I recently stumbled across a black bag in my wardrobe. This wasn’t just any bag – it held the remnants of a study I’d spent hundreds of hours trying to get off the ground. I’d enlisted my principal and a counselling colleague along the way, and the three of us had collaborated with Georgetown researchers, written a curriculum, and run a successful pilot that was designed to reduce students’ anxiety.
We’d asked school officials for permission to collect data more formally, then spent months revising our application until we met all of our district’s requirements. So we were shocked when they denied our request. When they cited a reason that had existed on day one, I was too stunned to cry.
I was miserable at the time, but I no longer carry the emotional weight of that bag. I know I acted in good faith, worked hard and cared deeply. Everything else was beyond my control. I didn’t realise it then, but the experience was a hinge moment: It changed how I engage with others and how I work with clients. Now, whether I’m counselling a girl whose best friend ditched her, or a man who got passed over for a promotion, I make sure I acknowledge they got a raw deal. I also share five strategies to help them restore their confidence and equilibrium. Here’s what I tell them:
- Focus on yourself. If you’re irritated with yourself for expending emotional energy on people you’d like to forget, I’ve got some good news: You’re not really thinking about them; they’re just the vehicle for your self-discovery. Your paths crossed for a reason, but not for a shared reason. You’re each learning different lessons. That said, your ruminating isn’t irrational. It’s easier to write off a villain than to understand how someone you trusted could hurt you. Fight the urge to give that person a do-over – the chance to prove they meant no harm. The good friend who ditched you probably isn’t going to accept the invitation to your sweet 16. The boss who didn’t promote you is unlikely to give you the positive feedback you deserve.
- Find meaning in the mess. Ask yourself how you can channel your pain to help yourself or others. If you were bullied, perhaps you could help someone else who’s been ostracised. If you got passed over for a promotion, try honing in on your work-life balance, or explore a side gig, or identify meaningful volunteer work. There are many ways to feel successful and fulfilled, so draw on your interests to make a difference. You’ll build your resilience and discover the strength you didn’t know you had.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Identify sources of support – people who genuinely care about you, believe in you and respect you. This could be family, friends, mentors, neighbours or colleagues. Choose people based on their behaviour, not their demeanour. Someone who is friendly can be manipulative or untrustworthy. A disagreeable co-worker might be your biggest cheerleader.
- If you’re feeling vulnerable, tighten your circle. As positive psychologist Lea Waters advises: ‘Focus on the people in your corner, and only bring new people into your life who cheer you on. It’s OK to befriend someone who’s willing to fight it out with you in the arena, but avoid the ones in the stands throwing things at you.’ Any person who purposely holds you back, or who undermines, sabotages or shames you has their own issues. Choose to forgive them, but maintain a healthy distance.
- Find a workaround. There are multiple ways to achieve the same end goal. Our research project is Exhibit A. A peer-reviewed journal had expressed interest in publishing our results, and I’d hoped that would make it possible for other educators to use our findings. The project was killed, but that’s not where the story ends. I took a new job at an independent school in Washington, D.C. I started to spend more of my free time writing, which gave me a creative outlet and a greater sense of control. I wrote a proposal for a book about middle schoolers, signed with a literary agent, then sold the book one year to the day after I left my old job. In one chapter, I share several tips drawn directly from our pilot. That ill-fated study wasn’t for naught after all. Through writing, I took back my power. I wrote about my work with students for The Washington Post and other national publications. And in a twist, a researcher wrote an article for The New York Times about one group I co-facilitated. I might have failed to launch that study, but I’d found other ways to share my ideas and to help children. There’s always a workaround. If you haven’t identified yours yet, one will materialise. Just keep doing the stuff that matters to you.
When you have a setback, particularly one that feels unjust, it’s tempting to make excuses, play the blame game, adopt a victim mentality or internalise others’ negative opinions about you. Instead, try viewing adversity as a blessing in disguise. The friends who ditched you might have led you down the wrong path or prevented you from finding the right social group. That promotion might have been a nightmare. Maybe now you’ll take more risks at work and leave a greater legacy. Or perhaps you’ll summon the courage to do something entirely different. Getting knocked down can paralyse you or it can fuel you. Don’t leave that to chance.
Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counsellor (LCPC) and is the school counsellor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. Phyllis also works as a psychotherapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of ‘Middle School Matters’ (Da Capo Press, forthcoming August 2019). She is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and writes the Career Confidential column for PDK International. She runs her own blog and tweets @Pfagell
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