People who know how to thrive in the midst of challenging circumstances are some of the most blessed and successful people on earth. They know how to cope with events that easily turn other people into bitter, defeated individuals. They find ways to rise above events that dishearten most people. As they deal with failure and mistakes by becoming more creative and skillful, they learn to regard hardships as a valuable part of life, rather than a burden or insult. While it may be tempting to assume that these people are just lucky, they are actually quite wise in the ways of coping with challenges and losses.
There are others, however, who seem to dwell under a perpetual cloud of misery that breeds contin- ual anxiety, discouragement, and resentment. They take criticism and failure as signs that life is difficult and their circumstances are unfair. They see them- selves as victims of tragedy and hardships, doomed to suffer much unhappiness. These are the individuals who embark on the dangerous path of psychic self- destruction.
As much as these two types of people differ, they often possess nearly identical intelligence and strength. Yet they are poles apart in how they use their abilities. When asked why their lives have been so difficult and unpleasant, many people attribute these differences to the limitations and deprivations in their childhood—the psychological explanation. Others blame cultural and economic disadvantages—the sociological explanation. But while these people can point to legitimate handicaps and burdens that inhibited their success and happiness, it is also possible to find people who have arisen from similar difficulties and been able to thrive and flourish.
Other factors must be present to account for these huge differences.
Anyone who spends large amounts of time investigating the causes of misery and failure can find dozens of reasons why many people are continually depressed and anxious. There is no shortage of experiences and conditions that can cause us to be resentful and disappointed. Who has not been the occasional target of insults, rejection, and prejudice?
Indeed, when we read the reports of experts about the harmful impact of social dysfunction and economic poverty, it is a wonder that any of us avoids becoming a basket case of defeat and alienation!
Fortunately, it is possible to approach the problem of human suffering from a more enlightened view- point. Why not, for instance, study those who seem to thrive—even when they grew up in environments that were less than ideal? Or we could investigate those people who cope with very challenging circum- stances and experiences without collapsing into anxiety or deep despair. We can look for what they know and are able to do that others do not. We can look for skills and attitudes and a world view that strengthen and enable them to cope far better than others. We can investigate the habits that protect them from falling into discouragement, recycling anxiety, and nurs- ing grievances.
The difference between success and failure is not a matter of luck. It is a matter of knowledge, skill, and self-control that builds our capacity for hope, an ability to seek healthy solutions, and the courage to use them. It is the facility of exercising control over the seductive power of anger, fear, and discouragement. Triumph over adversity often lies in our capacity to refuse to ignore responsibility, excuse incompetence, or blame all problems on outer difficulties and other people.
The turning point between a healthy and an unhealthy approach to life’s difficulties occurs once we begin to analyze the complexities and disappointments in life. Many people make the great mistake of failing to recognize the potential benefit in hardship and the great value of overcoming misery. Instead, they concentrate on the unpleasant parts that annoy them. They focus on the people who have abused or neglected them. They look at all the occasions when they have been deprived of important opportunities. They remember and relive their difficulties and the pain this caused. They look for all possible reasons why their life has been so complicated and stressful. And, as a result of this inquiry, they find an abundance of reasons to become and remain miserable.
As a consequence, instead of working to overcome their distress, they choose to build better defenses against threats and criticism. They seek new ways to blame others for their problems and lack of success. They develop more clever ways to maneuver out of fault and failure and manipulate people to pro- vide special favors and support. Instead of using all their power and skill to pursue a more successful life, they adjust their lifestyle to accommodate weakness, defeat, and disappointment. In effect, they surrender to the misery in their life and accept it as “normal” for them.
This thumbnail sketch describes how many people practice psychic self-destruction. They preserve defeat and distress by converting them into a world view and lifestyle that, unknowingly, promotes misery. They do not notice that they have volunteered for continued discomfort. Because this process seems rational and appropriate, they find it is reasonable to equate bad experiences with being depressed. When tragedies occur, they assume they are justified in feeling deprived and depressed. When they endure injustice and unfair attacks, they do not hesitate to be angry with their enemies. If they fail at what they try, the only rational conclusion—for them—is to feel defeated and inadequate. And because these reactions seem correct and emotionally satisfying, they blind themselves to any healthy alternatives.
This book will reveal the many ways we sabotage our well-being—and what it takes to correct these destructive habits for coping with distress. It will help us understand that it is no accident when we grow depressed—in fact we depress ourself, by concentrating on what is wrong or missing, rather than what is nourishing in our life. It will show that it is not just bad luck that we are anxious—but that we frighten ourself by entertaining dark imaginings of potential disasters. Nor is it normal to be angry—we often provoke anger by criticising and condemning everything we believe to be wrong. We will likewise discover that we never just feel guilty—we humiliate ourselves by belittling our strengths and bemoaning our lack of talents, and making inadequate effort to be helpful.
We can halt this psychological self-destruction and reverse its path of sabotage. The turnabout begins when we discover we have an immense capacity to control the direction of our thinking, attitudes, expectations, and behavior. These changes acceler- ate as we decide to stop being a slave to misery and refuse to allow our discouragement, fear, or anger to control our perceptions and choices. This includes the realization that who we are is always more than our outer experiences and our feelings about them. Finally, we need to rediscover the hidden resources of wisdom, courage, creativity, stamina, and talents we have in our inner self. As we attain these higher realizations, we liberate ourself from the thrall of misery and destructive habits—and through this, build the confidence and optimism that leads to a better life.