There’s a way of viewing the world that’s black and white. And then there’s a way that sees the world in all its brilliant colors.
We’re wired for both. But the former is far quicker because it’s been around much longer. It seeks out what’s bright and pleasurable. And it runs a mile from uncertainty and challenges because it can’t tolerate the pain of not knowing.
This wiring doesn’t always serve us well. The unknown is home to mystery. Pain introduces us to undiscovered strengths. And our challenges teach us more about life than many glorious moments combined. In their darkness, we make sense of our lives and expand our mental frameworks to hold on to more than one perspective at a time. From the deep chasm, we emerge transformed—even if not victorious, as a more hopeful, resilient, and adaptable self.
And yet we live in a world that anesthetizes pain and values certainty and rationality. We’re rewarded for successes, taught to revere outcomes, and seduced by the promise of little extras everywhere we turn.
The ability to stay open through pain, confusion, challenges, and uncertainty without succumbing to the urge to escape is an art that’s being lost on us.
I’ve found that cultivating grace—a quality that neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls “equanimity”—is what allows us to do so. Unlike calm, which results from the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, equanimity is a spaciousness where we gracefully hold space for the fear centers of the amygdala, while staying grounded in the farsighted wisdom of the higher cortex. And it’s in this space that magic begins to happen.
The next time things don’t go your way, take these 5 steps to help you gracefully forge your way forward.
Know Your Ideal Version
Many of us scramble for control when life catches us off guard. Sometimes we react in ways that don’t make us proud, and sometimes we try to control what’s best left alone. What’s more, we turn away from the possibilities that may have unfolded had we sat through the momentary upheaval. Have clarity of what your ideal version looks like, and you’ll find it easier to respond with emotional agility rather than fall prey to an emotional hijack.
Shorten Your Recovery Time
Golfer Jack Nicklaus coined the phrase “playing badly well” when talking about getting out of a bad shot without ending up with a double or triple bogie. Golfers or not, we all hit bad shots when we impulsively react to negative situations. And then we beat down on ourselves, spread blame around, or completely give up hope. I’ve found that playing badly well in life is often about asking, “What would my ideal self do right now?”
Maintain Positive Habits
Sometimes uncertainty or challenges can hang around for a while, and we can feel like we’re drifting in a cloud, unable to see what lies beyond or which way we’re going. What helps maintain the trust that the sun will eventually shine is keeping your positivity levels up. This means continuing with the habits that make you feel good, because they often get forgotten in stressful times.
Look for the Growth
There’s a beautiful quote by the poet Rumi that says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Studies in the area of posttraumatic growth show that it’s through the most trying times that we experience bursts of growth that change our relationship with life. Smaller challenges help build resilience, so that when life throws you its inevitable bigger darts, you’re burst open and not apart. Through your struggles, big or small, ask yourself, “What’s the growth that lies here for me?”
Our obsession with mental reasoning often blinds us to the role of the body in altering our feelings. And yet there’s a constant interplay between mind and body that you can test out by simply slumping in your chair and slouching your shoulders right now. How graceful do you feel? Just like Amy Cuddy’s research showing that we can feel empowered by striking power poses, we can also feel graceful by sitting tall, pulling back our shoulders, and holding our chin up. Now wouldn’t this posture help you stay strong through your challenges?
One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamont, has said, “I do not understand all the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” Which is why grace is central to our experience of life. Grace helps us appreciate all of life’s hues and shades, and expands our sensibilities to embrace more of ourselves.