Your Struggles Don’t Define You—But How You Deal with Them Does

 
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Each of us experiences a unique set of challenges in life. Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of heartache, and some really bad breakups—including a particularly nasty one involving an ex-partner’s web of infidelity. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that these horrible situations happened to me and that I made it through in one piece. But I’m a firm believer that it’s how we handle life’s challenges that really defines us.

Given this belief, I look back on my own adversity with gratitude: I survived it all, and I’m still me.

The Power of Choice in Struggle

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl explains his view that, while terrible circumstances can bring out the worst in people, ultimately “…man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”

Which way we go, he says, comes down to the choices we make when faced with adversity.

No matter what life sends our way, says Frankl, we always retain our power of choice. We can decide how we are going to respond, and it’s in these decisions that our character is revealed. Of his experiences at Auschwitz, Frankl says, “…there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self.”

In facing one of the worst situations imaginable, Frankl still saw how individuals could exercise their free will in incredibly meaningful ways.

We can all take a critical life lesson from Frankl’s observations: no matter our circumstances, we always have control over what we do next—even if that action is in the confines of our mind.

Staying Grounded During Adversity

There are a few things that determine how we will respond during times of struggle. In particular, knowing who we are and understanding our purpose in life are important areas for developing a strong inner self that will remain intact through difficult times.

When we know who we are, we have a firm foundation from which to make decisions about how to handle life’s challenges. Knowing what our authentic self needs and desires, and having a strong grasp of our values, roots our decision-making in something meaningful and unchanging.  

Similarly, when we understand our purpose in life, we know what we want to contribute to the world, which will inform every decision we make. Staying grounded in our purpose also helps us to find meaning in whatever situation we are presented with.

Frankl says that when we tap into our inner strength, we can even find meaning in our suffering. This allows us to retain our personal power in even the bleakest of circumstances.

Reframing Challenging Situations through Mindfulness

As humans, it’s easy to get caught up in our pain (Dr. Rick Hanson says that our brains are wired to be “like Velcro” for negative experiences). For example, I’ve mentioned my struggle to let go of negative emotions following a tough breakup. Often, we feel that what’s happening to us is an injustice, and we simply don’t want it to be happening, so we actively resist it. But in focusing on the negative, we are cutting off our own potential for growth and learning.

And not only that—railing against our circumstances saps us of our strength and distracts us from making decisions that are in line with our authentic selves.

Mindfulness offers a different path. Rather than dwelling on our suffering (which actually prolongs it and makes the experience worse) we can draw on our inner strength to have a healthier, more positive response to our situation. In using mindfulness, we still acknowledge the shittiness of what we’re going through, but instead of getting stuck in the experience, we can keep our attention on the bigger picture.

Mindfulness can help promote a more positive response. In observing our thoughts and reactions non-judgmentally, we can identify where we’re leaning into our pain, and where we might be able to reframe our perspective more positively. We can ask ourselves, “How can I see this experience in a positive light?” Or at the very least, “What can I learn from this situation?”

Often, the only way out of a painful circumstance is through it—and in cultivating our inner strength, we can find meaning on the other side.

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What is a challenge you’re facing in your life right now? How might you be able to reframe your viewpoint and stay true to your inner self in how you respond to it?