Safe Places & Sucking It Up

By Scott Westerman

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“Face your unpleasant current realities head on, but never lose faith that you will prevail” ~Adm. James B. Stockdale

Learn how to be happy right now!The death of a loved one, an unexpected health diagnosis, losing a job, a breakup, moving to a new community, an election outcome; All of these things can kick us way outside of our comfort zones.

You may already know the feelings: fear, anger, uncertainty, betrayal, sadness, even shame. In these spaces, sleep can be elusive. We’re more easily drawn to tension relieving activities, alcohol and drugs, anything to distract us from the now. We can feel helpless, unsure of where to go, who to talk to, what to do.

What do you do when your world is turned upside down?

First and foremost, allow yourself to fully feel your emotions. Often, our situations or our perceived self image require us to force our emotions below the surface. We have to get through the day, past the funeral, on to the next opportunity. The “never let em see you sweat” advice often given to athletes and executives may help you survive a meeting or a sporting event, but it’s not healthy.

Change, loss and sadness follow similar trajectories, a rollercoaster ride through the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler define as the five stages of grief. Just as there are required stepping stones to lasting success, you can’t skip over any of these stages. And there is no predictable timetable as to how long it will take to work things through.

This is where what have come to be called “Safe Spaces” have value. Everyone needs a safe space, a group, a therapist, a soul mate or a trusted friend where you can totally express your feelings without fear. At some point in your life, you will need a safe space. If you weren’t lucky enough to be born into one, seek one out. Like a career network, this is something that is best researched and cultivated before you need it.

My friends who work with people who have experienced loss tell me that you never fully recover. You eventually learn how to exist and even thrive in the new reality. And that’s a decision you have to make on your own. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who found himself  immersed in the horror of the Holocaust during the Second World War. In his seminal work “Man’s Search For Meaning” he says, “Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”

That’s where “sucking it up” comes into play. Sucking it up, does not mean ignoring reality or how you feel about it. It means working through the stages of grief and developing a new relationship with life, what former POW Jim Stockdale calls facing your unpleasant current reality head on and dealing with it, without losing faith that you will ultimately prevail.

That requires doing something. Whether you are unhappy with your current situation or the state of the world, you can make a difference. Finding a way to move forward, even if you still sting from the pain, is the essential therapy that ultimately contributes to healing.

Each of us was given the gift of existence to discover our purpose and to focus our energies toward leaving the world in a better place than we found it. That doesn’t change if a football season, an election, a job opportunity or a relationship doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped. indeed, challenging times don’t build character, they reveal it. They can also reveal vast reservoirs of courage, strength, and resiliency you never knew you had.

What the legendary motivational philosophers call “a positive mental attitude” is something we choose to manifest. It can be learned and applied even in times of trial and pain. Personal Coach, Cindy Boyd passed along a meme that has special meaning this week. “Don’t wait for things to get easier, simpler, better. Life will always be complicated. Learn to be happy right now. Otherwise, you’ll run out of time.”

A fundamental lesson that each of us must learn is that the world owes us nothing. It’s up to us to dream, create, add value, and persevere until we reach our goals. This isn’t supposed to be easy and no medals are handed out simply for participation. You must press beyond obstacles, failure and pain. When you look in the mirror, you may well find that it was the journey and not the destination that was liberating.

Our bodies need a certain level of resistance and stress to stay healthy. This is why cardiovascular activity and weight training are an essential part of every fitness regime. As Michigan State Strength Coach Ken Mannie likes to say, “A mountain is assigned to you to show others it can be moved. Your strength then strengthens them.”

The triumphant always complete each lap with battle scars. They surround themselves with people and practices that can help them recover, learn and adjust. But they are ultimately victorious because they choose to stay in the game, fight for what they believe in and keep fighting, even when it feels like the whole world is telling them not to.