Dead End or Catalyst? 6 Steps to Overcoming Adversity and Helplessness

Yesterday I wrote:

Helplessness is learned. We learn it from our own experiences and from others. It’s not something that is ingrained in us. There is a way out. What separates those who react well from those who don’t is their conditioning. The good news is you can recondition yourself. You can overcome your learned helplessness.

Overcoming adversity quote

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That’s what I told Grant after he came to me at the end of his rope.

So how do you recondition yourself to handle adversity? How do you overcome helplessness and use problems as catalysts rather than allow them to be dead ends?

There are six steps that I shared with Grant that I am now sharing with you. They will recondition you to make most of difficult times.

Grant had his list of things that made him feel helpless ready when we met again. (Remember, I had asked him and you to make your list. Did you? If not, stop now and think through that.)

“Now what?” he asked, but instead of his mopey tone from yesterday, he said so with an air of optimism.

“Grant,” I replied, “every one of these things you listed could be used as a positive. Every single one of them. Tell me…what do you think of when you hear the words ‘Great Depression?'”

“Despair,” Grant said immediately before thinking further. “Poverty, suffering, hardship.”

“What about opportunity?” I asked with a smile. “Did you know that Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments were both launched during the Great Depression?”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Actually, recessions are a great time for businesses to take a look at their operations. Many companies have started and improved during difficult times. Think of it as a refining period.”

“Makes sense,” Grant said. “But how does that apply to me?”

“Let’s go through the six steps of overcoming adversity,” I replied. “You’ll see.”

I then shared with him the six steps to overcome adversity and avoid helplessness in the future.

The six steps of overcoming adversity

1. Change your counterfact

“My what?” Grant asked.

I smiled knowingly at him. “It’s a term I heard from Dr. Richard Wiseman in his 2003 book, The Luck Factor. Let me explain it this way. Shawn Achor often asks a great question of his audiences that demonstrates this. Suppose you went into a bank to make a deposit. There are fifty other people in the bank with you. Suddenly, a robber walks in, opens fire, but his gun jams. He only gets off one shot. That shot hits you in the right arm.”

“Crap,” Grant said. “What are the odds?”

“Exactly Grant. You’ve just shown me your point of view. What are the odds of what? Getting shot when there is only one bullet? Or only getting shot in the arm? Or him only getting one shot off? Or you being in the bank at that moment?

“So,” I asked. “Were you lucky or unlucky?”

“I guess…both,” he answered.

“Honest answer. I’ll take that.”

I then shared this definition with him.

Counterfact: An alternate scenario created by our brains to help us interpret what really happened.

“Grant,” I began. “You either see yourself as fortunate or unfortunate in that event. The same is true with everything in your life. I want you to change your counterfacts. When you tell yourself you got a bad break, find the good in it. That’s what we’ll do now.”

2. Change your explanatory style

“Do you believe that your situation can change?” I asked Grant.

“Yes. I know so deep down. It’s just hard now.”

I placed my hand on his shoulder and smiled. “Good, we can start with that.

“When I was in college, I worked with a sports psychologist who told me a story…a true story of a basketball at the University of Virginia. He was the star player and he was 0-for-12 on the night. He had missed every shot he had attempted. With the game on the line, less than fifteen seconds left, he demanded the ball in a timeout. Take a guess what happened?”

“He hit the shot?”

“Yep. Nailed it. And when the reporters asked him later how he managed to have the nerve to demand the ball on an off night, he told them ‘I hadn’t made one all night. I was due.'”

“But what if he’d had a good night?” Grant asked.

“Funny,” I replied. “The reporters asked the same thing. If he was 12-for-12, he’d know he was hot. He couldn’t miss. Either way, in his mind, he could not miss that shot. That, my friend, is a powerful attitude.”

“Wow,” Grant said, somewhat stunned. “So that is his explanatory style?”

“Exactly. It’s his way of interpreting adversity. It will get better. My past does not affect my future. Which brings me to the third step.”

3. Accept the adversity

“There is no use denying reality,” I told Grant. “The star player didn’t pretend he was hot. He simply used the adversity to his advantage.”

“In other words,” Grant started but searched for his words more carefully. “He didn’t try to change the past or just lay down in defeat. Adversity is an event we cannot change, right?”

“Wise words, my friend. Wise words. You get it. So, ready for step four?”

“You bet,” he replied enthusiastically.

“Then it’s a good thing you have time tomorrow, because I am all out. Same time and place tomorrow? We’ll cover the last three steps.”

“I’ll be here,” Grant said and with a handshake turned into a hug, we parted ways.

Tomorrow, I’ll share with you what I shared with Grant the next day: The last three steps to overcoming adversity and helplessness.

Stay tuned tomorrow when I’ll share how to overcome learned helplessness. Subscribe to my RSS feed or get posts via email (and get my free book as a bonus) so you don’t miss it.

Question: What have you done to overcome adversity in your life? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Let’s Grow Leaders

    Matt, I love the idea of the counterfact. I’m going to ask for that in more conversations.

    • It’s incredibly effective at getting people out of funks. A lot of good people (not Eeyore types) get in a mode where they think everything is against them. This helps that tremendously.

  • Brett Thompson

    Love the story format Matt. Very cool way to share this topic.

  • These are great points, Matt! I also think of the verses in Philippians 3, where Paul says that he forgets the past and reaching for the goal in front of him. That verse has become my guiding and life verse.

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