I wasn’t raised to be positive. But somehow, I became mostly optimistic at a young age. Maybe it came from reading lots of books where the plucky heroine always triumphs over adversity or seeing how a rag tag band of space rebels could blow up the Death Star and smack-down Darth Vader. Whatever the case, if I had worn eyeglasses back then they definitely would have had a rosy tint.
Sure, there were struggles along the way. My parents suffered financial setbacks and we worried about money. But I often saw the upside, even if it was years later in hindsight.
Unlike peers who had so much handed to them, I developed a strong work ethic that would propel me forward. Joining the debate team wasn’t the “popular” thing to do, but it helped me discover a passion for public speaking and get accepted into a great college. And so on. Things would be challenging, but I expected them to work out. Until they didn’t.
On the eve of my 25th birthday, decades ago, I had a quarter life crisis. My self-esteem looked like the aftermath of a multi-car collision.
Obese by every definition, I carried an extra 50 pounds on my 5’4” frame and was constantly tired. Much of my self-worth came from doing well at a corporate job I loved, but that ended when the business was acquired and moved 1,000 miles away. The new position I found was disappointing on many levels, and its physical proximity to vending machines fueled an already bad emotional eating habit.
Unwisely I had married my first serious boyfriend ever; we had little in common and our relationship was miserable. Disappointed and depressed, I was incredibly unhappy with myself.
I remember cracking open a journal a friend gave me as a holiday present, trying to list anything about myself that felt redeemable. Finally, I came up with one thing — a talent for speaking. But that wasn’t enough to build a meaningful life around.
I went into therapy and started working on myself. After about six months the desire to treat myself like a friend took hold and things started to change for the better. I started exercising daily and eating healthier, which improved my outlook and self-esteem.
The extra weight came off. I initiated a divorce. My confidence and sense of possibilities soared. I began actively looking for the silver lining in all aspects of my life and found it.
While initially regretting my less challenging job, I saw how that role gave me the chance to gain more balance and learn how to practice self-care. Actively choosing to work on myself taught me the value of empowerment. Ending the unhappy marriage made me realize that I deserved to have more fulfilling relationships.
Activating the power of choice
Seeking silver linings gave me the power of choice. It helped me find meaning in the madness and a sense of purpose. I realized how empowering it was to pick my attitude, my reactions to whatever circumstances unfolded. And learning that skill would serve as a life raft in the years ahead.
A particularly hard time took place in 2009, when the Great Recession killed my Public Relations firm. Nearly 200,000 small businesses nationwide folded during that economic downturn. I was not alone in that kind of loss. But being forced to assume more than $100,000 in business debt and layoff good employees made me feel like a complete failure.
With time though, I found the silver lining. The track I was on with building a business, winning awards and more was based on what other people thought I should do. Deep within, I did not enjoy that lifestyle any longer and had no idea how to get off the treadmill.
The forced shakeup prompted me to refocus on what my heart really desired. It gave me the opportunity to change, grow and craft something more meaningful.
Then between 2013–2014, four major developments took place — I married the love of my life, got sick with Crohn’s Disease, became a certified executive coach, and decided to go back into corporate America. That strange cocktail of intense happiness, fear about my health, transition into a more fulfilling career path and tremendous personal growth solidified the desire to choose positive.
It would have been easy to dwell on my autoimmune disease when the symptoms made me feel out of control for several years. But I didn’t let it hold me back and continued to find the silver linings — one of which turned out to be getting into remission with the right medical treatments several years later.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I was filled with fear. That didn’t stop the silver linings from becoming apparent. My husband used to travel each week for work, and I was on the road regularly as well. For nearly a year now, we have enjoyed being together each day.
We have kept our jobs and our health. Our extended family and friends are doing well during this very weird time. When fitness facilities reopened with mask ordinances and safety protocols, that was a big win for my exercise-loving self. So was being able to return to my corporate office several times a week last summer for socially distanced interactions with others.
Upside of Silver Linings
These days, looking for the silver lining is second nature for me. And you can build that skill too. The benefits may be greater than you ever imagined. According to Change Management Consultant and Coach Samantha Fowlds, Principal Consultant of SFC, seeking positive learnings and growth from challenging experiences can also make you more creative and smarter.
“Negative thoughts tend to narrow your focus and vision as you get into the animal instinct of fight or flight,” said Fowlds, referencing researcher Barbara Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. “Whereas when you’re positive, your thoughts are expansive. You tend to be more creative, curious, ask questions and learn more things which ultimately makes you braver, stronger and more resilient.”
Here are six ways to find the silver linings, even in the worst of times:
Acknowledge your negative voice.
It might seem counterintuitive. But Fowlds says that when looking for the positive, don’t necessarily ignore the negative voice within. “Stop and listen to what the negative voice is saying,” she said. “Coming from more of your survival mode, it holds a lot of information and could be trying to protect you from something. Listen to that voice before moving forward to the positive.”
Look for the lesson.
“Everything comes in the form of crisis and victory,” said Fowlds. “So you’ll have your great days, but you’ll also have your crisis, and this is the repeated pattern of life. When you’re in that crisis mode, rather than getting pulled down into the dungeon, ask yourself what this is trying to teach me.”
Make a list of everything learned from your experience, big or small, to reinforce the value gained. For example, my business failure taught me just how resilient I can be and got me more focused on what mattered the most.
Consider multiple possibilities.
When you face a situation, think about multiple perspectives in dealing with it. Let’s say that you can’t afford to renew an apartment lease. Rather than feeling like you are losing something, consider potential upsides. Perhaps it gives you the much-needed push to move in with your significant other or realize how returning to your childhood home can help you save money while helping out an aging parent in the process.
“There’s always more than one answer,” added Fowlds. “When you see that there’s a multitude of responses, then you don’t feel so trapped or scared. “There are many escape routes, so to speak.”
Check your mindset.
Are you stuck in the past, or open to new possibilities and outcomes? Focusing on having a growth mindset, where you benefit from learning something new instead of a fixed mindset that goes back to previous experiences, can make all of the difference. “Rather than keep telling yourself that you’ve never been able to do this before and will continue to crash and burn, focus on what you can learn from a new experience,” added Fowlds.
Plan for positive outcomes.
All too often we approach situations with the inevitable veil of failure. You know, defeatist self-talk like “I’m going to ask for a raise but of course it won’t happen” or “applied for a killer grad school program but I’ll probably get rejected.”
Instead, start imagining yourself achieving the very best outcome…accepting a huge raise, nailing the important presentation, winning a big client and more while visualizing all of the little steps it takes to get there. Fowlds notes that planning those micro steps is essential to achieving your desired results.
For example, getting a raise could involve breaking it down into researching salary ranges, building a case for why you deserve the increase, seeing yourself making an effective presentation to your supervisor, getting the verification from Human Resources that your raise has been granted and then celebrating successfully advocating for what you deserve.
Find yourself saying yes to invitations and obligations that interfere with pursuing and welcoming in your heart’s desire? Then it is time to start saying no to others in order to say yes to your own priorities.
Look at your calendar over the course of a week. If overcommitted tends to be your normal state and it’s stressing you out, choose at least one thing a day to cut back on, like an unnecessary video call when a text does the trick. Once you get used to putting healthy boundaries in place and minimizing distractions, it becomes easier to see the positive.
What kind of silver linings have you found during difficult times?