It has been said that “life is what happens when you’re planning something else.” Our responses to these unwanted, unexpected, or “unfair” situations are the determining factors of how our lives will continue after these situations eventually end.
These responses are more profound than the simple choice between optimism and pessimism. Instead, our responses to any situation reveal our “go to” reaction to the inevitable challenges that life throws in our paths. Do we persevere, seek revenge, or retreat from the situation?
Whenever life throws a curve ball, we are blessed with the innate power to control how we perceive it and respond to it. Really.
Over the past 6 weeks, I was deep in the demands of being the executrix of my father’s estate. For what appears to be unfathomable reasons to “everyone,” selling his house (the primary asset of his estate) was fraught with difficulties, lies, and unethical treatment by the professionals with whom I entrusted the marketing of this property.
But, more importantly, these challenges caused me to scrutinize my reactions to this enormous and prolonged challenge (he passed in May 2014) that life had thrown in my path. My responses ranged from high hopes and confidence in the predictions that it would be a very quick sale to frustration, anger, and (ultimately) apathy toward the entire process.
The problem was that I couldn’t simply walk away from it. The house had to be sold in order to get out from under the surprisingly high costs of maintaining it.
I am a firm believer that there is a higher truth attached to everything that happens to us. Each person and event in our lives ultimately provides us with opportunities to learn the lessons that we need in order to move beyond them and go forward toward our destinies.
Since my descending emotions mirrored those that lead to burnout (see my Burnout During Organizational Change [or B-DOC] Model), I was well aware that I had to develop a proactive response to these challenges.
In order to avoid a full-blown, long-lasting, emotionally and physically debilitating burnout, I had to take stock of not only what was happening but also how I was interpreting it.
What I discovered is that when life throws the inevitable lemons onto our paths, we have the choice to respond with lemons, lemonade, or lemon drops.
The Lemon Attitude: Lemons are valuable ingredients to bring acid and brightness to a recipe. The lemons that life tosses onto our paths have the potential to do the same: to bring brightness and clarity from a tart and challenging situation.
But responding to life’s challenges with a lemon-based attitude throws additional acid onto the situation. It simply sours the entire experience by responding with pessimism and negativity.
A lemon-based response keeps us focused on the tart acidity of the challenge. Lemons blind us to the complete circumstances of the problem by reinforcing our frustration and anger. Lemons focus on devising diabolical ways to “get back” at that which is causing our distress.
Just like too many lemons in a recipe can cause the dish to be inedible, responding to life’s challenges with a “lemon attitude” overshadows all the other aspects or “ingredients” of the problem — aspects that can be transformed into a more positive outcome.
The Lemon Drop Attitude: Lemon drops are a very popular alcoholic drink – since they taste good, we might end up drinking a little (or a lot) more than we should. The result is that we escape and “forget” for at least a little while.
Responding to challenges with lemon drops is akin to being ostriches with our heads firmly buried in the sand. Instead of responding in a forthright manner to the obstacle that life has presented to us, we ignore the problem. Or we refuse to take responsibility for our potential role in solving the problem. Or we adopt the role of a victim by blaming the whole thing on someone else. Or we put on a “happy face” and just “hope for the best.”
The result, however, is the same: we do nothing.
But we erroneously rationalize our lack of action as evidence of our “patience” — when, in fact, it is the result of fear or exhaustion. And, despite our attempts to “escape” the problem, it gnaws away at us in both our waking and sleeping hours.
While there is a time in every prolonged challenge to take some “time off,” I personally believe that the amount of time has to be limited. Otherwise, it can easily become a self-defeating habit: ignoring a problem will never lead to the results that we desire.
The Lemonade Attitude: We’ve all heard the old adage of turning lemons into lemonade when life throws challenges at you. It’s a lot easier to do when the problem isn’t big, prolonged, and financially or emotionally destabilizing.
But this change in our perception of the problem is the only way to proactively address it. We summon the courage to face our own fears that caused us to perceive the situation as a challenge in the first place.
After all, our perception is our reality.
The lemonade attitude is not a vacant affirmation that “everything is going to be all right.” The lemonade attitude requires courage, self-understanding, and a belief that there IS a way out of this debacle (but we just haven’t discovered it yet).
The recipe for lemonade is quite simple: lemons, water, and sugar – but they have to be in the right balance. Adding the right amount of sweetness or positivity to our perception of the situation is what transforms the tartness of the challenge into something that is not only drinkable, but can also be enjoyable.
Yes, I am saying that any challenge life throws at us has the potential to be enjoyable. (And, no, I haven’t drunk too many lemon drops in order to believe this.)
The foundation of my personal belief system is based on life-long learning – not just in the “book” sense, but also in the more esoteric realm of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-growth. It is not an empty “feel good” affirmation, but an energizing “live good” journey.
At no time in my life was this belief system more challenged than in the past 18 months following my father’s death. I am glad to say that the house sold at the end of October and I am in the last steps before closing the estate. It was a difficult, challenging experience but one for which I will be eternally grateful. It challenged my beliefs and I came out stronger than I was before.
Life’s lemons are inevitable. Will you respond with more lemons, mind-numbing lemon drops, or a revitalizing lemonade?
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is a change management/HR expert and the President of Change Management Solutions, Inc. A popular speaker at regional and national conferences, she can be reached at gpuleo@ChangeWithoutBurnout.com. You can watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.