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Learning from Adversity

Reframing, acceptance and letting go are all mind sets and approaches we can use when faced with adversity. Life’s difficulties, however, are not just something to get over but they give us an opportunity to grow.

Difficulties are often seen as obstacles or problems we want to quickly overcome. Yet within adversity is the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about ourselves. It is in painful situations, where we gain a new perspective and purpose for life. If we hurry too quickly from one situation to another we can easily miss these important life lessons. Perhaps difficulties and obstacles are there for a reason.

Maybe your marriage has just ended or is on the rocks, or you have just been informed of a life-threatening or debilitating diagnosis for yourself or a member of your family, or your child has been born with major disabilities, or you have lost a valued friend through misunderstandings, etc.; whatever the circumstance, what we usually want is to quickly find a way out of painful and uncomfortable situations.

But it is exactly in that pain where we discover our need to become better listeners, discover inner strengths and allow our weaknesses to help us grow as we challenge old beliefs and ways of thinking. It is in difficult situations where we become resilient and have the opportunity to learn from grace and forgiveness.

Transitions not only get us from one stage of life to another but can raise old issues we have avoided. Transitions allow us to rethink old problems, pick up the bits and pieces of past failure and losses, and work through them.

There is a resistance to grow because we are often forced to face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. With change comes the urge to put up “self” roadblocks – a resistance to dig deeper. However, we can go on repeating failed patterns of behavior, or we can use that “neutral zone” to get started on some major personal growth work.

Write a letter to yourself.

Dear. . . (Put in your name.) In the letter, list the obstacles that you believe are keeping you tied to your past or keeping you from doing what you want in the present. What unfinished business from your past is keeping you locked in the same unproductive cycles? What personal resistance is keeping you from becoming more honest with yourself?

Now draw a floor plan of your house as a child. Write down events that contribute to your current feelings. What brings up pain? What gave you joy and pleasure? What triggers anger? What grievances or regrets have you been dragging with you? What misunderstandings and hurts keep you stuck today?

This is an exercise to learn more about your self – not to place blame on circumstances or others.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Making A Successful Transition

Years ago, I was privileged to attend a weekend college class led by guest lecturer, William Bridges, who wrote the book, “Transitions, Managing Change.” In his book, he addressed the everyday transitions we make but seldom think about: getting married, becoming a parent, retirement. Each requires leaving behind who you were in order to embrace a new identity.

We rarely think about what we are leaving behind when making a new beginning. Even when we move into a role we had planned for and wanted, such as having our first child, we seldom realize we are ending a part of our life that will be no more. Without completing our endings, we may complicate our new beginnings.

The Task of Endings 

Bridges defined three stages in transitions: endings, a neutral zone, and finally a new beginning. The task of endings is to clarify and express our feelings and loss. In our endings, our mental and emotional energy is focused on the past. Here we deal with practical life changes and develop a support system. Acceptance of loss is where we grieve our endings so we can say goodbye to it.

The “Neutral Zone” – the Bridge to New Beginnings

In the next stage, the neutral zone, we do the work that prepares us for a new beginning. It is a time to reflect and evaluate as we explore a new identity. Who was I before? Who am I today? Who do I want to become? This can be a very “unsettling” place; a period of anxiety and instability. As we give up the past we are faced with “what now?”

In endings, we leave our old identity behind as we enter the “neutral zone”. It is where we are required to spend time alone with ourselves and our God. It is where we challenge our assumptions and expectations and examine our beliefs, our strengths and weaknesses. In the neutral zone we do the personal work that enables us to begin with new insight and perspective.

While this period of inactivity, not moving directly towards something, may seem unproductive, it is where we gain a better understanding of who we are. It is a bridge between the old and the new – a time to be alone, but not necessarily lonely. It is a time of waiting and wandering and reflection before planning for the future. We re-think our identity, what we value, and put shape back into our lives.

Rushing Into the Future

As humans we want to move immediately from an ending to a new beginning. We don’t want to feel the pain of loss or the uncertainty of the future. We are uncomfortable not knowing where we are going. We want to be doing things – anything. So we quickly bundle up our “baggage” in our backpacks and head out the door to find what we had before. If we have not spent time letting go of the past and skip that period of redefining ourselves, our beginnings will be less successful.

Life is full of transitions that require time to process. Someone said it takes about 18 months to 4 years to complete a major life transition. In today’s world of instant responses, we want our life processes to happen rapidly as well. It seldom does.

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Life Is A Dance

Life is a dance – a process that requires  flexibility while learning how to change position and location while maintaining our balance. Life is movement – we are going somewhere. It is never static – never the same – but constantly changing and evolving. As we learn the music of life, we can adjust our movements and take charge of change and and our responses to it or simply be swept along with no direction or purpose.  

Every day we have the opportunity to start fresh, letting go of what isn’t working, focusing instead on new possibilities. Every day we have the opportunity to reach out to God and to others. Every day we can begin anew with grace, forgiveness and love.

Years ago I was part of a team developing a class for people in chronic illness and pain. The following was one of the handouts developed at that time. I share it with you now as it speaks to life in general.


“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”  Victor Frankl

To experience freedom and create meaning in our lives, we must “let go” of the past while taking “control” of the present and future.

Letting go means

 • Removing my masks – becoming honest with myself and others

• I can laugh – I can cry – I can feel my pain – and it’s okay

• Transcending my fears: facing death, disability, hardships, disappointments

• Grieving my losses

• Asking for and receiving help

• Acceptance of those things I cannot change

Taking control means

• Discovering the real, genuine, authentic me

• Spending time with myself

• Focusing on what I can do – not what I can’t do

• Choosing hope over despair – the positive versus the negative

• Soaring like an eagle

• Believing I have choices and that I am making those choices every day

• Enjoying each step forward – there is no step too small or too large

• Looking for and finding opportunities within every situation

Problems, disappointment, life situations CANNOT keep you from

• Exploring new options

• Setting new priorities and goals

• Living life to the fullest

• Developing a better quality of life

Problems, tragedies, and losses CAN help you

• Discover great, hidden strengths and determination

• Create new and exciting meaning for our life

• Transform “who you were” to “who you are becoming”

• Develop awareness and appreciation for you and your world

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Acceptance Leads to Problem Solving

Acceptance is a concept – a state of mind – a way of looking at life and problems. It is a way of thinking that can be applied to any circumstance. It is a pivotal point that takes us from what we can’t do to possibilities, options and choices.

Problems have a magnetic way of holding us in place – like fly paper – we get stuck in the mess of it all and can’t see a way out. Acceptance takes us out of a victim role and puts us in charge of our lives. It keeps us from playing the blame game where everything from circumstances to people, parents, siblings, religion, God, whatever, are blamed for our inability to do anything. It puts us in charge of our responses regardless of what life throws at us. (See my blog, “Freedom, our ability to choose…”)

With acceptance we can begin asking these questions: “What isn’t working and why? What am I resisting that requires a change in my thinking and habits? What do I really want to have happen? What is in my control? What is out of my control? Am I making individual personalities the problem versus how I relate and communicate? Can I expand my options by creative brainstorming? In developing a plan of action, where do I start?” Acceptance helps us to better define and articulate the problem.

In my blogs earlier this month, I referred to Arnold Beisser’s book, “Flying without Wings: Personal Reflections on Loss, Disability and Healing” where Arnold talks about having his whole life ahead of him when he got polio that left him paralyzed, unable to move, in an iron lung. (See my blog “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t) Gradually, as he accepted his situation, he became “an active observer, rather than a passive one”. He wrote, “Even though I could not move, I could actively engage with whatever was around me through the play of senses. . . I could be more than a helpless victim, and I could have a part in determining my life and what shape it took.” He began with baby steps.

Why have I spent so much time trying to explain the concept of reframing and acceptance? Because whether it is relationship conflicts, recognizing our destructive habits and behavior patterns, being told we have a chronic or life threatening illness or a tragedy that takes away our hopes and dreams, expectations and assumptions about life as it should or ought to be, it is only when we can accept what is happening that we are able to formulate ways to create a new reality – a new beginning.

We live in a world of instant knowledge along with methodical steps to apply that information. We want to know what we can do and the exact steps to accomplish that. Rarely does that take into account what we bring to the equation: our resistance to change, past efforts and experiences and the relentless feelings that can overwhelm us. Acceptance and reframing our life and circumstances take more than mechanical steps of application.

God has always been a major part of my life. He has given me comfort, assurance, grace and love. He gives it freely to anyone who asks. His strength has given me courage to accomplish what seemed impossible. The science of mind and body has given me the understanding and strategies to use that strength, courage, faith and trust.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, and other aspects of making changes in your life, here are some books I have found helpful .

“Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress”, by Gary Emery, PhD and James Campbell, PhD

“Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, by Martin E.P.Seligman, Ph.D.

“Changing Course, Healing from Loss, Abandonment and Fear” by Claudia Black, Ph.D.

For additional information regarding how thoughts and beliefs affect our behaviors, look for books by Aaron T. Beck, M.D. to understand the process.

Acceptance – Part I

Reframing requires acceptance; accepting what is happening in order to find new options.

My last two blogs examined reframing traumatic events in our life. But we can address ongoing problems by reframing as well. Maybe it is a disintegrating marriage or relationship, symptoms of children in trouble, health concerns, aging parents, constant battle with in-laws, or issues from our childhood. We don’t know what to do, so we keep doing the same things over and over again.

Because we don’t know how to deal with many of the problems we face, we often deny, minimize or avoid them. We continue to fight or resist and convince ourselves that we are doing all we can; if only the other person would change, things would be different. We convince ourselves there is nothing we can do to intervene or bring about a more positive resolution.

A major aspect of reframing is not only how we look at our situation, but also acceptance of what is happening. When told the first step to resolution is acceptance, our first thoughts may be something like this:

  • Accept? It might be easy for you to say – you didn’t have a mother like I did. Or a father who came home drunk and beat us. You didn’t have a sister who was the darling of the family. You weren’t compared to a brother who could do no wrong. Nothing I did was ever good enough.
  • Accept? I can’t be laid off. I’m a single Mom. My ex doesn’t pay his child support and I am struggling to survive. I’m exhausted and stressed to the max. Or, I don’t want to accept the fact that I am out of work and have to start over – again.
  • Angry? You bet I’m angry. Somebody is always telling me what to do, even when I try my hardest. It’s never good enough! Life sucks! Accept? Accept what? What choices do I have?
  • If I accept – what does that make me? A doormat?


So What Does Acceptance Mean?

Acceptance means I accept the circumstances I find myself. It means I stop fighting, resisting or denying what is happening. Like the angry child whose Mom holds tightly until he runs out of steam and stops fighting, we also hang on to our hurts, our disappointments, our difficult circumstances.

We continue to fight because we are convinced things will be better only when the other person has changed or when circumstances have been corrected. We do the same things over and over again because we don’t see any alternatives. Without acceptance we remain stuck.

With acceptance we can better define the problem. Letting go of our need to be right can help us come to grips with our own imperfections. Letting go of our belief that we have all the answers or have it all together allows us to see things from a new perspective.

 Acceptance does not mean that if I accept what is happening I have given up or that I will become a passive participant to life. In the process of acceptance, we begin to accept all parts of ourselves – our strengths and our weaknesses. We stop trying to prove ourselves and instead begin to focus on solutions.

We can’t force change. We can impact change by altering our attitudes, behaviors and beliefs as we seek better solutions. Acceptance allows our energy to be freed up and explore what it is we really want instead of what we don’t want.

As Christians we understand our need for a loving God who offers forgiveness, grace, strength and wisdom. Acceptance in troubling times can bring us closer in our relationship to God. This process does not exclude God, but brings him prayerfully into the picture.

 In my next blog, I will share the impact on our health caused by non-acceptance.

 ©2010 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

How To Reframe

How do we reframe?

Reframing takes what life has handed us and looks at it in a different way. Within any drastic life change, our first response is usually shock. When you lose your job, can’t make your house payment, or have been diagnosed with a life altering or threatening disease, the crisis takes center stage and everything else is blocked from view.

Why it is so important

Reframing begins with changing our perception. It is stepping back from the problem and taking in more information. When our nose is pressed against the tree trunk, we have to step back to see the rest of the tree and surroundings. Reframing allows us to step back from the impossibility of the situation and look for possibilities. It not only allows us to transcend difficult or traumatic life situations, but to find humor and purpose within them.

When faced with difficult or traumatic events, our perceptions of what we believe the world should or ought to be are challenged. Reframing allows us to review and evaluate our expectations and assumptions and accommodate for change.

For example, if you’ve been out of work for a while and can’t find work in your field, reframing allows you to look at alternatives; temporary jobs or ways to survive within this time period. When my husband and I were first married, major transitions and loss of income resulted in the need to live with parents until we could get back on our feet.

Reframing allows you to look at many different options, ones you wouldn’t have otherwise considered. It doesn’t remove your responsibility, but gives you options to find a way through the transition.

Reframing allows us to get out of a cycle of anger, stress, pain, helplessness and hopelessness. It means we choose not to be a victim. There is a payoff to remaining a victim, but it usually ends with resentment and becoming cynical. Reframing

  • Challenges a mindset that is rigid, inflexible and outdated
  • Let’s go of the pain so we can grieve our losses and recover
  • Focuses on what we can do, not what we can’t do – looks for creative ways to resolve problems
  • Creates new meaning and purpose
  • Allows us to become aware of our blessings and practice gratefulness
  • Enables us to become motivated and excited about life


How do we begin the reframing process?

We begin by acknowledging and accepting our situation and all the feelings associated with it. List all the emotions you are feeling. If you are angry, acknowledge it. If you are feeling resentful, anxious, fearful, etc. write it down. Don’t evaluate or put any value judgment on how you are feeling.

Next, write beside each emotional response whatever thoughts you have that are associated with it. What do those thoughts tell you about your beliefs about your abilities or your situation? What rules, assumptions and expectations about how life “should be” are attached to our responses? Write down whatever you are saying to yourself about this situation.

Now, challenge any negative thinking that is keeping you stuck in a cycle of hopelessness and helplessness. While acknowledging that what has happened is totally unfair, we don’t have to turn it into a grievance. What can I turn into humor and laugh at? Humor releases an enormous amount of stress and allows you to think of creative alternatives. What spiritual meaning can I take away from this? These are opportunities to become aware of how much we need God; a time to stretch faith and trust beyond ourselves. It is also an opportunity to realize how much we need one another.

And finally, ask yourself what benefits am I getting from remaining stuck in this negative spiral? What am I avoiding by remaining angry, bitter or resentful?

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Reframing Your Circumstance

How do you frame your world?

Within our frames of reference we find all the experiences, emotions and information we have stored throughout our lifetime. These frames of reference form our perceptions and beliefs, what we say to ourselves and others. They motivate and guide our thinking, our emotional responses and our behavior. How we frame our world creates meaning and helps us make sense of our world.

If our frames of reference are small, our lives will be restrictive, limiting, negative and inflexible. If we enlarge our frames of reference, we see a bigger picture, learn to let go and roll with the punches, develop an inner strength and resiliency to begin again.

When dissatisfaction, crisis or tragedy strikes, we respond to it from the frame of reference we have developed. Our first reactions might include shock and disbelief, then anger followed by anxiety, fear and even panic.

When old resources and options are no longer available, we might feel helpless and out of control. And as so often happens, we barely regain our balance from one loss when another occurs making us feel as though we were spiraling into an abyss. And we might hear ourselves say: why, why me? I have always done everything I should – it isn’t fair. I worked hard and honestly for what I have and now it is all gone.

At such moments, we go from anger and fear to a sobering reality of survival; and there is the temptation to find a scapegoat for our troubles as we nurse resentment. But while there is a payoff in doing that, remaining in that state of mind eventually creates bitterness that robs us of energy and motivation to find new solutions.

It is precisely at these times where the promise and opportunity for a new understanding of our self and our world can occur. Growth, whether it is the simple exercise of working out at the gym to get back in shape, or the challenge of taking what life dishes out and making a gourmet meal, holds within it both pain and loss; choice and opportunity. To grab hold of that opportunity, we need to look at how we frame our world. We may not like what has happened, but we can choose to accept, let go of what was and put a new frame around our circumstances.

Reframing takes what life has handed us and gives us the opportunity to respond differently to it. It allows us not only to transcend difficult or traumatic life situations, but to find humor, purpose and joy within them.

In Thursday’s blog, I will share ways we can reframe.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Your Focus

Focus on what you can do – not what you can’t.

Focus on What You Can Do – Not What You Can’t

We had just moved into our unfinished new home. A vertebra in my lower back had begun to deteriorate sending my left leg into painful spasms. With all the work left to do, it was very depressing and frustrating to be limited in what I could do.

As I sat with an ice bag on my back, I wondered how I could make this time productive. What could I do? One of my future projects was to go through a large collection of food magazines and remove the recipes I wanted to keep. This was the perfect time to do this.

I enjoy cooking and looking through the colorful articles diverted my attention from my pain and limited ability. Before I entered the hospital for surgery, I had gone through all the magazines, removing and organizing the recipes into easy to use notebooks. I turned a potentially unproductive time into a pleasant and productive time period. I still use those recipes today.

There are always meaningful things we can do if we change our focus from what we can’t do to what we can.

Arnold Beisser wrote in his book, “Flying without Wings: Personal Reflections on Loss, Disability and Healing”: “Even though I could not move, I could actively engage with whatever was around me through the play of senses.”

Arnold was an athlete and tennis champion who contracted polio after completing medical school to become a surgeon. He lived in an iron lung for 3 years before emerging as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Life was just unfolding when this tragedy occurred.

But he began to reframe his experience while still in the iron lung. “I could be more than a helpless victim, and I could have a part in determining my life and what shape it took.”

He began to use his imagination to creatively look at things in a new way. He defines the baby steps involved in changing how he looked at his new reality. “I had moments of great pleasure and satisfaction when I became absorbed in observing minor details and becoming an active observer, rather than a passive one… Eventually, I could pass a very interesting time looking at the ceiling, noticing small details and changes.”

He did not allow his tragedy to disable him. He went on to become a psychiatrist, an administrator, an author, and fell in love and married a woman he met while still in the hospital.

No matter what the setback or situation, there are many things we can do to reframe our circumstances turning it into something positive.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC