Hidden Opportunities

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

Traumatic events come in all sizes and shapes. When we’re young, they can affect us in an entirely different way than they would as an adult. A child who is uprooted from their school and friends when the family moves to another city may feel as though their world has turned completely upside down. Ten years later, that same young person might be elated at the thought of moving alone to a new city or even state as they head off to college.

As adults, we continue to deal with traumas, often of a more predictable nature. Many people lose a job or suffer a downturn in their business. Eventually everyone experiences the loss of their parents. Unfortunately, about half of all married people will experience divorce. The list of depressing events could go on — we haven’t even begun to mention disease or natural disasters. Whew! Time to take a breath!

But there’s a reason that people often cite the fact that the Chinese symbol for the word “crisis” is also the symbol for the word “opportunity.” We usually talk about how to deal with crises and traumas — how to heal and get back to a normal life. But what if we recognize that “normal” will never really be normal again after a trauma? What if we focus on finding that hidden opportunity in a trauma at the same time we focus on healing?

Writing for Psychology Today, Robert Taibbi says, “There is an opportunity buried in the turmoil. For most, these transition periods when we feel like we’re starting over are few and far between. These are opportunities to take a few deep breaths. The concrete routines and rules of our everyday lives no longer exist, and we have the rare ability to reshape our lives before it solidifies into the next chapter.” He goes on to list ways that you can take advantage of the opportunity.

“Separate the Rational From the Irrational.” There are valuable and healthy ways to deal with a trauma and begin to heal. One necessary step is to overcome the anxiety so many people feel as they confront their situation — anxiety often induced by irrational fears. That step, not coincidentally, is also a necessary prerequisite to spotting an opportunity in a crisis. In describing the difference between rational and irrational responses, Taibbi says, “Rational problems might be feeling lonely post-divorce, it might take a while to find a good job, or you’ll feel overwhelmed during the first few weeks of class. Irrational concerns might be that you’ll never find another partner or job or fail your classes.” If you can objectively strike a balance  between fear and optimism, you’re ready to objectively identify a new and wonderful future that you can create.

“Learn the Lessons of the Past.” This takes a large dose of mature self-reflection, but it’s absolutely necessary. Rarely is any situation black and white and taking responsibility for your part in the situation is fundamental. “Mistakes and problems always contain lessons,” says Taibbi. “We become better through a process of elimination. Take time to figure out the lesson: What would you change if you did it all over again?”

“Imagine the Ideal.” This is good advice at any stage in life — it helps you clarify your values and goals. But it’s especially valuable after a trauma because the trauma — remember — is setting you up for opportunity. Taibbi frames the question this way: “If you were to rebuild your life from scratch today, what would it look like? Your relationship, your work, your overall lifestyle? Don’t worry if it’s impractical; you’re trying to unlock what you truly need and desire in your life right now. Imagining the ideal helps you sort out what’s important to focus on.”

“Explore.” Reflect on the old adage that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you think about the previous step — imagining the ideal — you can only imagine possibilities that you are aware of. But what about the opportunities that you’re not aware of? Time to explore. Or, as Taibbi sums it up: “The exploration stage is a time to experiment, take risks, and explore parts of you that have been dormant. Don’t just settle for the default. This rare opportunity allows you to understand, explore, and become who you ultimately want to be.”