Maybe your job isn’t great. Or, you hate your apartment. Those coworkers you have are so annoying. Or, you may be dealing with life challenges like illness, job loss, or sudden caretaking responsibilities that are getting in the way of some other things that you want to do.
Into each life, some annoyances, obstacles, and misfortune will fall. And while some self-help gurus will tell you to simply ditch what’s making you unhappy or holding you back, sometimes, it’s not that easy.
“Everybody has those constraints and situations that we don’t want to be in,” says licensed clinical social worker and resilience expert Linda Hoopes, PhD, author of Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World. You don’t want to get stuck there, but sometimes, you’re stuck with them for the time being. But there are things that you can do to make many situations better and cultivate greater resilience, even as you look for long-term solutions or resolutions, she says.
1. Honor your opponent
It’s easy to ruminate about why you’re stuck in a bad situation, but challenges are where we learn, says performance coach Bob Litwin, author of Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change. Litwin works with professionals in high-pressure jobs, such as talent agents and hedge fund managers. And sometimes, having a difficult boss or set of circumstances can be a gift.
“Adversity is the ultimate great teacher,” he says. As an elite tennis player, he says his toughest opponents were the ones who made him better. While the difficult situation may seem “just awful,” sometimes they “bounce you in a better direction and teach you how you’re going to be in that situation,” he says. Simply understanding that you have an opportunity to learn from your challenges can give them some previously unseen value, he says.
2. Break it down
Many big challenges are really a series of smaller challenges that can seem overwhelming. When you break down the individual components of a situation, they’re easier to address, Hoopes says. For example, a “crappy” job may break down into unpleasant interactions with coworkers and long hours that affect family time. Break down the individual components of what’s making you unhappy, and they’ll be easier to address, she says. Prioritize those that are draining your energy most, she adds.
3. Change what you can
Even within a bad situation, you can make small changes to improve it and turn it into motivation to make bigger changes, Hoopes says. You can look for opportunities to learn new skills, even in a job you hate. If you’re managing caretaking responsibilities, you might be able to enlist help from others to get some time for yourself. Think creatively about your situation and how you might be able to make small changes to improve it, she says.
In addition, stop beating your head against the wall trying to change things that you can’t, says Paul G. Schempp, PhD, a research professor at the department of kinesiology at the University of Georgia. “We see this with highly successful athletes. Often, people who are less successful focus on things like injuries or ‘The crowd doesn’t like me,’ or ‘I’m not getting enough playing time,’ so they start on this downward spiral, because all they see is the negative things,” he says.
When you start letting go of things over which you have no control and focusing on the things you can improve through small changes, it’s easier to get out of that trap, he says.
4. Change your story
When you’re dealing with obstacles or adversity, change the story you’re telling yourself, Litwin says. The way you think about or explain your situation is your story—and most stories have flexibility about them.
“Even if somebody is saying, ‘My situation is much tougher than what you’re saying to me,’ I would say, ‘Okay, well, that’s good, because that story can be flipped too, which is, the tougher I am, the more focused I am at making changes of who I am in order to accomplish what I want.’ We know that plants, when they’re not given that much water, often become stronger because their roots have to work harder to find the water that’s there. That’s a better story about literally plants in dry soil, that they do amazing with very little,” Litwin says. Reframing the issue in this way can make a world of difference in how you view and respond to your circumstances.
A useful tool here is tracking your progress, Schempp says. When you focus on the small changes you’re making to improve things or move away from your challenges, you immediately shift to a place of taking control and making a difference. He refers to a Harvard University study about the “progress principle,” where acknowledging small wins was found to be a powerful motivator.
5. Find your calming practice
Even as you make changes, it’s important to understand how to calm yourself down when you’re feeling the stress of your challenges, Hoopes says. Whether it’s going for a run, spending some time in your garden, or finding a couple of hours to catch up on a favorite television show, take that time to push your personal “reset” button.
6. Don’t let obstacles define you
When you’re stuck in a tough time, it can be easy for your self-talk to be dominated by the situation. Remind yourself that your situation doesn’t define you, says counselor and coach Anahid Lisa Derbabian. “Begin to notice critical or discouraging thoughts or words, which can in subtle ways sabotage yourself and keep you stuck. In the moments when you realize that you are doing this, do not blame or shame yourself. Just allow yourself to shift into messaging, which is compassionate and helpful to you,” she says. If possible, ask for help from family or friends to help you recognize these patterns—and also to assist you in making changes or finding the resources you need to do so.
Most of all, use your situation as a source of motivation to make long-term changes that will help you find lasting solutions or ways to adapt to your situation, Hoopes says. “[There is] a Buddhist saying, ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ Life just has this stuff in it, and it’s just, ‘Okay, here I am in one of those zones. Now what am I going to do?'” she says.