Essay: Standing Up in the Face of Difficulty

“We have no intention of cowering in the corner,” proclaimed The Seattle Times headline of March 23, 2007.

Quoting John Edwards, The Times elaborated on Edwards’ revelation that his wife Elizabeth has a recurrence of breast cancer, advanced to stage IV with bone metastasis. The article highlighted Edward’s decision to pursue the 2008 presidential nomination despite Elizabeth’s incurable cancer. When asked if she is in denial, Elizabeth answered, “Absolutely! I am denying it control of how I spend the rest of my life!”

In this issue, Sherron Watkins describes her decision to “stand up” as she reflects on the events that led her to expose the fraudulent accounting scheme of the Enron scandal. She came through this crisis and has since used her experience to encourage others to walk in integrity.

Fortunately, most of us do not have our personal /professional traumas scrutinized on the front page of the daily newspaper, but the challenge to cope effectively during times of crisis and to meet difficulty with courage, strength, and wisdom is shared by us all.

When a crisis is personal, like Elizabeth Edward’s cancer diagnosis, it can have an enormous impact on our professional life, our choices and decisions as well as our capacity to function effectively at work. And if the crisis is work related, like Sherron Watkins’ experience, it can take a serious toll on family life and personal relationships. Maintaining one’s perspective through it all can be difficult.

Stress, work pressures, and “difficulty” alone do not define a crisis however. A crisis is when a stressful life event or cumulative stresses overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope effectively in the face of a perceived challenge or threat, and the resulting distress causes some functional impairment. The result is that our psychological balance is disrupted and our usual coping mechanisms are unable to restore our equilibrium.

Immediate and longer-term goals of weathering a crisis are threefold:

  1. Stabilize the symptoms where possible to keep distress from escalating.
  2. Manage/reduce the symptoms of distress.
  3. Restore equilibrium to be able to function effectively again.

The question becomes: How do we continue “working” through the season of crisis, even as we are “working-through” the crisis itself when our usual coping mechanisms are ineffective?

First, recognize your response to crisis.

Individual responses vary. Initially, you may experience shock and numbness, rendering you less capable of making good decisions or knowing what to do next. Recognizing your vulnerability and identifying your psychological/emotional response to crisis are crucial first steps in regaining your equilibrium. Invite trusted others to help you decide on a prudent course of action in the short term.

Subsequently, shame or fear of judgment can cause us to withdraw from others and suffer in silence. Fight the tendency to isolate. John Edwards said of his decision to continue campaigning, “You can cower in the corner and hide, or you can be tough and go out there…” Being tough does not mean we deny feelings, ignore the pain, or minimize the seriousness of a situation. Rather, in honestly acknowledging these realities, we are better able to make informed choices that support adaptive coping.

Second, take proactive steps to get your needs met.

Create Safety: Pursue legal protections, health care, and interventions to minimize accidents/ injury. Embrace safe people with whom you can be honest, avoiding negative, destructive relationships.

Utilize Support: Cultivate “vital friend” (see InReview) relationships, seek spiritual and prayer support, utilize your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for professional help, and delegate tasks to capable others. Connect with others who hold a positive view of your future.

Recruit a Sounding Board: Consult trusted advisors who listen compassionately, provide perspective and problem-solve creatively.

Practice Self Care: Simplify your life at this time; adjust your expectations, nurture yourself, “let go of” nonessentials, accept genuine offers of help. Incorporate the basics of healthy living — exercise, minimize alcohol intake, get extra sleep, and rest.

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of crisis; the capacity to recover from adversity. It is a learned life skill that can be developed and strengthened. We can choose thoughts, behaviors and actions that help to restore equilibrium following stressful life events. Heightening self awareness, reaching out to others, making intentional choices and taking appropriate action provide a structure to help us “stay standing” while standing up in the face of difficulty.

Deborah Griffing has 30-years experience in the human-development business as a psychotherapist, advanced-practice nurse, college professor, executive coach, speaker, and facilitator. She is the founder of Innovative Leadership LLC, a professional services firm in Bellevue, Washington. She has a Ph.D. in nursing and health sciences, from Rush University, Chicago, Illinois.