How to deal with the unexpected, in 4 (+1) steps
On a recent trip to California for a workshop, I found myself sitting next to a lady who shared with me a recent experience that left her devasted.
Several months earlier, she had to evacuate her home with husband and pets, losing all her belongings to a fire.
She somehow was apologetic about feeling that way – after all, she had insurance and her immediate family was able to give them shelter for as long as they needed. At the same time, she was cognizant how this experience changed her life, and her mindset, likely for years to come.
Crises can shake us to our core
Crises can shake us to our core. Any significant financial or material loss will trigger a feeling of loss of security, and survival mechanisms will kick in. We feel powerless, hopeless; we lose the sense of safety.
Crises seem to also have a knack at coming at the worse times, ever. Being laid off during a looming recession, or losing your home to a wild fire without much of immediate recourse because everyone is on the same boat.
Sometimes, the writing had been on the wall for a long time and perhaps we chose not to do anything about it until the time comes. Other times, they seem to hit us like a brick wall.
Sure, everything can be anticipated a long time in advance.
It’s the whole premise of prevention, regular health check-ups, emergency funds, ongoing education.
But all of this remains a beautiful theoretical construction until life pushes us into unknown territories.
Needing to move out of the country or out of the state, losing a job, a health issue. And all the past self-talk of how calm and collected we imagined ourselves we would be are out of the window.
What happens when the unexpected knocks on your door?.
What happens when you see something you have spent years building evaporate in front of your eyes?. Or when you have to deal with feeling lost and orphaned after the end of a personal or professional cycle?.
At first, it’s ok to panic, it’s ok to be surprised, it’s ok to go through all 5 stages of grief back and forth – until you know it’s time for something else.
Each of us deals differently with the initial shock – and if there is trauma, the next obvious step has to be therapy.
In all cases, we can choose, either to stay where we are, the “how could I let that happen”, the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve”. Or, we can start to tap in into that wonderful muscle that we call “resilience”.
From being passive to actively participating in our own recovery
By giving our emotions enough leeway to rant, then gently bring ourselves back to a more logical and realistic way to deal with it, going from being a passive to being an active participant in our own life.
Step 1: give yourself time and space to process the event
It’s great to be as cool as a cucumber when these things happen. Denial, or diminishing the importance of it in your life, not so much.
You can numb your brain as much as you want, by overactivity, substances, or an all-is-well-mask. The truth is, you cannot lie to your body. And whatever you are hiding from yourself, you will be reminded of it later.
Any shock will have an impact on your physical and mental health, to a degree.
This said, don’t discount the subtle ways the grief of the loss is coming to you. It can be crying, isolating, needing to talk to someone, to journalling or wanting to hit the gym as an immediate way of processing.
Find your own way of getting that stress out of your body, without harming yourself (and obviously not harming others).
This is also the time to examine how you go through the now infamous (and somehow controversial) 5 stages of loss.
Psychiatrist and death-and-dying expert Elizabeth Kubler-Ross coined the term after observing that most patients would go through 5 stages of grief, namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is accepted today that not everyone goes through all of them or in that order, and that people can go through some other forms of dealing with a loss.
However, observing your own way of processing an upsetting or a life-changing news can give you valuable clues about yourself, your thoughts, and any lessons to take on with you from this experience.
Let it all out
So here is, take the time, in your own safe space, to shout against life because it’s unfair, to blame yourself or others for what’s happening, to regret what you did or didn’t do.
This is a time to let it all out, in a benevolent way, all that bottled-up frustration and anger.
Now that you have acknowledged in your own way – dramatic, grandiloquent, quiet – the emotional impact of the news on you, it’s time to move on and go into a more logical and active way of dealing.
Step 2: out with the emotions and in with the reality: assess all the consequences
Once the initial emotion and anger associated with the loss are (mainly or temporarily) out of your system, it’s time to revert back to the more logical and intellectual you.
Assess all the consequences this event might have on you, your family, your job, your finances, your lifestyle, your environment.
Back to basic risk management
This is not the time for denial, but for basic risk management.
- Do you have enough funds in your emergency account to get you through this difficult time?.
- Are there some cost cuttings you can affect immediately?
- What is superfluous and nice to have but don’t need right now?.
- What should go and can stay?.
- Any health expenses coming up?.
- What can be delayed and what is urgent?
List everything. Go back to it again and as many times as needed, until you know what you might need to deal with in the immediate future.
When you bring your mind back into reality, you give your brain and your body a well-deserved respite from the angst. Less flight or flight, more into the appeasing and making peace with what is really happening.
Step 3: list your resources
After letting it all out, and having a realist view of the consequences of the aftermath of the loss, time to make an inventory of what might be of use to you going forward.
We talked about finances earlier. It’s obviously a major element to deal with.
Make an inventory of your finances
- List all the liquid assets you have, i.e. cash, money markets funds, bank accounts.
- Then semi-liquid assets, stocks, bonds, anything that might need several days to weeks to unwind.
- Heavier stuff, such as real estate, are next on the list.
- And finally, what can be unwound only in extreme cases, i.e. your retirement accounts.
- If you lost your job, do you have access to unemployment benefits?. Add them into either the liquid or to semi-liquid lists.
Now you have a good picture of how much money you have immediately for your current expenses and how much constitutes your new emergency fund.
List everything at current market value.
It’s of no use to know the value of your apartment 3 months ago, or of your portfolio stocks at the highest.
To get a real picture of where you are now, you need to mark-to-market. This is a time for a reality check. That’s what your logical and rational brain needs to calm down and be focused on.
Your support system: Next, what support system do you have around you?.
Nothing replaces a supportive partner, a family member, or a friend as a compassionate ear in difficult situations.
You need a step further in the support?
Therapy and counseling for the heavy stuff; coaching for the motivational aspect of your inquiry.
They are an investment that you may feel you don’t need at that moment; in reality, this is the time when you could end up needing that kind of support the most, as you are rebuilding an aspect of your life from the ground up.
And there are ways around the financial expense if you cannot afford it. Group therapy or coaching workshops could be a venue for you.
Now, look outside your inner circle of friends and family.
- Do you have colleagues you can contact?
- Are you part of a network?.
- Anyone you know who can make introductions?
It’s always fascinating when we discover how small the world can be. You might realize that you know someone who knows someone who has something for you. It doesn’t cost anything to try. And it can be rewarding at the end.
Step 4: get out and about
At this stage, you have a precise picture of all your assets and liabilities. You know what you have, and who would support you on that next step of your journey.
What you need is the how!
You are now in that proverbial time when you pick yourself up again and start walking, taking charge of your life. From being the passive recipient of an unforeseen event, to deciding where you would like to go next.
And your self-esteem and self-respect will thank you for that.
Taking action: decisions and goals
Here is the time when you start making decisions. A good time also to make goals and to stick to a form of discipline that works for you. Stay focused on what you are trying to achieve and see each step as new information that can become handy in the near future. The more feedback and data you get, the more ammunition for you.
Don’t neglect your body. Stay on track with your discipline when it comes to exercise and healthy habits.
Use this special time to improve your skills or learn new ones, connect with different people, or take time for yourself.
Only say “no’ to things that are a real waste of time for you. Let the rest be a new discovery. You are in times of major and forced changes. Make the most of them by being open to what presents itself to you. Decide whether it deserves your attention, or not.
Step +1: lessons learned
The only things that are wasted in life are the experience that went unnoticed, the lesson that was not learned, and the mistake that keeps on happening.
And somehow, life has its own ways to give us a second and a third chance for a redo, when needed.
Learn about your own process
Use this crisis to learn more about your process, your mistakes and your skills and talents.
Focus on what you have, and don’t live in a past that is not relevant anymore, nor in a future that exists only in your head.
While it’s not easy to receive this kind of message when we are in the woes of a crisis, trust that there is a blessing in disguise.
See it as an opportunity to change
Without going into the excess of positive thinking, see this change as an opportunity to correct what has been left on the backburner for so long, for lack of time or focus.
Take a hard look at your expenses and how you handle your money.
Have you been hoarding stuff, money, knowledge or other things?.
This is a good time to do a good cleansing of unhealthy habits that were anchored over time. And to replace them with more mindful and conscious habits.
Use that time to acknowledge your own support system. Perhaps you were so much focused on getting more of a lot of things, you never really took the time to fully honor your relationships, family, or friends in the past.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Look at your own past when you have experienced a crisis. What did you learn from it? What positive aspects did it bring to your life? What can you do differently, starting now?.
And to going further
I would add the following questions to keep up in mind, for when things get better for you.
- How much is enough for you? Know what amount of liquid assets you would like to have at any given time.
- How can you start focusing more on what you have and less on what you don’t have?.
Use what you know you don’t have, either to make peace with it and stop obsessing about it, once for all; or as the perfect prompt to find ways to get it.
Be prepared, check regularly and update, and forget about it in between. Have insurances and enjoy life.
Learning to be comfortable living in the proverbial “now”
This is what your favorite coaches and gurus are about. Not spending your time in a past that is long gone, and that your brain had distorted as it pleased it.
Nor in a future that the pessimists will see as gloom and doom, making them permanently stressed and fearful; nor an optimist’s future, all rainbows and unicorns, a nice exercise in denial.
Living in the present is another version of know who you are and accept what is happening in your life.
If anything, key takeaways from a crisis are to learn to take responsibility for what you can control and change. To do your best now so that you can do better next time. To notice and appreciate all the goodness around you.
And decide what being authentic and aligned with your own values mean to you.