We spend much of our lives preparing to fulfill a goal or dream. We wish to become this or that and throw our whole energy into making it come true. Then, something comes along and shuts down the life we’ve been imagining for ourselves; the life that we’ve given our sweat and tears to. The line of work that you have educationally prepared yourself for is no longer in existence or you find it is not what you imagined it to be. The one person whom you thought you could count on through thick and thin has said goodbye to you, forever.
When doors to goals, dreams, and ways of being shut down, what do we do? Do we passively wait for prince or princess charming to show up on our doorstep, so we can start living once again? Do we buy lottery tickets hoping that our luck will change someday? If we wait for other people or good fortune to define a new way, we may be waiting a long time. Or, if we sink into passivity, self-pity and powerlessness (the 3 P’s of Giving Up), we can harm our physical and mental health.
We can make our good fortune, by the way we cope with stressful change. We have to cope by being resilient and hardy! But, we have to believe that we are important enough to keep trying to make our life work well (HardiAttitude of Commitment), that we have what it takes to thrive (HardiAttitude of Control) and that whatever hasn’t worked out for us is grist for our learning and personal growth (HardiAttitude of Challenge). The 3C’s of personality Hardiness give us the courage, motivation and strength to forge the best life possible.
Some stressful circumstances are easier to turn around than others. You don’t like your job, then you quit and find a new one. If you don’t like your home, you put it up for sale and wait for it to be sold. But, what do you do when the work for which you were trained is obsolete, cancer gives you or a loved one only a few months left to live, or natural disaster takes away everything you own? There may be little that you can do to better these situations. Nonetheless, if you wish to get your feet back on the ground, you have to find another area of your life that you can improve that strengthens you physically, mentally and spiritually once again. These self-improvements open up new living possibilities. What is more, the more the self-improvement highlights your true desires, talents and abilities, the more power it has of making up for the original stressor that you could not change. This is why we call them Compensatory Self-Improvements. The challenge is to identify actions we can take in the present that will help us to find new directions, improve us in talent, ability, skill, or personality, while also being able to reduce the stressfulness of the change that initially set us soul-searching.
Take for example, Miranda. Unlike many of us, she did not have to find a career by exploring her talents, as what she was meant to do found her. One of Miranda’s first playthings was a toy piano. It was love at first sight, as they say, which culminated in giving concerts at Carnegie Hall at eleven years old, an education at the renowned Julliard School of Music, and representation by one of the largest talent agencies in the world. She was traveling all around the world giving concerts and making money, by her early twenties. It’s hard to believe that the career for which she had worked toward for so long would now become a source a great stress for her.
Life on the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. This lovely and lively young woman was alone 90% of the time. For Miranda, the life as an artist meant a lonely existence ahead of her. After much soul-searching, she brought to a close a life-long dream and sought out to find a new one. It wasn’t an easy task to tap into desires, talents and abilities that were eclipsed by her longstanding focus on music. But, she opened herself up to hunches about what may be possible for her now, despite the uncertainty of their outcome.
Miranda did find her way. She tuned into her talent for mathematics and abstract reasoning (features of musicality) and went back to school to get a Masters in Business Administration in robotic engineering. She anticipates the uses for robotics in industries like agriculture, farming, medicine and the military and designs applications for their development. She loves the creative, project nature of her work and approaches it like she was mastering a concerto ~ seeing how everything fits and comes together into a harmonious whole. Today, Miranda does not view leaving music behind as a loss, but rather as the first stage of unfolding a meaningful life journey.
Research is very clear that compensatory self-improvement is good for our health. This concept comes out of Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi’s pioneer study on resilience and stress at the Illinois Bell Telephone Company that was undergoing government deregulation at the time (Resilience at Work: How to Survive No Matter What Life Throws at Your, Maddi & Khoshaba; www.Hardinessinstitute.com). He found that the energy we put into turning around our lives by self-improvement is a strong buffer against physical, mental, and spiritual breakdown. Even if we can’t bring a lover or job back, return to our home, or cure an illness, we can still compensate for the stressful loss by self-improving ourselves in whichever ways we can.
Valerie Harper, the 1970′s sitcom star of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda is a great example of using compensatory self-improvement to forge possibility despite unchangeable circumstances (Valerie Harper speaks out on her brain cancer battle in new documentary: ‘It’s not controlling me!’). Despite having incurable brain cancer, Valerie signed up to compete on the television hit, Dancing With the Stars (2013). Her choice was a message to people to keep going no matter the challenges they are facing. Rather than sink into passivity, self-pity, and powerlessness, Valerie chose possibility; an affirmation of life while she is still living.
Valerie has got it right. It’s not that we have to keep building mountains at every stage of our lives. The idea is more that we keep finding ways to keep growing and learning, as this is what makes us feel most alive and engaged in daily living.