me?”   Our second reaction might be, “what’s wrong with you/them?” Or, “what’s wrong with the world?”

What if no one is wrong, nothing is wrong, and everything is right, even if it doesn’t feel that way? Eckhart Tolle says that everything that happens is meant to happen because it did happen.   And according to Shakespeare, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In other words, events are neutral. The meaning that we assign to it is what can make us unhappy or anxious. If we view an event as negative, we will feel bad. If we view the event as an opportunity, we will feel excited.

How do we take terrible events and turn them into something positive? I believe there is a silver lining to everything. It is our job, if we wish to leave a peaceful and happy life, to find that silver lining and make the most of it.

I know that you have done the same, or experienced it at some point in your life. Here are some examples of how disappointing outcomes in my life have ended up being good things, either by my own design or accident:

  • Being socially awkward as a teenager – Though I missed out on developing some key social skills as an adolescent, I spent that time learning about and affirming myself which started me on this path I’m on now.
  • Challenging family relationships – I had to really look to myself to understand my role in these challenging relationships and how I can grow both a better me and relationship at the same time.
  • Didn’t get into Harvard, Yale, or even Rice University – None of those schools have Colleges of Pharmacy. I would not be in this field that I love and which has so much opportunity if I had gone to an ivy league college.
  • The job offer turned into a hiring freeze – OK, so I might actually be rich now if that job materialized. But I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do a job that I love working with students and faculty to help create a better, healthier world.
  • Developing chronic pain issues – Made me stop and learn to take care of myself instead of running myself into the ground. Also made me really really appreciate when I am pain-free.
  • A career that was killing me – As my marriage failed, so did my pursuit of the traditional publish-or-perish academic lifestyle. It was killing me, which was the indicator that I was on the wrong path and needed to look elsewhere. So I did.
  • Failed marriage – Like my painful adolescence, a bad marriage was also fertile ground for self-exploration, relationship development and personal growth. It didn’t work out in the traditional sense, but we have two amazing boys and an abundance of precious life lessons as a result.
  • Failed friendships – Certain friendships I thought were going to make it in the long run didn’t. Their dissolution meant I had more time to invest in the ones that have survived the decades.
  • My kids didn’t turn out perfect. Neither did I for that matter – Thank goodness. Perfection is a heavy burden to bear and precludes growth.
  • Death of a loved one – Death is inevitable but is particularly unfortunate when someone dies “before their time.”   Death creates a void, an a void provides an opportunity to fill it with something positive, but different:  a new purpose, new habits, new perspective, or a growth challenge.

Now if I take the time to look at all the things that have gone well or beyond expectation in my life, then I feel replete with blessings and good fortune. Tolle again says it better than I can ever hope:

“People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness. They don’t realize that what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe. It changes constantly. They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn’t have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have. And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself, a perfection that lies beyond what is happening or not happening. Accept the present moment and find the perfection that is untouched by time.”

Exploring the Nature of Flow



I have been contemplating the nature of flow from both my scientific background and my emerging spirituality.  The flow I’m talking about is when you’re in that sweet spot where your talent and passion collide and actions and events seem to fall into place smoothly and easily.  During flow, you lose track of time, and people say to you, “wow, how did you do that?”, or “you should do that for a living.”  Don’t dismiss those comments.  Just because it’s a no-brainer for you doesn’t mean it’s that way for others.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the metaphors around flow have to do with water:  go with the flow, in with the tide, versus swimming upstream, going against the tide.

I suspect that if you asked 100 people if they’ve had the positive flow experience, the vast majority of them would say that they had.  If you asked the same 100 people if they had experienced the swimming upstream metaphor, all 100 people would reply in the affirmative.

So what is it in our life that provides this shared experience of flow?  Is it something spiritual (the will of the universe?) or something that can be explained logically?

Given my recent obsession with StrengthsFinders, I am inclined to approach a logical inquiry by starting with our strengths.  The positive psychology literature shows that when people work with their strengths, they are happier, more productive, engaged and creative.   I would also surmise that they are likely to be more present and in the moment.  The net result is that they will also have greater access to their intuition (probably why they have a strength there to begin with), are more observant, are able to convert that information that others may completely miss and rapidly channel that into a fascinating opportunity.  Others take note of that talent and doors begin to open.  An obvious and logical path emerges as one moves towards a goal.  Success builds upon success in an upward spiral.

Conversely, if we’re working in an area of relative weakness, then we are struggling and must work harder to accomplish the same task.  We may fail to note what may seem obvious to others, and will have difficulty putting the pieces together in a useful and meaningful way.  Others may simply view us as clueless,  incompetent or not trying.  Continuing to pursue areas of weakness may feel like we’re constantly swimming upstream as we find that doors fail to open for us.  Resisting the flow and fighting the directionality of our lives is exhausting, depressing and discouraging.  All of the above makes it harder to succeed, resulting in a downward spiral.

I am not sure the above explanation accounts for all the pieces that often seem to fall into place when we’re in flow.    Sometimes when in flow, factors that seem completely unrelated may have a role, subtle or conspicuous,  in shaping the outcome of a situation.  When we’re in flow, perhaps we’re less likely to allow hurdles to deter us and more likely to take advantage of an opportune event.  Or perhaps this is where the universe steps in.

Regardless of whether the reason for flow can be explained or proven with scientific inquiry or logic, I believe that being in flow is an indicator that we are engaged in our life’s purpose.  Since we all have strengths (as described in a previous blog), then it follows that everyone, from the biggest screw-up to the most successful billionaire, all have unique talents and strengths that can be channeled into their own version of genius!  We are all savants in some way, and that discovery is ours to uncover.  Should we be so willing.

Sometimes it seems we are all too willing to discover our failures as a person.  What about our successes?  Where are you looking?

Easter Bunny, Lazy People and Other Myths

I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or Prince Charming any more.  Happy endings only happen if you create them.

I also don’t believe in lazy people, mean people, stupid people, people who don’t care or who want to be negative, trouble makers and other miscreants.

This is not to say I don’t believe in anything.  I do believe that climate change exists, that we should reduce our national and personal debt, that everyone is inherently lovable, worthy of respect and full of talent.

I’ve frequently written in this blog about perfectionism and not being able to say No.  To me, it’s really easy to understand that emotional and psychological approach to dealing with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, as I’m a recovering perfectionist/control freak  myself.   Those that choose to view us compassionately see us as being driven by needing to prove ourselves repeatedly, despite our achievements and talents, and only focusing on how we are not quite good enough.  We’re also easy enough to deal with (in my opinion) – just get out of the way and let us take care of everything.  You have to admit, it has its advantages.

What about the opposite extreme?  Lazy, sad, unmotivated, dysfunctional, rebellious ne’er do wells.   They have some inherent character flaw that makes them this way, right?  Or maybe they don’t want to change?

This question came up in the Inspired2ignite blog.  Denise Hisey talks about Kurt Cobain’s pain and depression driving his creativity.  She also asks the thought-provoking question:  Would he have wanted it to be different?  What a great question.  Thank you Denise!

It had me thinking about the people I know who might be considered lazy, depressed, selfish screw-ups and so forth.   I often hear those accusations that this is “just how they are” and “they like being that way.”  I do agree, that this is how they are.  I mean, if they weren’t that way, they’d be something else.  There’s a level of acceptance implicit in that statement that belies our lack of control over most of our lives and especially someone else’s.

I don’t like that statement, however, because it implies resignation that we cannot influence or guide others, or that the other cannot or does not want to change.    This may also be true since the readiness to change happens on a unique, individualized timeline, and they may or may not ever reach that point where they are ready.  But I believe that everyone wants to be happy, optimistic, productive and successful.

What stands in the way of people being happy, optimistic, productive and successful?

I suspect these folks are stuck in dysfunction/underfunction for the same reason I was stuck in overfunction/enabling:  it’s how they deal with their self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.  Let me explain.

I work hard to prove I’m competent and needed; they may avoid tasks to avoid demonstrating their incompetence.

I try anticipate what people need and problems before they occur so that I can believe that I’m a good person; they may avoid initiating activities to avoid feeling like they made the wrong choice.

I was a good student because I wanted to believe I was smart;  they may avoid working hard in school because if they failed it would prove that they’re dumb, not indifferent.

I was always the good girl because I wanted approval; they may avoid conformity because they want to avoid rejection for who they really are.

The other hard lesson I’ve learned over the years is that we overfunctioners are often unwittingly reinforcing these underfunctioning behaviors.  For example, my need to prove myself constantly then makes it hard for the underfunctioner to step up.  I mean, why would he take a chance if I will do everything and he doesn’t have to risk making a mistake? It’s a win-win.  I can prove how competent and worthy I am, and he doesn’t have to stick his neck out.  I can say he‘s lazy and he can say I’m uptight.  We’re both invested in this dysfunctional dance while pointing the finger at the other.

A classic family or group dynamic is the Problem Child scenario.   It’s so tempting to blame our problems and unhappiness on someone who is causing trouble, like the Problem Child.  But that Problem Child behavior is often reinforced by the family because it provides a convenient distraction and decoy to avoid tackling the real issue, whether it is abusive behavior, addiction, mental or physical illness, financial issues, etc.  Problem Children are also often expressing the emotions that the group is unwilling to confront.  For example, the Problem Child may be having difficulty adjusting after a family catastrophe, but is merely expressing the anger/fear/grief/sadness that the individual family members are trying to suppress.  Their failure to acknowledge the problem and feel the emotion is preventing the PC from working through her feelings.  Ironically, the family reinforces PC behavior because it allows them to stay in denial.

If you’ve read to this point I hope you can see that perhaps I’m not completely in Denial-Land myself, that there are things I DO believe in.  What I believe is that everyone, regardless of how they assuage their self-doubt, wants to be happy and live their life to their fullest potential.  We each have unique ways of expressing our fear, sadness and doubt, and that just because we may not understand each other, does not mean we have to judge one another.  Rather, by using forgiveness and compassion and looking at ourselves to see how we are contributing to the problem, perhaps we can help both ourselves others – both over- and under-functioners – find that peace and self-actualization we all deserve.

That being said, you under-achievers are not off the hook.  You have to find the courage to step-up just as much as we over-functioners have to find the courage to let go.   Remember, these are all self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you fear on some level that you are incompetent, your actions will subconsciously control you until you have proved to others that it is so.  (Note to all:) Caving to your unconscious script/story is worse than any failure you might experience by taking a risk. 

“The only real failure in life is the failure to try.” – Sven Goran Eriksson

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” – Michael Jordan

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from your failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.” – H. Stanley Judd