We often lack an appetite for endurance. Things must work out, swiftly, easily, and without breaking a sweat. Whether it is our drive from home to office or checking in to take a flight for a holiday, managing a home or an office; the expectation is clear — complete avoidance of disappointment, problems, and stress. The minute we experience struggle or are forced out of our comfort zones, we jump to label it as a negative experience. We fight it, complain, and criticise the causes which are almost always other people or circumstances.
The blame game gives us emotional respite by separating ourselves from the challenge. But this is a habit that is worth working hard to break. Attributing it to luck or destiny further aids the distancing.
We learn from childhood to slot our experiences as positive or negative, good or bad, and find relief and sometimes closure in labeling them. Other times we create a bitter memory of the event that creeps up on us ever so often, resulting in pain and trauma.
It cannot be denied that challenges result in stress. Neurobiological, emotional, and psychosomatic consequences come into play and our body and mind struggle to fight or escape the experience. Judging and complaining, though, help us preserve our sense of self temporarily. The blood cortisol level is augmented as a result of bitterness.
Research states that frequent complaining may impair the immune system due to the increase in cortisol, thereby increasing the chances of high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Research at Stanford correlates complaining to irreversible shrinkage in the hippocampus, which is critical to problem solving and intelligence.
Some difficult situations in life are too hard to not grieve over and in those conditions, one must take their time with the focus being on gradual healing. However, recognising the difference between suffering caused during a difficult situation and one that is sustained by our attitude towards it is imperative to health and healing. It is safe to say that complaining about a challenge causes more damage to health than the challenge itself.
Think of a significant past challenge in your life. In retrospect, can you think of ways in which it helped you? We can all put a finger on how a difficult experience taught us, moulded us, and how we wouldn’t have been who we are without that experience. We agree that the struggle compelled us to learn, think differently, build skills, and propelled us forward with a renewed fire in the belly to power on.
Unfortunately, we wait too long to recognise the advantages of challenges. We agree to allow it to dawn upon us only in the convenience and calm of comfort, once the struggle has passed and we feel we are safe again. The point I wish to raise today is, why not persevere during the experience of a challenge knowing that some good will come out of this? The golden question to ask is, how can this add value and meaning to my life?
Perceiving struggles as valuable neuronal, emotional, spiritual, and social workouts for us to build muscle, an attitude that there is something to be learnt from it, the ability to anchor ourselves in lessons amid the chaos and patience in our journey through difficulties can change the way we define challenges. From an avoidance attitude, we could shift the narrative to an approach motive, from escaping to aspiring and from feeling pain to peace through difficulties.
At this point, I am often met with “easier said than done!” and I will not deny that. This practice requires intent, resolve, and consistency. Optimism and resilience can be learnt, developed, and incorporated in our personalities, just like any other habit formation.
The impact of challenges and adversity is lasting. But what that impact will be, can be chosen at least partly by us. Difficulties can help us get to know ourselves better, identify growth areas and invest in learning. Difficulties can be used to teach us humility, optimism, perseverance, and gratitude. In a way, it is difficulties then, that both awakens us to our inner self and what we can make of it in future.
Why then, rush to label difficulties as a negative?
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)