Success is built on relationships. We invest a lot of time developing and maintaining relationships with other people; and yet, we often overlook the most important relationship that impacts and influences all the others—the relationship we have with ourselves. This relationship becomes critically important when we face change or loss because we are more vulnerable to our relentless scrutiny, judgment, and criticism of ourselves. Regardless of how kind we may have been to ourselves in the past, negative self-talk takes on a different level of intensity and importance after a challenging life event.
Getting out of our heads and into our hearts is one of the quickest ways to positively impact our relationship with ourselves. As humans we have an innate desire to help others, and this holds true even after an it. An it is the change, loss, or setback that pops up and knocks us down. Sometimes we need to seek out opportunities, and other times opportunities present themselves.
Every November a Christmas tree appears in the lobby of my church signaling the beginning of the holiday season. Every branch of the tree is decorated with white paper angels hung from shimmering gold string. On the back of each angel is the name of a disadvantaged child and a gift they would like for Christmas. Taking an angel from the tree is a commitment to provide a gift for that child.
Sometimes when my emotions are just too raw and too close to the surface I avoid the tree altogether. Sometimes I feel obligated to take an angel from the tree (it is in the church lobby after all so I should take one). But sometimes I look forward to seeing the tree, hoping there is still an angel left for me to take. During these times my it fades from the forefront of my mind and is replaced by thoughts of each angel’s child. What is going on in their life? What struggles are they facing? What type of situation are they living in? Based on the majority of gift requests—socks, mittens, hats, pencils, crayons, notebooks, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and very few toys—I’d say they are facing challenges. Donating a gift to a child, knowing it will bring a smile to their face, hoping they feel that someone cares about them, makes me feel really really good.
The good feeling that results from doing something for someone else is not unique to me. Research shows that humans experience a “helper’s high,” a feeling of elation, after doing something kind for someone else. Thankfully the key to experiencing this feeling is not relative to the magnitude of the kindness given. The same feelings of elation, albeit different in duration or intensity, can be derived from something as simple as holding a door open for someone who is physically challenged, writing a holiday card to an unknown soldier, or doing a quick favor for a friend. It’s not necessary to spend exorbitant amounts of time or money to reap the benefits of helper’s high.
As a deeply sentimental person, I tend to save things that others might discard—Kristen’s first diaper pins, holiday cards from years past, and clothes that no longer fit because they hold a special memory. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a large collection of flower vases. They sat gathering dust on four full shelves in the garage. Even though my garage space is in scarce supply, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the vases away. Instead I repurposed them by filling the vases with flowers from my yard and leaving vases on random porches of people I had never met.
Just thinking about buying a gift for the angel child or preparing a vase of flowers for someone else forced me out of my own head. I felt less isolated, more overall positive, and I found myself looking forward to repeating these simple acts. Having something to look forward to helped to keep me from continually looking backward. That something doesn’t have to be a charitable act or too far in the future, it can be anything that breaks up the routine—plan to take a walk with a friend, meet someone for a cup of coffee, or start a new project.
Do what you are capable of doing, when you can, and with what you have. If you like to cook, drop off a meal for someone who is homebound. If you’re handy with tools, make a small repair for someone who is not. If you like to shop, pick up some items at the store for someone who can’t shop for themselves. Helping someone else offers a reprieve from hurting. Even if it is short lived, it’s a start.
Life presents many varied competing demands and priorities to juggle. I am well-known for trying to cram more into twenty-four hours than is even remotely possible to do in less than forty-eight. I get caught up in a need to be productive, to check something off the list, to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Does this sound familiar? We get so focused on getting things done that we tend to forget we are human beings, not human doings.
When an it happens, allowing yourself time to exist in a State of Be is healthy. This means, it’s more than okay to let yourself do and feel what you feel without guilt or “shoulding” and “coulding” yourself.
There have been plenty of times I chastised myself for spending so much time doing what appeared to be absolutely nothing. Don’t be fooled, as I often was, into thinking the State of Be is unproductive or slovenly. Allowing yourself this time is actually rejuvenating and replenishing. Think of it like a necessary rest period for the heart, mind, body, and soul, which we all need from time to time, but especially after an it. There is no right or prescribed length of time to exist in the State of Be. As long as the State of Be is serving a productive purpose for you, it is “right.”
“I love her so much. What can I do to help her?” he asked as soon as she slipped off the bar stool, slung her purse over her shoulder, and was halfway to the bathroom. “I’ve tried different things, but nothing seems to work. I don’t know what more I can do.”
I randomly met Hailey and Ty when we were all in Denver on business. As I waited to be seated at a restaurant for dinner, I noticed them sitting at the bar. It was clear they were intently focused on each other, oblivious to the other people around them or the multiple TVs blaring in front of them. I just so happened to be seated next to them and we struck up a conversation when I noticed they ordered dessert first. Definitely my kind of people!
I learned that Hailey and Ty had just wrapped up their meetings and were out to enjoy a relaxing date night on the town. This restaurant was their first stop. They shared that their entire evening was intended to be a reprieve, a much-needed break from the challenges of an it. Someone close to Hailey had died about nine months earlier. The evening I met them was the first time she had been out in a social setting since it happened.
Ty was beyond worried about her. “She hasn’t been the same since it happened,” he lamented. “She’s not only my life partner, she’s also my business partner. Hailey has always been a key part of the day-to-day operations, and she’s great at what she does.” Ty explained that their business required a lot of personal, hands-on time from each of them to be successful. Since it happened, he’d been trying to cover both of their full-time roles at work and at home. His admiration and love for her was readily apparent. More than the weight of the extra load on him, he missed his wife and what they used to have, which was really what lay under his question: How can I help her?
A few hours into our conversation, something I suspected earlier was confirmed. Hailey didn’t need Ty to do more than he was already doing to help her. She needed different.
When someone close to us is hurting, we feel helpless to do anything to ease their pain. We are uncomfortable with doing nothing; that just doesn’t feel right. So the human doing in us kicks in to high gear. Unfortunately, many times when well-meaning people try to help, they do or say something that results in the exact opposite of what they intended.
Hailey returned to her bar stool and shared some of what she had been going through. Ty held tightly to her hand and asked me the question again. “What can I do to help her?”
As someone who has been on the receiving end of well-meaning people’s attempts to help that didn’t quite hit the mark, I had a few suggestions. Once I started talking, Hailey and Ty encouraged me to continue by giving each other a little nudge of acknowledgement when I said something that registered. My suggestions apply to anyone who wants to help someone else who has experienced an it.
Helping or supporting someone else in the aftermath of an it is one of the hardest relationship challenges. Spouses, relatives, friends, and colleagues are often completely unsure of what to do. They want to respect the privacy and space of the person they love but don’t know how or when to step in and provide support.
After many of my its, for reasons both complex and contrived, I felt like a failure—a failure at life, a failure as a wife, a failure as a mother, a failure at, well, fill in the blank. Though rationally, I now know, there was literally nothing I could have done to control the outcomes, rational thinking doesn’t play a role when we’re in the throes of an it. My feelings of failure were often compounded by the real and imagined expectations that I should have been doing better than I actually was. I could detect a look of subtle hopefulness from my family and friends when they checked on me that I would be doing better, moving forward, making progress, which only increased the pressure I was already putting on myself.
There’s a common misleading saying that also can put unrealistic expectations and pressure on us. “Practice makes perfect” is catchy, overly used, and categorically not true. A mindset focused on the attainment of perfection is a setup for failure. There’s no such thing as perfect, even if you spend your entire life practicing. Practice is not about being perfect; it’s about improving, learning, gaining a measure of confidence, stretching in new directions. It’s about doing something repeatedly until it becomes easier and you can do it better than you did previously.
Take some time to check in with yourself. What’s your mindset? Where or how are you spending your mental, emotional, and physical energy? Who or what is controlling your happiness and joy? Is where you are right now how you want your life’s story to end? What’s the risk of staying where you are? What’s the risk of exploring other possibilities to move forward? I have developed 5 facets for overcoming change or loss - Relive, Reflect, Reframe, Reconnect, Release. Can you apply any of the 5 Facets—to help you process your it?
Just like anything you practice, the more you use this Diamond Framework the more familiar and comfortable you will become applying them. In time, using it will become second nature to you. You will be able to process unwanted change and loss more productively and ultimately spend less time churning in Relive and more time uncovering the life diamonds you were born with.
Undeniably, life as you knew it has changed, but isolation, grief, sadness, pain, and suffering are not your new normals. They are temporary. An it in your life is not the end of your life, though it certainly may feel that way. There’s still more of your life story to be created, experienced, and written. What happens after it can be a beginning followed by dot dot dot, not a period.
Julia A. Nicholson is a former CEO, executive leadership expert, business consultant, and adjunct professor of business who has excelled for decades as an industry-leading visionary on governance, strategic planning, team building, and executive performance. But she has also faced an inordinate amount of adversity in her life. In the span of 15 years, she went from a near-fatal head-on collision and a challenging role as single mother of two young children after leaving an abusive marriage, to being the CEO of a $450 million company. She now brings her expertise and passion to organizations and conferences across the country. The transformations that led to her successes are central to her upcoming book Move Forward Stronger. Julia has been featured in Forbes.com and her TEDx Talk “The Way We Think About Loss and Grief is Dead Wrong” was featured on the TEDx Talks YouTube Channel with 36 million subscribers.