Looking for opportunities in challenging times…

In psychology there are a multitude of theories about how to assist people who are seeking help to manage challenges in their lives, but one theory I really like is solution focused therapy. Rather than focusing on problems, we are encouraged to shift our thinking to finding solutions. This theory focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. It moves away from trying to find out what is supposedly wrong with us and how we should go about fixing it, to identifying those qualities and skills within us that will enable us to overcome the challenges and envisage a more positive future.

In my counselling and life coaching work, I explain to clients that we each possess within us all that we need to deal with our challenges, and that my role is to help draw these qualities or skills out. There’s a well known proverb that captures this philosophy. It explains that if we give a person a fish, you feed them for a day, but if you teach that person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. It’s often difficult for the individual to recognise these innate abilities, particularly if they are in the midst of significant personal challenges, but if they can find someone to walk that journey with them, they can generally discover their own solutions and can learn to “feed themselves for a lifetime” and not become dependent on someone else for the “answers”.

Covid-19 has created a significant challenge for many people in our community. In many ways, it challenges our desire for certainty and security, and has caused a degree of upheaval in our lives. For some, it has threatened their livelihood, their quality of life, and their health – both physically and mentally. The reality is that no matter how much we worry about it, we can’t predict, determine or influence the future.

So how do we overcome these challenges? How do we focus on opportunities and our strengths? In no way am I minimising the very real challenges faced by businesses forced to close their doors or to severely modify their services, but if we can join together in a spirit of unity, we can alleviate, at least to some extent, the impact of feeling isolated, alone, uncertain or fearful. These emotions are very real for some people and can severely impact their outlook on life, particularly the most vulnerable in our community.

Many of us are not medical or scientific experts, so it is beyond us to address the health issues. However, if we regard the current situation as an opportunity, then it is possible to experience positive growth as a community, creating unity rather than division. Yes, there are polarised views regarding how we deal with these challenges, but it is possible for us to arrive at a place where we accept that people will always have different views; where we can we respect the individual’s right to hold a view different to ours. If we can do that, then we can focus more on providing support to each other. If we choose division and allow this situation to fragment our society, then we are making an already challenging situation, even more challenging. I see all too often, relationships being damaged as a consequence of differing opinions, thereby further fragmenting our community and adding to the impact on mental health.

A key challenge for all of us is to be able to empathise with each other and to look beyond the presenting behaviour or opinion. When I worked in schools, I tried to encourage teachers to look beyond the presenting behaviour of the young people in their classes. Invariably, their angry outbursts were not directed at the teacher. It was rarely personal. Their behaviour told a story, and generally that story was motivated by fear…fear of not being good enough, fear of not understanding the work and looking “dumb”, fear of rejection from their peers. Whatever the behaviour, there was generally an underlying cause.

The current situation we are in is no different. Our responses are often generated by fear. Fear that can manifest itself as anxiety, anger, distress, sadness… So how do we turn this around? It’s often difficult, but if we choose love and compassion over fear, we can better understand why a person thinks the way they do, or acts the way they act. If we try to look beyond the behaviour, listen carefully to the tone in their voice, look more carefully at the body language, or tap into our intuition, we can often come to understand that there is a vastly different story beneath the surface. When we identify the real story, we are able to be more compassionate, more understanding and more present to that person. It challenges us to be more aware and to take the time to pause before we respond rather than react.

We live in challenging times, but as with all challenges, there are opportunities for growth. Lockdown forces us to pause and to perhaps reflect upon where we are at in our lives. “Normal” life often seems so busy and we rarely stop to take a closer look at our lives. Lockdown also provides us with the opportunity to develop relationships – relationships that maybe were neglected or taken for granted when we were too busy to just sit and talk.

Yesterday from my apartment window, I observed a young couple sitting on their back deck playing cards. I hadn’t seen that before and wondered if lockdown had prompted this situation. There was laughter, human connection and a sense that nothing else mattered in that moment. They seem like rare opportunities.

In a recent Instagram post, I put forward the idea that asking “RUOK” is great, but that we also needed to go a step further and really take the time to know truly how a person is managing. Too often we hold up masks, conceal our emotions, or pretend everything is ok -and we try to convince ourselves and others that we “ROK”! The current climate is triggering for many people. For those who were already experiencing personal challenges, lockdown can heighten emotions and add further fuel to negative thinking. In a spirit of unity, we can better detect how people are really feeling, and can create a space for them to open up and be honest about their challenges and their state of being. Sometimes just giving them the opportunity to tell their story can be enough.

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