What Do You Choose When An Unexpected Challenge Knocks On Your Door?

A few days ago I had an amazing experience in the famous amusement park Prater in Vienna. Me and my family tried one of the newest in Europe indoor rollercoasters. The indoors rollercoaster takes you on your journey in darkness, unlike the classical rollercoaster. You do not know and do not see what is ahead. Before picking the rollercoaster, we had a mission – to go through a labyrinth in darkness, to walk in a dark laser room with fog and after completing this mission, finding our way to the train, taking our seats, fastening our seat belts and starting a journey. Happily, my son did a great job and lead us step by step and we managed to go effortlessly through the dark labyrinth and the foggy laser room, and to complete the mission successfully. We were united to go through it and were excited to achieve the goal (although it was an unknown experience, and honestly, just a little bit scary), we had a courageous leader, and we were holding and supporting each other and meanwhile we were having fun during the journey.

How often are we in the rollercoaster situation in our personal lives, in our roles as leaders, when in the midst of an unexpected challenge or trouble?

Very often we do not know what the next step is, in our journeys as humans and leaders, very often we are in darkness and the road is steep, dark and scary. Very often, when we experience such a situation, we compare it with the experience of being in a rollercoaster and put it simply as “emotional rollercoaster”.

Why emotional? Because unpleasant feelings and emotions arise and it feels bad. We very often lack clarity, which creates fear, tension and anxiety.

I would put these as emotional and mental stress.

The good news is that we have a choice how to react or choose to act in such a situation. Situations like these are repeatable. We cannot avoid them. What we can do is prepare our minds and learn and grow with each experience. Preparing our minds means shifting our standpoint about the situation and seeing it as an opportunity to learn, grow in resilience, build a character and attain wisdom. And each of these experiences brings our lives and organisations to a better place. Each challenge has its beginning and end. Accepting it as part of the journey and facing it with an open heart and curiosity is a possible way of approaching it.

I would like to share two different perspectives of reacting/acting in a midst of an unexpected challenge and give you some practical tips.

The victim perspective vs. The opportunity perspective

The victim perspective

When in the victim perspective, we think how pitiable our situation is, how things are out of our control and how helpless we are. We often judge and blame others and do not take any responsibility to move ourselves, our teams and organisations forward. It feels like we are helpless. The victim perspective experienced in a long term causes destruction on mental and physical levels and affects seriously our lives and organisations. We are far from experiencing what we deserve – joy, happiness, peace.

What are the core emotions and feelings we experience when being stuck in the “victim” perspective?

What emotions does it evoke? Apathy - indifference; lack of enthusiasm and engagement.

What feelings do we have? We all have our subjective experiences. It feels in our bodies: like some kind of tightness, like being suffocated.

Have you ever considered that at the core of these emotions and feelings we have thoughts?

The palette of thoughts, when experiencing “the victim” perspective, is broad. But they are all related to fear and, as a result, to lack of action. I hate myself; I’m a loser; life is futile; life is purposeless; don’t try, it will only lead to failure and rejection; everyone is after me; I am pitiful; I am worthless; I am powerless; I am at the effect of life and others in it; no one listens or cares about me; I’m not capable; failure follows me everywhere I go; why bother, nothing changes; life is sad and full of suffering and pain; I should have known and done better; I’ll always regret that; etc.

Have you ever thought how the sequence of our thoughts (unconscious/conscious) causes specific emotions and feelings, and this affects our actions moment by moment?

E - motion is Energy in motion.

Everything starts on the level of a thought. We usually qualify our thoughts as “positive” and “negative”. Labelling our thoughts is judgment. It is subjective. What is more important, is that thoughts produce feelings and emotions, and they result in specific actions.

So thoughts are the “cause” and the action is the “effect”. Awareness, not reaction, determines the course of our life. Put differently, we choose our thoughts and have emotional control and appropriate emotional expression (higher emotional intelligence).

It is normal, when confronting a sudden change or challenge, that we react (no matter how emotionally intelligent we are) and this is our default stress reaction. More important is how long we stay there: minutes, hours, days, months. Here lies the difference.

Emotionally intelligent and highly conscious people and leaders are aware of their thoughts, emotions and feelings and they tend to move fast forward. They move from reaction to action and take responsibility without judging.

Very often we ask other people, “How do you feel?” Very often we receive answers such as: “good,” “bad,” “very well,” “happy,” “stressed,” “anxious.” And this is a description – a label of a current emotion. That is to say, it’s a label of a subjective experience (feeling).

Scientists have a hard time reaching any kind of consensus on what emotions actually are, but most experts agree on three things:

  1. Emotions originate from the middle layer of the brain, known as “midbrain”. 

  2. At the core of any emotion is a complex series of physical changes throughout 
the body. 

  3. These physical changes prepare us to take action. 

Physical changes in the body may include alterations in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone, circulation, and hormone levels, as well as the activation of different parts of the nervous system.

What does the experience with an opportunity mind-set look like?

The opportunity perspective.

When operating in “opportunity” mode, you are exploring the situation with curiosity and without judging or blaming yourself and others. You consciously focus on what opportunity the challenge presents for yourself, your team and your organisation. Your focus is on the solution, not the problem. Leaders who operate in this mode are curious, calm, powerful, entrepreneurial-minded, confident.

The palette of thoughts at the core are: I want to understand you; life offers us opportunity after opportunity, you only have to open your eyes to see them; each person has a unique gift and the ability to use that gift to be successful; success comes from within, and it is always up to me to feel successful; our objective in life is to live it to the fullest and make a difference to as many people as possible – your value (gift) is the way you do that; I only win if you win; I’m always in control of my life and my perspective of it; everything always works out for the best, even if you don’t see it that way at the time; etc.

What emotions does it evoke? Peace - calmness, tranquility, contentment, harmony

What feelings do you experience? Openness, lightness

What is your choice as a person and leader?

You might say, “It is easier to write this down, instead of implementing it.” Yes, that is so true. The thing is, we are the leaders of our lives and it is up to us how we are going to live it.

I want to share with you my formula for getting back on track, which I practise myself and teach to my clients:

  • Be mindful! Turn yourself inwards, observe yourself. Notice what thoughts trigger your emotions and how does this feel?

Why being mindful is so important? It is the first step of a sustainable change and liberation from our own patterns of thought, which very often do not serve our lives.

As Jon Kabat - Zinn says: “When unattended our thinking runs our lives without awareness, we have a chance not only to know ourselves better, and see what is on our minds, but also to hold our thoughts differently, with greater wisdom, so they no longer rule our lives.”

  • Accept the situation and your reaction to it. Validate your feelings as normal in the moment and embrace your experience with love and gratitude. Why is this important? This creates the space for you to move forward. Fighting what is, keeps us stuck (the “victim” perspective) and focused on the past, which we can not control. This keeps us in fog, imprisoned and far from the opportunity mode, which moves us ahead in life. My observation with myself and working with my clients is that accepting and letting go are the most difficult practices.

And because it requires work, inner observation and discipline of the thought, the next step is – come back to your senses and BREATHE. That is the emergency step, when in a midst of a challenge.

  • Breathe! Why practising conscious breathing is so important? To breathe is to be alive. Every single moment of your life is connected to the next by a breath. Your emotions change the way you breathe, and the way you breathe can also change your emotions. Imagine you find yourself breathing quite short breaths. When you notice that, you come to realize that you are tense, so you pause – take a few more deliberate and slow in-breaths and out-breaths – and that helps you to become somewhat calmer. At other times you might use the breath to prepare yourself for a challenge: you take a deeper in-breath, hold it for a beat or two … and off you go.

 Now you have prepared yourself to shift your energy. How do you do this?

  • Make time to do what you love – dance, sing, spend time with people who love you and support you, practise your hobby. This will lead to a major energy shift.
  • Make a conscious choice about your next step. Now you are prepared to make the best choice in the moment, because you are calm, energised and you are free from distractions (unhelpful mental chatter that creates worry and anxiety).

And always be grateful for each experience, because this is another step of a journey that makes you a stronger and a better person.

And I feel intuitively that the moment is good to share one of my favourite jazz songs “Pick Yourself Up”…..

 “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”