10 Unforgettable Life Lessons You Learn From Adversity
When I first woke up from brain surgery, unable to see or speak or write, it was hard to see the reason for it all. I desperately wanted to believe everything happens for a reason, I just didn’t know what that was yet.
The slow and challenging months that followed - learning to walk without falling over, mastering an elevator and shopping by myself - added to that feeling of injustice and confusion.
But in hindsight, there was a reason for it all. There were also so many valuable lessons I learned that made me grateful for my adversity.
I hope these lessons bring you a little comfort if you find yourself unsure of why you’re experiencing certain things right now 💛
Here are 10 of my biggest life lessons:
1. You learn to ask; Why not me?
When something challenging and unfair happens to us, it’s easy to believe we’re the only ones isolated in this way.
I was 24 when I had brain surgery and a stroke which forced me to re-learn the basics again. Meanwhile, my friends were getting engaged and buying their first homes. I felt envious and resentful of the fact my life had taken a backward step in this way.
But shortly after my recovery, the world went into lockdown and family members experienced their own health struggles. I realised that no one is exempt from difficulties.
No one gets a pass at problems, or an easy life. And you’re not the only person suffering. Life is a mixture of ups and downs, and waves we all need to ride. Knowing this has helped me accept my situation exactly how it is.
2. You learn to stop worrying about the future.
When I first found out I needed brain surgery, I confided in an older woman I worked with at the time. She was spiritual, religious and always full of wisdom.
One day, I was laughing in the kitchen about something trivial. When everyone went back to their desks, my mind went into overdrive. I was overcome with worry and fear about the surgery and what my future would look like.
I raced to the toilet, my eyes filling with tears. Sauba saw me and immediately pulled me into the closest meeting room.
“Samantha, you were laughing a second ago. This is all in your mind. Take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. What you’ll see is that you’re at work, the sun is shining outside. Everything is ok right now.”
I felt encouraged by her words and switched my focus to something happening right now. Back then, it was the sun shining and the presentation I needed to complete. Now, it could be the barista making my coffee or the conversation I can overhear in a shop.
I’m by no means an expert at this. I still have days where I realise I’m deep into a negative thought spiral. But it’s a practice, and one that will help keep anxieties at bay.
3. You learn to stop making everything personal.
It can be quite distressing to relate every single aspect of your thinking to yourself. Terms like ‘I’ and ‘my’ can make situations more stressful, due to the stories they create for us. They can even trap us into believing that we control the events that happen in our lives. Or that we are responsible for how they play out. Studies have even shown that self-referential thinking causes depression (1).
But your situation is merely a reaction to the events you’re experiencing. It's not a characteristic of who you are. Taking terms like ‘I’ and ‘my’ out of the problem helps you avoid attaching negative emotions to feeling certain things.
Instead, explore the feelings, then actively try to change them. For example, replace “I feel hurt or ashamed” with “shame is happening right now.” What does that feel like when you explore it? Does it make you tense? What events have caused shame to show up right now?
When you do this, you’ll see that the feeling is fleeting and not a characteristic of who you are.
4. You learn that your job title doesn’t define you.
After my stroke, my visual impairment forced me to leave my career in finance. I felt major shame. I’d studied so hard to become a chartered accountant, and was close to completing my final exams.
My directors had a clear plan of where they expected me to be in the coming months. So I felt I’d let everyone down by no longer being able to do something that felt part of my identity.
I was already grieving so many aspects of my life, as well as working hard to improve my physical health too. So I knew I needed to let this go. Let go of society's should's and reputational beliefs. And let go of the career I thought I was going to have. For context, I only chose a career in finance because it paid well.
What I didn’t realise was that letting go of the ‘idea’ of that safe career path, actually made way for increased creativity. I began to blog and create products to inspire people through difficult times. Not for money, but for the enjoyment of helping others and being in a creative flow like never before.
Having a stroke forced me to take a step back from my corporate career. Without it, I wouldn't have discovered the greater fulfilment that came from exploring activities closer to my values.
5. You learn to stop expecting things from people.
In the early days of my stroke, my expectations of people to act a certain way caused a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. There were friends and family members that didn't contact me like I assumed they would. At first I took it personally.
I believed it was my visible difference or temporary stroke effects that kept them away. But I’ve since learned to stop expecting anything from others.
When we stop expecting others to act a certain way, or be something they’re not, we reduce our level of disappointment. The hurt, pain and rejection we feel is simply based on the stories we create about the people around us, with no truth to support them.
We never know what someone else is going through, or the experiences they’re facing. I know this because for six months, I kept my surgery secret. I was laughing during the day with work colleagues, and crying myself to sleep at night.
I now bear this in mind to avoid jumping to conclusions or judgement, or expecting things from others. Be patient and accept that there might be more going on that we know nothing about.
6. You learn to see everything in your life as an adventure.
After my surgery, I no longer take life seriously. I try new things knowing that I now can, and more importantly because I'm more inspired to. I also treat the daily challenges that come with a visual impairment - the double vision, the constant spinning of the world - as an adventure too.
When we think of adventure, we imagine exotic countries or sky-drives. Nobody tells you how to turn everyday things into an adventure too. And yet more adventure in the small things is what’s needed to develop a positive outlook on your situation.
Adventure encourages us to reach outside of our comfort zones. We need it to seek a life of curiosity, purpose and excitement. Whether that's from trying something new, living a new way and even helping others. Adventure makes the everyday worthwhile.
7. You learn that life can be both happy and sad.
And that’s ok. Whenever I express a little sadness, people immediately jump to the conclusion that I'm depressed. Equally, if they see my happiness, they think I’ve moved on and forgotten everything.
But emotions are complex and you can be both happy and sad at the same time. For example, I'm sad and grieve my smile whenever I see old photos yet I’m happy about the new opportunities I have because of BITB.
It’s important to acknowledge every emotion and understand they are complex. That way, you can work through them without judging yourself for feeling a certain way.
8. You learn that you’re more capable than you first realised.
The most common thing I hear whenever I share my story is, “I wouldn't cope if it were me.” I’d have thought the same thing too if I’d have read my story as someone else's.
But the truth is, until you’re faced with adversity or a challenge, you won’t realise what you’re capable of.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” - Bob Marley
If we look back at our adversities, we can see how they shape us into the people we are now. I no longer worry about future crises, as brain surgery has given me the confidence to know I’ll handle whatever else comes.
And adversity will do that for you too. Take comfort in knowing you don’t realise how strong you can be until you’re challenged to try.
9. You learn to make peace with right now.
It can be challenging to accept your health the way it is, whilst simultaneously trying to improve it. Yet, to move forwards with our lives, acceptance is important.
It’s a mindset shift that stops us focusing on the past or how things should have been. It teaches us to acknowledge the situation we're faced with and give up the need to control external events and people.
Since my surgery, I’ve battled a lot with the conflicts of accepting and improving. I’ve learned that it’s not denial to want to seek improvements to your health, as long as you make peace with knowing that now is your reality.
Don’t worry about the future or whether things will change. Making peace with the way things are right now will free you up to resume living your life. It will also force you to welcome opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise had.
10. You learn to be open to something good happening, no matter how difficult the day is.
During some of the toughest days I’ve had, I’ve come to realise that the ‘something good’ can take many forms. It won’t always be something huge.
Somedays, it will simply be something you see on TV or seeing the sun appear through the clouds. Noticing these little things, and focusing on the present, can distract us from the big things.
It also reminds us that there are still little snippets of joy, even in the toughest times.