Some days, life seems to throw you a curve ball. Other days, life throws you several curve balls in rapid succession and doesn’t seem to stop for a whole week straight! We can’t control these unexpected life changes. All we can control is our reaction. Let’s look at some of the usual ways we can respond to life’s unexpected detours.
Reaction #1: This shouldn’t be happening!
This first type of reaction comes from a black and white mentality that says life should be fair and that if you’re a decent person only good things should happen to you. This kind of reaction comes up because life isn’t behaving in the way you want or expect it to. Unexpected life changes feel threatening because they don’t match your idea of how things should happen.
Focusing on what should or shouldn’t happen is a surefire way to build up anger and resentment. When you don’t see life responding in the way you want it to,you start to look around to see what caused things to go wrong. “Should” tends to lead to blame. Who or what you choose to blame will depend on your personal beliefs, biases, and relationships.
If you tend to externalize your anger, you’ll point your should at others. Why didn’t they do something differently so this wouldn’t be happening? If they’d just done what they were supposed to, the whole situation could have been avoided. You’ll look for others to blame, whether or not you express your anger at them directly or hold it in as a simmering resentment.
If you tend to internalize your anger, your should will fall squarely on you. You must have messed up somehow, done something wrong, or missed something to be in this situation. If only you had done better or differently, this might not have happened. You’ll use this as proof that you’re somehow damaged, flawed, or messed up. Your anger at yourself may turn into depression or into self-punishment.
Reaction #2: Why me? Why is it always me?
This next reaction comes from a victim mentality. When life happens, it always seems to happen to you. None of your friends and family seem to have bad luck like you. If something is going to go wrong, it will happen right at the critical moment when you’re depending on things to go right. Unexpected life changes feel like a personal attack from the world.
Focusing on your own bad luck builds up feelings of hopelessness and despair. When it feels like the deck is stacked against you, what can you do to change things? And when it feels like something always goes wrong for you, you don’t have any motivation to try new things or take risks in life. This hopelessness keeps you stuck. You’re less likely to try to leave a bad situation if it feels like no matter where you go, problems will always inevitably follow.
If you tend to externalize your hopelessness, this mindset turns into resentment at the world as you look at the people around you who watch your life go steadily down hill and do nothing about it. This can also look like jealousy at the people around you who seem to have it all together.
If you tend to internalize your hopelessness, you might start to feel like you deserve to be a victim of life’s whims. You may start to believe that you don’t deserve to be happy or successful. When you really start to internalize your hopelessness, you might even find that you sabotage your successes so you can control what goes wrong instead of feeling like you’re waiting for the dagger to fall.
Reaction #3: I didn’t want this anyway.
This reaction is an attempt to look on the bright side. Got fired? You were looking at other jobs already, so it’s not a big deal. Turned down for a date? It’s for the best, you’re really busy right now. Car broke down? Now your boss will have to let you work from home until it’s fixed. Unexpected life changes? Not a problem. Really.
While it’s always good to have a flexible mindset and try to find the silver lining, too much positivity can be a way of avoiding your unpleasant emotions. Sure, needing to get your car fixed will allow you to work from home for a bit, but this strategy goes too far when you can’t let yourself feel sad or scared about the accident. It’s okay to grieve, be angry, and feel hurt when bad things happen to you.
If you tend to externalize your positivity, your friends never know when you have problems. They think of you as always cheery no matter what is happening. Relentless positivity in the face of real issues can leave you disconnected from others. When you can’t share what’s going on in your life with others, they’re less likely to feel like they can share openly and authentically with you. And when neither of you are able to be vulnerable with each other, the relationship stays shallow.
If you tend to internalize your positivity, you’ll spend a lot of time and mental energy fighting back your thoughts and feelings. You get good at convincing yourself to ignore your mind’s and body’s signals that something is wrong. This creates a disconnection within yourself. When you’re not connected to your internal world, you start losing the ability to tell what you’re thinking and feeling. The real you gets pushed away in favor of you acceptable persona. When this happens, your mind and body have to send the signals louder and louder in order to be heard. This comes through as psychosomatic illness, chronic pain, headaches and stomachaches, and other physical issues.
Reaction #4: That happened. What am I going to do about it?
This is the healthiest reaction. It starts in acceptance, acknowledging the situation and your feelings about it. Then it moves into action. Instead of dwelling on what happened, your thoughts turn to what you can do about the problem. Unexpected life changes happen sometimes, they’re nobody’s fault, and the only thing in your control is your response.
Acceptance and committed action are two of the cornerstones of ACT- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you don’t know much about me, I’m a huge fan of ACT as a way to help develop psychological flexibility. (Learn more about ACT here)
So how do you learn to react like this? That’s the key question. We often know how we should react or what we should do in response to a situation, but in practice it’s harder to do the healthy thing.
The first step is to become aware of your current reaction patterns. Looking back at the last few times things have gone wrong, what’s your go-to way to cope? Is there something going on right now that you’re blaming others for? Playing the victim? Covering with positivity? What thoughts and feelings are you avoiding? What have you done to manage the situation? Are there steps you need to take that you’ve been avoiding?
Therapy can help you manage unexpected life changes
Therapy helps you take a step back from your experience and observe your patterns. We may not be able to fix what’s going on in your life, but we can help you develop a healthier approach to navigating the normal ups and downs of life. If you’re ready to explore the patterns you’ve learned to use and you want help implementing a healthier approach, contact me to schedule a free 15 minute consultation.
I help queer Christians find purpose, meaning, and belonging through relational therapy. We reprocess old patterns that used to help you cope with bad situations and get your needs met, but aren’t working for you anymore.