We don't always choose
the circumstances of our lives,
but we CAN choose our response.
is about transforming life's lemons,
and fully living the life you have,
even if it's not the life you wanted.
Hurricanes, floods, fires and other tragic events directly or indirectly affect many thousands of people. Storms and other weather-related conditions dump heaps and tons of “lemons” into the lives of those all across our country, and other personal and collective tragedies affect everyone at one time or another. Finding a way to reap the possibilities from these tragic events is one way to salvage lives, souls, families, and cities.
Transforming Life’s Lemons
Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.
When Life Gives You Lemons … Make Lemonade! You’ve heard this saying often – but HOW do you do that when, as one client said to me, “Life sucks lemons”? How do you transform life’s lemons into something sweet? Here are ten suggestions to help you deal with the challenges that life throws your way, to see the silver linings in your life’s cloudy skies, and to find – or create – meaning in your struggles.
Let’s start with a story:
Two soldiers were paralyzed from injuries and confined to wheelchairs. Joe became angry and bitter, lashing out at nurses and visitors, taking every opportunity to remind others of the unfairness of his plight. After a while, everyone tried to avoid him, keeping his rage at a distance.Though also grief-stricken, Al realized that there was nothing he could do but accept the fact of his disability. He recognized that the only choice he had about his condition was his attitude in response to it. Since he couldn’t change the situation, he decided to make the best of it. He was friendly, positive and appreciative of nurses and visitors, and he comforted newly injured soldiers, helping ease their sadness.Both Joe and Al lived for many more years. Though their physical condition was similar, Al was a much happier person, while Joe remained angry, bitter, and lonely. The quality of their days was determined not by the tragic circumstances but by their individual response to it.
What makes the difference between these two men and their responses? Is it genetics? learned behavior? Perhaps in part, but another major factor is the choice, the decision to be miserable or to make the best of the situation. There is a bumper sticker that says, “Pain is unavoidable – suffering is optional.”
1. To make Lemonade, choose an optimistic outlook.
What You Get is What You See
“OK,” you might say, “But how can I have an optimistic view of things that are such dismal, tragic or painful events?” If you were here in person, I would ask you to look around the room and notice all the brown things you see. Then, if I asked you to close your eyes and picture all the BLUE things in the room, you would notice that those things are harder to recall – not because they are not there, but because you were not looking for them! What we see is not what is there, but what we focus our attention on. People who pride themselves on their ability to be a good “sh** detector” will find far more bad in their lives than those whose focus is on the good things.
In the tragic circumstances of the World War II concentration camps, a psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl was among those held captive. All around him, there was fear, loss, death and destruction. Being a trained observer, Frankl began to notice that the people who seemed to handle the situation better were those who had – or who created – something with a shred of hopefulness and possibility: those who shared their tiny portion of bread with another, those who held a vision of their purpose in life or had a mission outside the walls of a camp that drove their survival instincts. Of course, they did not all make it out of the camps, but even the ones who died there, did so with more dignity intact than many others. And those who survived often went on to create whatever they had held as a vision. Frankl himself began to take notes on scraps of paper, and when he was finally released, developed a different approach to psychotherapy described in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
2. To make Lemonade, look for the positive in the events in your life. Find meaning in your struggles, or create meaning or value from them.
Framing Our Experiences
Even if we experience the same event as someone else, our personal experience is not the same. It is not the event, but our personal interpretation and understanding of it that leads to our reaction.
Take a look at the two pictures below.
You can see that they are actually two copies of the exact same picture, but the frame causes one to appear larger than the other, and different aspects in each one to pop out. In psychology, there is a concept known as “reframing” – and this is exactly how it operates: the frame, the context in which we place something, affects the way it looks to us.
One woman, who had more medical problems than any one person should have to endure, had a relatively happy life. Despite her considerable illness, she said, “I am so lucky … my tumors are encapsulated.”
The Chinese character for Crisis is made of two parts: Danger and Opportunity. As an example, some of the families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina reframed the experience as an opportunity for change and growth.
3. To make Lemonade, frame events as opportunities that are brought to you in the form of a crisis. View things in a context that makes you feel better rather than worse.
Reacting or Responding
A therapist was concerned by her client’s behaviors with drugs: taking more than prescribed, running out in a few days and then going to an emergency room to get more, or even changing the prescription written by the doctor. The therapist suggested that the client attend a 12-Step meeting for people who have dependence on prescription medications so she could hear the potential dangerous outcomes of her increasing abuse of drugs, and mentioned concern that if she did not get better control over her drug use, she might accidentally overdose or combine too many medications, with tragic results. The client stewed for several days over her therapist’s suggestion. She finally confronted the therapist with outrage and declared, “You told me I was an addict and that I would die in 3 months if I didn’t stop taking all my medications.”
You probably know people who jump to conclusions based on bits and pieces of information. They react with anger or who get upset at something before they have all the information or evidence to know what response is appropriate. They react to their own spin on what they think they heard, to what they interpreted something to mean … when in reality, what was said or done might not be what they thought. Are you one of those people? Reacting to your perception of reality, rather than responding to actuality, is a big source of sourness in people’s lives.
4. To make Lemonade, check things out before reacting, so you can have a response that is based on more complete and accurate information.
All of this is not to say that you should avoid expressing anger, sadness or grief. In fact, the energy it takes a person to hold down or repress intense feelings will often turn into muscular tension, stress related illness, emotional flatness, and depression. Here is a personal example: I have a less common medical condition that evolved several years ago. I attempted to look at the positive aspects, to be responsible for my reactions, to manage my feelings, not to be miserable … but in fact, I was avoiding dealing with the intense sadness and sense of loss this condition aroused in me. My friends created a Wailing Circle, a ritual to allow me to experience my grief in a safe and controlled environment with their loving support, to release the energy being used to suppress my sorrow, and to allow me to move forward.
Anger is another intense feeling that can be self-destructive if suppressed, and also can be damaging if released in harmful ways. Anger is often a “secondary” emotion, the one that arises when pain, sadness, disappointment, or hurt are masked by the reactive lashing out. So in many situations, getting underneath the anger to the deeper feelings is the healthiest way to handle the intensity of feelings. But the adrenaline charge, the energy in anger, can also be used to promote change and take action, when sorrow can become a bottomless pit.
After Hurricane Katrina, we saw many examples of despair, and many of righteous indignation and outright anger that motivated change in the system of response to future disasters. But we also saw examples of lashing out that only added to the pain and suffering.
5. To make Lemonade, allow yourself to fully experience your losses, perhaps with the help of friends or professionals. Express your anger in ways that lead to productive action. After experiencing and expressing intense emotions, give yourself time to recover and then choose to go forward with your life.
If you think that once you start crying you will never stop, if the depth of your sadness scares you, get help to facilitate your grieving process. You will find you can have a more positive attitude and more energy for your life, once you have stopped using everything you have to prevent yourself from “falling apart.” If you have a problem managing your anger effectively, you need help to search for the pain underneath it, and then to learn to channel it into productive action.
Blessings in Disguise
Here is another story, one that has appeared in different versions under other names, including “Blessings in Disguise.”
There once was a farmer whose best horse ran off. The neighbors all lamented, “You poor man, you have lost your best horse. How terrible!”
The farmer replied, “I don’t know if it is terrible. All I know is that the horse ran off.”
The next day the horse returned, leading a large pack of wild horses into the farmer’s corral. The neighbors all exclaimed, “You lucky man – your horse brought back all these horses. You are so fortunate!”
The farmer replied, “I don’t know if it is lucky. All I know is that the horse came back with a pack of wild horses.”
The next day, the farmer’s son was trying to ride one of the wild horses. He fell and broke his leg. The neighbors all cried, “You poor man, your son has broken his leg. How terrible!”
The farmer replied, “I don’t know if it’s terrible. All I know is that he broke his leg.”
The next day, the Czar’s officers came and conscripted all the young men in the village into the army … except the one with the broken leg. The neighbors proclaimed, “You lucky man, your son has been saved from the army.”
The farmer replied, “I don’t know if it is lucky. All I know is that today he did not go into the army.”
Many stories came after 9/11 from people who survived that day, because of the kinds of simple things that often annoy us or delay us in our usual routines:
• the alarm clock didn’t go off in time
• the car wouldn’t start
• an auto accident caused a traffic back-up
• missing the bus or not being able to find a taxi
• having to change clothes after spilling food at breakfast
• going back to answer the phone
• a dawdling child who made things run late
• stopping for donuts because it was his turn
• taking a child to school for the first day of kindergarten
• wearing new shoes that caused a blister and stopping at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid
Bernie Siegel, MD, author of Love, Medicine and Miracles, reports that he once had a flat tire that caused him to miss a plane to a speaking engagement. When he got to the airport, no one was at the ticket counter to assist him. He was harried and upset … until he found out that the plane had gone down. When he told this story to an audience, one listener commented, “Maybe coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
So the next time your day is going “wrong,” when the kids are moving slowly, you can’t find the car keys, you hit every traffic light, and you are stuck in traffic, take a deep breath and remind yourself: I don’t know that this is bad. I only know that this is happening.
All of us know someone who has experienced loss: cancer, job downsizing, divorce, or the impact of a hurricane and its aftermath. Initially, we are struck by the enormous changes we are required to undergo. We are devastated, saddened, frightened. We might make predictions for terrible outcomes. But at the time something happens, we cannot know the outcome – what looks like a disastrous event might eventually have positive implications for our lives, and long-term personal and even societal meaning.
Oprah once did a show featuring several people whose personal tragedies became turning points for greater happiness and success. For example, one guest was Edward Jones, who lost his tax journal job after 19 years, which freed him to work on writing – and then won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, The Known World. Many who suffer through a painful divorce or cancer diagnosis say it turned out to be the best gift in their lives. Some parents whose children were kidnapped and brutally murdered have established organizations and movements to protect other people’s children from harm.
6. To make Lemonade, delay judgment about the value or meaning of life experiences. Then look for the positive in the outcome, the Blessing in Disguise – or choose to create something positive from your tragedy.
Control and Action
Many people expend a lot of their precious, limited time and energy worrying about things they can do nothing about. They complain and fret over things that are truly beyond their control, leaving little energy to deal with the facets they might actually be able to impact. They agonize over the behavior of other people, whose choices are their own. They gripe about the government, their parents, their kids, their teachers. Meanwhile, they are not doing what they personally could do to affect things in their lives.
For example, people studying to take an exam often waste valuable time arguing with the purpose of the test, the need for it, the way it is written, the uselessness of this test to measure their own actual skills, and so forth. But they cannot control the test itself, only their preparation and taking of it. If they choose to take the exam, either they will put their energy into what they CAN control – studying and focusing on the questions – or they will fritter away their time with annoyance at something beyond their control.
If you are a person who spins your wheels over things outside your control, take heed of the words of the Serenity Prayer (and get help if you have difficulty with any of the three aspects):
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
7. To make Lemonade, focus your time and energy on those things that you CAN control, affect, or change, and don’t waste your time worrying about or suffering over things that are beyond your control.
One of the industry’s best-selling songs crossed the Country Western boundary into popular music and touched the hearts of listeners across the nation. It is performed by Tim McGraw, who often speaks of the loss of his father. The song, Live Like You Were Dying, poetically describes a man in his 40s who makes many positive changes in his life after getting a cancer diagnosis. The chorus says:
I went sky diving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named FuManchu
and I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter
and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying
and he said someday I hope you get the chance
to live like you were dying.
Disasters and tragic world events have clearly given us the message that we simply cannot know how long we or any of our loved ones have on this earth. Why wait until we are dying to learn how to live fully? Many years ago, one of my clients had “JFDI” etched in decorative lettering on his truck’s back window. When I asked what that meant, he replied, “Just F**** Do It.” Many of us, especially when we are depressed or discouraged, put off doing whatever we need to do: when I feel better, THEN I’ll do it. However, the reality is usually the opposite: when I DO it, then I’ll feel better. So express your love, ask forgiveness for your mistakes, use that exercise equipment, leave that bad job or relationship, go back to school … Goethe’s famous quote comes to mind:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
8. To make Lemonade, whatever you are putting off that would improve your life, JFDI.
If you find that you are unable to put these practical “recipes for lemonade” into effect, there are other issues in your life that need to be addressed, with the help of a trained mental health professional. For example, you may be struggling with:
- early life stressors or traumatic experiences
- unresolved relationship or attachment difficulty
- biological or chemical disorder
- alcohol or drug problem
- obsessive or old patterns of behavior that are damaging your mental or physical well-being
- mental illness
Getting assistance with these life challenges from a trained professional is as essential as it would be for you to see a cardiologist to prevent or treat heart disease. For those who are into computers, think of it this way: If you are relying on “personal programming” that includes some hidden “virus” in the system, you need help from “technical support” to “scan” your system and do some “de-bugging.”
If you are in the Los Angeles area, you can contact me for assistance. If you are in another area, you can ask me about doing phone or Skype sessions, or check the LINKS section for other referral sources.
9. To make Lemonade, if you don’t have all the ingredients or the proper equipment for the task, ask for help!
Life is a giant lemon tree. The blossoms are sweet-smelling and the fruits are beautiful, but also sour. There is no light without shadow. It is not possible to live a life without stress, disappointment, and loss. So when life gives you lemons, make lemonade:
1. Choose an optimistic outlook.
2. Look for the positive, and find or create meaning in the events of your life.
3. Re-frame events as opportunities, and view them in a way that makes you feel better.
4. Check things out, so you can respond appropriately rather than have a knee-jerk reaction.
5. Experience your intense emotions with assistance, and use your energy to move forward in your life.
6. Delay judgment about the meaning of events, and look for the Blessing in Disguise.
7. Use your energy for the things that are within your power to control or affect.
8. Do what you have been putting off – JFDI!
9. Get help when you need it – the sooner, the better.
10. Live your life fully, and do the things you know will improve the quality of your life.
Your days will be happier, the quality of your experiences will be richer, and you will leave behind a legacy of sweetness for those who follow.
Copyright © 2005 Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.
Permission is given to re-print individual copies IN FULL, with correct citation, and not for sale