“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown
“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, not being able to flag a cab, getting stuck in traffic, getting into a car accident, being late for a meeting/appointment, and so on.
You’re not alone. All of us have our times when things don’t go as we expect. I certainly do too.
For example, just earlier this week, I lost my ezlink card.
The ezlink card is a stored value card you use in Singapore for commuting. When you travel by train or bus, you tap this card with the reader, whereby the fare is deducted. This way, no physical cash needs to be used, and it makes traveling a whole lot more convenient. It’s similar to the Octopus card in Hong Kong. Almost everyone in Singapore uses ezlink for commuting, as do I.
It was a Wednesday, and I was out to meet up one of the business owners for an interview for the Successful Businesses Interview Series. After the appointment ended, it was already late at night, and I was beat and ready for the long trip home. The place was a good 1.5 hours away from my house, and being unfamiliar with the place, it took me about 25 minutes before I was finally able to locate the bus stop where I could take the right bus home.
When the bus arrived, I got on the bus, reaching out in my pocket for my ezlink card in the process. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t there. I tried the other pocket. Nothing too.
Unfazed, I then reached into the pocket in my bag. Nothing as well. This was when I felt something was amiss. I looked into the interior of my bag, followed by my wallet, even though I knew it couldn’t be inside as I didn’t remember putting my card there. Nada.
The thought of me losing my ezlink card (again) crept over me, slowly followed by a wave of annoyance and anger. Refusing to accept that, I rummaged through my bag and my pockets a few times, one after another. Each time I did it with more thoroughness; each time I hoped the familiar shade of blue would rear itself. But nope, there was nothing. The card was gone.
Realizing the loss
When it finally sunk in that the card was really gone, I felt so angry at myself. Reason being I have a knack for losing things, particularly my ezlink cards. I’ve lost at least five of such cards since young (including travel cards before ezlink was introduced and bus concessions). Each time I lost my card, I’d feel incredibly jaded. I would wonder what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t even do something as simple as keep a card in place.
What ticked me off even more was that I had just topped up the card with $50 – an amount which I normally wouldn’t top up with, because of my track record in losing my card (I’ll usually just add nominal amounts like $10 or $20). Also, this was not the first time I’ve lost my card right after topping it up with a sizable amount of money either.
To clarify, what I was upset with was not really about the loss of money itself (money can always be earned back). It was more about how readily I seemed to just *lose* things, in the most annoying of situations (such as after just topping up the card). It was the loss I was unhappy with, not the money itself. It seemed like some sort of a curse.
A range of thoughts began to swirl in my mind almost immediately.
- Why is this happening again? Why do I keep losing things all the time?
- Why am I such a klutz? Why can’t I do something as simple as not losing my possessions?
- Is there something wrong with me?
- What’s the point of working so hard to earn money if I just end up losing it so frivolously each time?
As I retreated into the last seat of the bus and slunk into it (I paid my fare in cash), I couldn’t stop thinking about the loss. Like the blood in a freshly cut wound, feelings of annoyance kept rising up. My mind kept racing back to the previous times I lost my belongings. Each time, I would tell myself I was not going to lose anything from then on, but each time, it would continue to take place, like a disease. I thought about how clumsy and stupid I was to lose my things. I thought about how I could have avoided this if I had been more careful.
Even though I had originally planned to do some work and write a new article (the bus ride was 1.5 hours long and I had my laptop with me), I was not in the state of mind to do anything. I was too bogged down by what happened.
Working through the problem
As I sat in the bus, feeling lousy about myself, I decided to process my predicament, bit by bit. Rather than wrestle with myself, I allowed my emotions to flow through me – from anger, frustration, self-annoyance, irritation, self-reproaching, pain, disappointment, to regret. I acknowledged my thoughts, one after another, be it self-reproaching thoughts, or frustration with the situation. I analyzed the situation and identified what I could address, and what I couldn’t address. I identified the plus points in the situation, and noted that it could have been much worse. I identified what was making me so angry and how I could fix that. Last but not least, I picked out my learning points and worked through the things I was going to do differently from then on.
By the end of this mini-exercise, I felt completely different. Funnily, even though it had just been 15 minutes since I realized my card was lost, and nothing had changed in my environment (I was still sitting inside the same bus, at the same seat, with the same passengers), the world suddenly seemed so different.
A shift in perspective
Suddenly, I felt so much lighter and happier. The universe felt like a great and happy place. I was no longer hung up with what just happened, but instead excited about my activities later in the week. Rather than be held back by the grievances of the past, I was excited about the possibilities of the future. I began to think about the upcoming projects that I was working on. I wondered why I even spent all that time beating myself up just now. I realized it was just a waste of time and energy. All these, from just a shift in perception.
Was I still sore about the loss? Perhaps, but thinking further wasn’t going to do anything. Was I unhappy with losing yet another card? Sure, it’d be great if I didn’t lose it as I had to go and get another card the next day. Was I frustrated? Yeah sure, but staying frustrated wasn’t going to solve the problem. I could no sooner run around in the bus, scream at the top of my lungs, yell at all the passengers and smash my laptop to pieces just to ‘vent’ and ‘get back at the world’, but it wouldn’t change the fact that the card was lost – gone.
What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way
I realize that many of us today trap ourselves by virtue of how we think, and it’s quite unfortunate. Because we don’t cope with the incidences properly, we place ourselves in a negative cycle, and cause more damage to ourselves than we realize. We also waste time harping on the incident rather than move on to a better place. These certainly don’t help us achieve our goals.
Bad things happen every day in our life, to everyone, be it the rich or the famous. They’re no different or less susceptible to such daily incidences as everyone. While we can’t change what has already taken place, we can change how we react to them and what we do about them. If we learn how to cope with them properly, we can accomplish so much more.
For the rest of this article, I’ll share with you a guide on how to deal with daily setbacks. I hope you’ll find these useful in dealing with similar situations in your life. 😀 Bookmark this guide and refer to it regularly as you deal with such daily situations.
1. Take a step back and evaluate
When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is the problem?
- Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
- How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
- What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
- How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?
For example, say you overslept and you’re running late for a meeting. Most of the time, people will panic, fluster and become extremely stressed out. If we are to apply the set of questions above to the situation, we’ll find that it’s actually not such a big problem after all. For example:
- What’s the problem? You overslept and you are running late for a meeting.
- Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today? No. People oversleep all the time. In fact, there are probably thousands of people out there who are in the exact same predicament as you are right now.
- How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale? At an individual problem, it seems like a big issue. You’re late and your counterparts are likely going to be ticked off. But at the national level, people are late every day, and life goes on. No one cares about someone oversleeping in the comparison to national issues such as politics and state of economy. At a global scale, the problem becomes so minute that it can’t even be seen as a “problem”. People out there are dealing with worse things like poverty, famine and death. Imagine you’re one of the kids experiencing famine in South Africa right now. Would you care about waking up late or losing a card? I didn’t think so either.
- What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this? Your colleagues may have a bad impression of you. They may think you’re not serious about your work. Most likely, nothing’s going to happen. In the worst case scenario, maybe you’ll get fired.
- How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years? By itself, your problem isn’t going to have any impact in the long-run. It’ll just fade away as with other days in your life. 1 year from now, you’re not even going to remember this incident. 5-10 years later, it’s totally insignificant.
Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day. Hence, there’s no reason to get so stressed up over them.
2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem
If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy. Don’t coop up your frustrations if they’re grating you, because it’s not healthy to do so. It’s like putting the lid on a pot of boiling water – the heat and pressure will only increase. No sooner will it explode, and you don’t want to explode in anger!
However, don’t get stuck with the venting. Some people who are angry all the time, and it makes them very unattractive both inside and out. Some taxi drivers are very angsty and it’s tiring to face them. They complain about everything the whole time, and after 10-15 minutes of talking to them, you feel like you’re done. In fact, I came across one yesterday when taking the cab.
While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be a energy vampire. Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for only say, 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.
3. Realize there are others out there facing this too
Like I mentioned in Step #1 (Take a step back and evaluate), even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.
4. Process your thoughts/emotions
When things don’t go our way, unhappy emotions are triggered. These emotions need to be processed, not repressed. By process, I mean to gain awareness and deal with them in a conscious manner.
Imagine when you get a fresh cut. Immediately, bacteria enters the cut. If you don’t clean the wound properly, it may heal by itself on the surface, but it’ll get infected in the future since the bacteria is still inside.
Likewise, if you don’t attend to your emotions, they remain unresolved. These emotions lie inside you, ready to resurface at some point in the future. It’s like a dormant volcano – it remains inactive for years, only to suddenly erupt one day. That’s why sometimes, people who are normally well-tempered can get agitated all of a sudden when certain topics are raised. The emotions you see are nothing to do with the present situation, but from their past.
How do you process your emotions? Here are my 4 suggestions:
- Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
- Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
- Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t. Read: How to Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
- Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.
5. Acknowledge your thoughts
Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.
By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well. Or if you have a thought that says, “This is so clumsy of me”, acknowledge that too. Acknowledge every thought that arises.
Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.
6. Give yourself a break
If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation – with objectivity. A little love and care for yourself will go a long way.
7. Uncover what you’re really upset about
A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.
When I lost the ezlink card, I was angry at the loss of my card. I was angry at how I didn’t put the card in my bag, where it would be more secure. I was angry at why I placed the card in my jeans, which was probably how it got lost – dropping out as I was walking. I was angry at the loss of my money. I was angry at the world, in a way. I was angry that I was always losing my card, and this time right after I topped it up.
Deep down, I was really angry at myself. I didn’t know why I was such a klutz. I was just pissed off with how careless I was – that I lose things so easily. I was angry at how I made things difficult for myself because I wasn’t conscientious enough. I was angry at how I was doing my best to be a good person in this world, yet there I was, self-sabotaging my efforts with these trivialities. I was angry for being a loser.
After you uncover the root of your anger, what can you do about it? How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.
I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.
8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome
As Helen Keller once said,
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.
9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps
In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:
- What’s the situation?
- What’s stressing you about this situation?
- What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
- Take action on your next steps!
Applying this to the situation where I lost my card, this was what I got:
1) What’s the situation?
- The card is lost.
- I did not know where I lost the card.
- I’m already on the bus and well on my way home.
2) What’s stressing/annoying me about the situation?
- Losing $50 because of my carelessness. My parents have cultivated the value of thriftiness in me, so it feels lousy to lose good money that could be used for better purposes.
- Inconvenience I caused for myself for losing my card – I have to pay cash for my fares until I get my new card. I also have to make my way to the station just to buy a new card, and that’s one additional thing to do in my long list of to-dos.
- Losing my card even though I’ve been making conscious effort not to let history repeat itself
3) What are the next steps that’ll help me resolve them?
- Get my new card as soon as possible tomorrow, so as to minimize my inconveniences.
- Work harder and recover the $50 loss via 1-2 more ebook sales on my blog.
- Ensure the new card doesn’t get lost again next time. I’ll make sure to stash the card securely in my bag every time, every time I board/alight the bus – basically, during the times when the card is used.
After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.
10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)
A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.
Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.
For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.
So for my problem, it occurred because I play down on the importance of looking after my personal belongings all the time. By being more careful with my items from now on, I can better prevent such a situation from occurring next time.
11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse
No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that. For example, when I applied this to my lost card:
What’s bad about the situation:
- I just lost $50 of good money that could be used for other purposes.
- I need to buy a new card asap to replace the old one. It’s a hassle and additional thing to do.
- My traveling will be inconvenienced until I get my new card.
- The situation could have been worse – I could have lost my wallet, which would be terrible, because it would be a serious pain to replace my identification card, credit card, membership cards, etc inside. Moreover, that means losing more than just $50 too.
- Or, there could have been more money inside the ezlink, say $100 or $150, which would be a bigger loss.
- I learned the importance of taking care of my possessions – And not to be complacent about them.
- I’ve become a more careful and conscientious person.
This activity helped me see (1) Things could be a lot worse. This wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. (2) There’s a silver lining in every cloud and it’s up to what you make out of it.
12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it
Do your best to address the problem, but don’t feel bad when things don’t pan out the way you want.
When I was in my previous company, I was handling a huge amount of responsibilities. Every day felt like a firefighting session. Everyone was constantly stressed out, and the atmosphere was sometimes high strung.
However after a while, I realized no matter what happens, even in the most dire of situations, there is always a way to address it. It’s just a matter of how you deal with it. Things will run, and life will still go on.
Hence, no matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.
13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter
There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?
From my situation, I learned:
- To be more careful when it comes to my personal possessions
- There is an upside to taking better care of my possessions. In the past I would not think that there is any point to do so, since I assumed they’d be there all the time.
- How to handle my emotions better
- How to tackle similar situations next time
- That if I link my ezlink to my bank account in the future, it will allow me to get a refund the next time (thanks to reader Alice who informed me about it!)
After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.
Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way
Image: Broken egg
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