• How we perceive and react to life's inevitable challenges can make all the difference 

  • Author Dorien Brouwers explores what it means to be courageous and resilient in the face of uncertainty

  • If you are struggling to see yourself through a difficult time, don't be ashamed to reach out for help – find your therapist here

From a situation that slightly rocks your boat, to hitting rock bottom – how do you keep swimming when strong currents pull you in all kinds of directions? Why is it worth it to stay with difficulty or pain, when at times it feels like you can barely breathe? How can you hold it together when things seem to fall apart? And most importantly: when hard times hit, how do we turn them to our benefit in order to come out stronger and wiser?

Having just published Sail, a picture book to help young readers see the opportunity in challenging times, build resilience and embrace change in a positive way, now is probably as good a time as any to delve deeper into its meaning.

Courage is a heart word

As we all know, life can sometimes get uncomfortable. So our dear brains try their damn hardest to protect us, actively resisting discomfort, disruption and change. We do not like it. When I was going through a challenging situation myself, a friend of mine asked: "Did you cry over this?" I confirmed I did, to which he replied: "that's wonderful!” Naturally, I disagreed. To which he wisely responded: "No darling, it's wonderful! Because growth is not found in comfort." 

Of course it isn't. Growth tends to be uncomfortable. Just like our muscles grow when they meet resistance, so our spirits grow when they get challenged. But simply being with any fear or resistance we feel towards discomfort, takes courage and endurance. 

Courage comes from the Latin name 'cor,' meaning heart. It is sufficient to meet any situation with courage – with heart. To courageously decide to say "yes" to all of life. That way, challenging times can be the making of us, setting us on the course we need to be on and creating space for better things to come into our lives. When our sense of normal gets disrupted, we might be presented with an opportunity, not a threat.

To have the courage to embrace it all, the good and the bad, is to hold your life with reverence. Isn't that the only way to live life wholeheartedly? So breathe, release the grip, and step into your full courageous self. For all of it, the beauty and the mess, is life, your life.

Stimulus and response

We could say we owe life everything, yet ultimately life owes us nothing. When life is not giving us what we want or feel we deserve, we have the opportunity to explore the attitude we adopt towards the situation. 

Between stimulus (the situation) and response (our reaction), there is a space. You can find that space, and discover your awareness to respond mindfully. In that realisation lies your power and your freedom. This mindset has been applied in many situations, for centuries. Or, as Austrian neurologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it: "The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances." 

Challenging times are inevitable; it's how we choose to handle them that matters. As well as being courageous, we can be curious about the opportunity it presents, because curiosity can lead to understanding. With effort and awareness, we all have it in us to metabolise heaviness into lightness. To become the alchemist of our own lives. 

Amor Fati

A beautiful, stoic phrase to keep in mind here is 'Amor Fati.' Love of fate. Someone with 'Amor Fati' decides to embrace their fate and work towards making the best of it. Through acceptance, we can move out of our own way and possibly even come to love our fate. To see the obstacle in our way as 'the way'. 

So it could be that the obstacle in our way is not the actual situation but rather ourselves, our minds and the way we perceive the thing before us. The theory sounds easy. The implementation, like any practice, takes persistence.

Some helpful steps to find your way

So when challenging times arrive and we find ourselves in those uncharted waters, how do we steer away from a place of no control and create a space for growth?

Below are some things to try:

- When a new situation arises, take ownership over it: do not shame or blame or feel sorry. Instead, try to switch your thoughts from 'why is this happening to me?' to 'what is this trying to teach me?' 

- Recognise unstable times bring with them immense potential: you are being called to grow! 

- If the idea of facing the issue seems too big of a task to handle, you could start by moving your body. Emotional energy can accumulate in our bodies; it can get stuck and stagnant (issues get into our tissues). Moving is a powerful way of release.

- Plus, moving the body frees the mind. Movement releases tension. Stillness in the body means less murky thoughts in the mind. The more clarity in the mind, the better decisions you will make. So run, dance, do yoga, do whatever you feel works for you.

- If that idea is too overwhelming, focus on your breath and try some conscious breathing.

- Try to find the answers to that initial question: 'what is this trying to teach me?', it could give the situation purpose and meaning. With time you will find the answers you are looking for. 

- Hold on to the thought that desperation can turn to inspiration. Maybe you're not breaking down. Maybe you are breaking open. This 'breaking open' can allow tremendous renewal and invite in more enriching experiences and relationships into our lives. 

- There will be ups and downs. Develop perseverance and embrace any setbacks as part of the process. Growth is not always a linear journey.

- Don't be afraid to ask for support. Empathy can be a tremendous healer.

- Believe you are a work in progress, so is everyone else. 

Masters of our fate

Being human does not come without its challenges now and then. But we can choose how to engage with all it has to offer. To not engage would be to leave parts of life unexplored. By consciously deciding how we want to meet a situation, we have the potential to diminish our fear of it and place ourselves in a position of power. Thus making the journey a little bit easier for ourselves.

When we greet life, in whichever way it presents itself, with a degree of equanimity followed by curiosity and courage, we can stop skimming the surface and start to dive deeper. Much like the protagonist in my book Sail, we shall find our treasure in the deep and ultimately be the masters of our fate, no matter which way the wind blows.

Dorien Brouwers is the author of Sail

Further reading

5 resilience tips for 2021

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

5 mindfulness tips to boost resilience in teens

Why do we fear uncertainty and losing control?