To Face Challenges, Be Like Water

Sylvia Boorstein, psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, says the Buddha suggests that each of us is born with a tendency to react to challenges in one of five ways.

The five main responses are fret, get angry, lose heart, blame ourselves, or seek out sensual soothing.


Some of us worry.

It might be encouraging to know that Sylvia Boorstein, who teaches Mindfulness Meditation, calls herself a chronic fretter. She says that when a challenge comes up, fretting is the first thing to arise in her mind. Her fallback response is “when in doubt, worry.”

When she’s at the airport and the overhead announcement comes on, “ladies and gentlemen…” the first thing that occurs to her is “oh, no, there’s been a plane crash.”

But of course the announcement is never about a crash. It’s only a reminder to stay close to your luggage, that any luggage sitting without an owner will be hauled away.

If she’s meeting her husband at the corner of Washington and 2nd street, but he’s not there on time, again she thinks the worst.

The good news is that she’s learned she has choices. She can follow the predictable thread of catastrophic thoughts, or she can think to herself, “Wait a minute, this is my neurological glitch kicking in. What else could I do?”

Remembering that we have a usual first response takes out the judgment. It makes it easier for us to create a new flow. If we think, “hey, this response glitch came with my equipment, just like my brown hair and my hazel eyes,” it doesn’t bother us so much. We can say, “Oh, there I go, doing that thing I usually do.”

Because we know what it is, we can work with it wisely.

In fact, we have many alternatives. In Sylvia’s example of waiting for her husband on the street, she could look into the store windows where she’s standing. She could watch the passers-by, or even say a blessing for them as they walk. She could repeat relaxing phrases to herself.

Get Angry

Some of us respond to a challenge by getting angry. Indignation is indeed tempting!

It’s easy to come up with reasons to push against the world. It’s seductive to blame others for the current ills, and make ourselves the perfect and right human that knows better.

If we get angry in response to a challenge, perhaps it is because we view it as a threat to our self-esteem or sense of control. When someone challenges our ideas, beliefs, or actions, we feel that our competence or intelligence is being called into question.

This can trigger feelings of defensiveness or insecurity, and we respond with anger or aggression as a way to protect ourselves.

Past traumas or negative experiences can also condition us to react aggressively when feeling threatened, which makes it difficult to respond calmly in challenging situations.

Making a wise effort around this might mean learning to identify the triggers or patterns that lead to our aggressive behavior and work on developing healthier coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness or communication skills.

Lose Heart

We give up. It’s all too much, apathy takes over, and we throw in the towel.

We lose heart because we lack confidence in our ability to overcome obstacles. We feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. When we succumb to thoughts of failure, it can lead to negative self-talk that reinforces a sense of inadequacy.

Sometimes our past failures or rejections undermine our self-esteem, making it difficult to set new goals or approach challenges with optimism.

If we don’t see a clear path to achieving our goal, or we feel unsupported by people or circumstances, we feel discouraged and begin to doubt our abilities.

At the very least, we can remember that giving up on challenges and goals is a natural human response, but it’s not the only response.

Our fallback response to give up can become the reminder to ask ourselves the simple question, “What else could I do?”

Blame Ourselves

We think “Uh-oh. I did something wrong. It’s me. I made a mistake. This is my fault.”

When someone doesn’t call back or reach back to us, we wonder if they are upset with us for something we said or did. Maybe we offended them.

This happened to me recently. I did a consulting session with someone in California that I knew in my 30’s, but haven’t seen for years. She was in a crisis and reached out to me. We had what seemed to be a great session. I texted her the next day to check on her, but received no response. A few days later, I called her one time, and then let it go.

The whole thing took me aback. A week went by, and there was still no word from her.

Thankfully, the question did occur to me: “What if something unpredictable, unusual, or out-of-the-ordinary happened to her?”

Twenty-eight days later, she contacted me, excited to be alive and well and back in touch with me and other loved ones. She related an unbelievable story about why she had been out of touch with me (and everyone in her life) for twenty eight days. She gave me details about what had happened to her health, her phone, her life, her safety. It was quite a journey! Because it’s her private story, I won’t share it here, but I can tell you that never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that anything like this had happened to her.

It was a good reminder to me that there’s always another side to a story. It’s important to keep room in my mind and heart for circumstances I would never think of.

Seek Sensual Soothing

Some of us respond to a challenge by seeking something to sooth our nerves. We look for the nearest donut shope, ice cream parlor, or pizza place.

We seek consumables that soothe our nerves or our mental state, because they provide temporary relief from stress and negative emotions. They trigger the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. This creates a sense of pleasure and relaxation, which can temporarily alleviate anxiety or stress.

However, as we all know, relying on food or drink as a coping mechanism for stress or negative emotions brings other issues. It can lead to a cycle of emotional eating instead of addressing the underlying issue.

This can lead to unhealthy habits and negative effects on one’s physical and emotional well-being. If we’re self-aware, we can turn to exercise, meditation, therapy, or talking to supportive friends or family members instead.

I’d like to leave you with three quotes.

“To know yourself, you must sacrifice the illusion that you already do.” — Vironika Tugaleva

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them – without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune in to what we’re sensing in the present moment… rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.” —Brene Brown from “Rising Strong”.

Here’s to your flow!

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relationship problems, relationships, Terri Crosby

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