10 years ago T. J. Sullivan had his worst year ever. What he learned about resilience became a road map for facing challenges.
Quick. What was the worst year of your life?
If you don’t know the answer immediately, then you probably haven’t had it yet. By the time they’ve reached middle age, most men know the year that nearly took them out. They pray it is, indeed, their worst year ever. They are unsure if they could survive one worse.
My worst year was 2004—suddenly a single dad, company verging on bankruptcy, mounting personal debt, and an accident that left me on crutches for more than a year. Much of what defined me collapsed in a matter of weeks. At age 36, my relationship, my health, my finances and my emotional wellbeing were in pieces around me.
I started using words like “fragile” in conversations. My friends worried.
I survived the year, going on to new relationships, successes and large doses of happiness. But, 2004 changed me. It toughened me up in some ways, and it exposed long-denied vulnerabilities, too. Getting back to a hopeful, confident place took time.
Trying to recover from the worst year of your life? Try these strategies.
Take inventory of what’s good. What do you still have in the asset column? We get so wrapped up in what we’ve lost that it helps to recognize what we still have. I had some great things—my beautiful son, an affordable house payment, alternative ways to make a living, strong health insurance. I was nowhere near rock bottom. Can you still work? Is there a relationship in your life you can lean on? Is your car dependable?
Ask for help. When you already feel like a failure, wallowing in loss and poor self-esteem, asking for help feels like a step further down the hole. I swallowed some pride and called in favors. Colleagues hired me for speaking gigs, and I moved in my aging mother to help raise my son. It takes humility, but you’ll likely be surprised how willing friends, family, colleagues and neighbors are to help.
Identify what frightens you. Fear can be crippling. It paralyzes you, particularly when you’ve been on a losing streak. Determine which fears are real and which are irrational. I worried about failing my son. I worried about money and being able to walk up and down stairs without assistance. Identifying each worry made the whole a lot less scary.
Fix first things, first. As you inventory your fears, rate them. Which ones are you confident you can fix or move in a positive direction? Work on those, first. Successes on those will propel you forward. Start with what seems possible. For me, that meant physical therapy immediately and worrying about dating much later.
Regain control in small, symbolic ways. Never make big, impulsive changes when you first begin recovering from a bad, terrible year. But, regaining a sense of control with small choices can do wonders. For me, it was painting my bedroom bright blue (a color that my departed partner would have hated). That small, silly act boosted me. Start running. Go visit an old friend. Drive a new way to work. Remind yourself who’s in control.
Feel different and make no apologies. Emerging from a tough year will change you. You will likely “feel different” to those around you, and many will point it out. A parent will express concern that you seem sad, while a work buddy will tease you about skipping Friday happy hour. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t have time to worry about the judgment of others. Make no apologies for how you feel as you recover.
Invest in a few critical friendships. A terrible year will reveal true friendships. Weak, superficial friends make themselves scarce when you’re suffering. Look for those who stuck around—who listened, encouraged and let you feel whatever you needed to feel, good or ugly. Those are the good friends. When you’re feeling better, you’ll need to take care of them and thank them.
Laugh for the rest of the world. Beyond those critical, honest friendships, the rest of the world just wants you to recover, move on, and feel good. Nobody likes a divorced guy, a friend told me. “Laugh and the world laughs with you,” the cliché goes. “Cry and you cry alone.” Perhaps it wasn’t emotionally authentic, but I posted only happy stuff to social media. My superficial networks saw me strong, happy and successful, and I needed those networks in place when I actually felt strong, happy and successful again.
Grieve your loss. Whether you lost a relationship, a job, a beloved pet, a limb, or moved far away from friends and comfortable surroundings, a bad year usually involves loss of some kind. Feel what you need to feel. Own it, and mourn it. For me, that meant accepting the scar of divorce and failure in business. I lost pride and social standing, and I allowed myself to feel the negative emotions those losses included.
Have something to look forward to. As you sit here in a puddle of loss and hurt, what are you looking forward to? What’s the next cool thing on your calendar? If you don’t have one, get one. Plan something—a big night out with friends, a new car purchase, Christmas in the Bahamas. For me, it was a trip to the desert with a friend. Anticipating it put happy thoughts in my brain.
Bad years come along. Truthfully, 2014 sucked pretty badly in many ways for me. It wasn’t as bad as 2004, but it sucked.
The resiliency I learned recovering from my “worst year” a decade ago helped me cope this time. This time, I reminded myself that the actions I take to move beyond a bad year get me to the good place that much faster.
Photo—Institute for the Study of the Ancient World/Flickr