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How to Find Meaning in Difficult Times

“Everything can be taken away from a person but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” -Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

We sometimes find ourselves in deep sadness, despair, disappointment, and question why it is happening. When our children are diagnosed with incurable diseases, when our best friend is in a car accident, when our parent is diagnosed with cancer, when we lose our jobs, when our partner leaves us, when we feel helpless and lost and unsure if we can handle the pain, we are at our lowest. It is easy in these times of hardship and adversity to question, “Why me?” “Why did this have to happen to me?” We process information by using a mixture of logic and emotions, and when we feel overwhelmed with emotions, we turn to logic to make sense of the why and how. We question timing, if only I hadn’t decided to drive home. We question karma, what did I do to deserve this? We question our communities, I thought someone would stand up for me and protect me. We question everything to try to make sense of how or why this has happened. While we cannot explain why we all experience hardships that are life-changing, and logic cannot make us feel better and make the sadness go away, what we can do is assign meaning to this hardship.

As a therapist, I have the privilege and honor of hearing people’s stories. I hear their stories of triumph, their stories of overcoming difficult obstacles, and their stories of intense sadness and trauma. I see people at their darkest times as well as feel their pain as they relive horrific memories. At times, I am at a loss of words. How do I provide comfort to my client who is getting a double mastectomy for her breast cancer treatment? How do I help a client make sense of their childhood abuse? While there is no right or perfect thing to say, what has been more helpful than anything else is to take Viktor Frankl’s advice and find a way to assign meaning to it. I do not necessarily think that everything happens for a reason, but I strongly believe that we can find meaning in everything that happens, especially the most difficult of times.

While it is true that many terrible things happen to people every day for no rhyme or reason, sitting in the pain and questioning why it is there can only get you so far. The first step is to acknowledge the pain and allow yourself to feel it. We need time to mourn and feel our deep and intense feelings, because even if we try to avoid them, they will not go away. We must lean on our friends and family for support and discuss what is going on to help process our emotions. Once we have cried all of our tears and expressed our pain and frustration, it is time to find a way to move forward.

I once worked with a young woman who was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. We spent lots of time talking about her fears and questioning “why her”. A huge shift in our work happened when she realized that her diagnosis opened her eyes to wanting to be a more hands-on mother to her two year old son. Over time, she felt inspired to talk to other women who had been recently diagnosed to provide comfort, answer their questions, and keep it real about what it’s like to go to pilates class with a hairless head. Once we shifted from the “why me” questions to assigning meaning and purpose to her diagnosis and treatment, she felt stronger and more empowered. Other clients I have worked with who have been through adversity and unimaginably difficult times have navigated through it by being an advocate for others in need or by becoming involved with programs and organizations who help communities and survivors.

The best way to begin to move forward and create meaning from the hardship is to ask yourself, “What did I learn about myself from going through this?” Perhaps you may have learned that you are more resilient than you thought. Maybe you saw it as an eye-opener and want to change the way you live your life or help someone else going through a difficult time as well. We may never have a sufficient answer for “why me” or “how did this happen”. We cannot control other people and their choices, but we can control our response and learn from it. The best we can do is accept our circumstances, allow ourselves to feel all the feels, and find a way to assign meaning to it.

If you or a loved one is going through a difficult time and need an open space to process and make meaning from it, contact Symmetry Counseling to set up an appointment with one of our therapists.

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