It’s hard to quantify just how much humans have changed – how we relate to ourselves and our thoughts, how we get help, how we act in relationships, how we communicate, how we parent, how we educate, how we shop – because of the emergence of the modern field of psychology. Even if you don’t think much about psychology, you’ve been affected by it.
Common terms and concepts like ego, subconscious, projection, inferiority or superiority complex, anxiety, depression, in denial, being repressed, defense mechanism, introvert and extrovert, stress, antisocial, phobia, bipolar, sociopath, psychosomatic, and narcissist are woven into our vocabulary and culture because of psychology.
Did you notice that most of those terms describe pathological conditions? Like the field of medicine, psychology has focused mainly on disorders and how to treat them. Only in the past few decades has the subfield of positive psychology – the study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive – gained widespread attention and respect. Thanks to psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Martin Seligman, Dan Gilbert and many others, we’re setting our sights beyond treating pathology – to the ways we can support happiness, resilience, fulfillment, and higher purpose.
When it comes to adversity, positive psychology asks, “Can we do more than simply minimize the negative impact of this stress or trauma?” According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, research suggests that even after a major trauma, within three months most people are about as happy as they were beforehand. But is it possible for a person to come out better through their response to adversity? The answer is yes.
After a negative event three possibilities can follow: (1) things can stay the same as the were (2) things can get worse (3) things can get better. As author Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, most people only consider options 1 and 2. At best, they hope to simply “bounce back” from adversity. But some manage to bounce forward, regardless of the severity of the tragedy. They use the unexpected obstacle to catalyze a needed change, to gain insight, to firm their resolve, to clarify what’s most important to them, or to initiate a breakthrough.
When I meditated on the idea of turning a downward fall into an uprising, two images came to mind. In the first one, a person was falling like Alice down the rabbit hole. Suddenly the entire scene was rotated 180 degrees, and from this new perspective the person was falling up. What initiated the flip? A perspective change.
In the second image, the person was a ball that had been flung rapidly downward. Then the floor appeared, they bounced off it, and soared upward. What was the “floor” that made the bounce possible? Resolve. A choice to change direction.
Achor says, “The people who do the best with adversity define themselves not by what has happened to them but by what they have made from what has happened to them…. It’s not that everything happens for the best, but that we can make the best of everything that happens.”
Every obstacle (especially the big ones) carries a certain energetic potential. If we see them as bitter injustices, our meetings with them are like hitting a brick wall at high speed. They wreck us.
If we see them as portals, the combination of our own momentum and the energy inherent in the “obstacle” combine to make our interaction something like crossing a trans-dimensional wormhole. Resolve and/or a change of perspective is often the key. We all have the ability to do this.
Furthermore, the faculties we access in order to turn obstacles into opportunities inform us deeply about our potential. Every time we do this we get a little more awake, and it becomes easier to recognize that our Highest Self is simply presenting us with the most potent ways to leap forward.
I’d love to hear about the times you’ve turned adversity into a positive experience.