“Any fool can be happy, it takes a real (wo)man to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep”, writes author Clive Barker.
What are the things that make you weep? Maybe its battling with losing that race after you trained so hard for it, maybe it’s trying to fit in the 101 things you need to do everyday and still find time for yourself, maybe it’s the feeling of not wanting to get out of bed and face another day, or maybe its struggling to be a woman in a mans world.
The really important question is: how do we turn these struggles in to something beautiful?
We have all heard the platitudes: just be positive, everything happens for a reason, just focus on the good things. The problem is, this advice often doesn’t work, and can sometimes leave us feeling guilty and blaming ourselves for not being more positive.
I have even had athletes I work with apologise for being negative when they are going through a tough time. Goodness, I would be a bit worried if people only ever reacted in a perfectly positive way to life! Some things that happen do make us sad, or disappointed, hurt or angry. You’re allowed to feel these emotions and it is actually essential that you do.
However, as much as you should feel the tough emotions, there are some steps that need to be taken to help get through them.
Two war stories illustrate what some of these steps are:
During the Vietnam War, US Admiral James Stockdale and his men were captured and put into a prisoner of war camp. In these horrific conditions he found that the most positive prisoners tended to do quite badly and would often be the ones who wouldn’t survive the camp.
Strange, right? Surely the more positive you are the better you would do in terrible circumstances?
What Admiral Stockdale found was that these soldiers tended to ignore the reality of the situation and ‘pretend’ it would all be okay. When it wasn’t okay, they lost hope very quickly.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” – – Psychologist Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
The soldiers that did the best, and survived, were those that acknowledged how bad it really was, but then (and this is key) believed that they would be able to get through it. As Admiral Stockdale said:
You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
One of the ways his men maintained their hope and belief in their ability to cope, was through a secret system of communication they developed. In other words, while the enemy was trying to separate and isolate them, they pulled together.
During difficult times we can tend to move away from people we love and who support us, it is critical that we rather move closer to them and connect with those that’s love us best. Social support buffers against stress.
Then there is the famous psychologist Viktor Frankl who wrote Mans Search for Meaning after his experience in a Nazi Concentration Camp. He writes: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
He tells the story of how the thought of seeing his family again was what helped him through those difficult times. People that lost the ‘why’ gave up.
During trying times, we have to remind ourselves of our ‘why’, because it is the why that gives meaning to life.
Maybe you want to change the perception about women in sport, maybe you want to become and Olympian, maybe you want to fight for equal pay for female athletes (if you are not sure of your own ‘why’, it is worth spending some time trying to figure it out).
Whatever it is, having meaning links us to something greater than ourselves and something to fight for, while providing the strength to keep going though the struggle and heartache.
We can turn things that make us weep into something beautiful by drawing on our strength that comes from knowing our lives are connected to something greater than ourselves, and by using the people around us to support and encourage us through the struggle.
Its not easy, but in the end, by overcoming obstacles one step at a time, you teach yourself that you can trust yourself to get through the next one and know that you will be okay not despite the struggle, but precisely because of the struggle.
Bio: Dr Kirsten van Heerden is one of only a handful of people in South Africa to have both represented her country as an athlete and also hold a PhD in the area of sport psychology. She has worked and travelled extensively within high performance sport for more than 10 years and her services have been used by many Olympians, World Champions and South African sports teams. Kirsten has many interests within the area of sport psychology and has recently published a book on the challenges athletes face when they retire from elite sport and is also the founder and chairwoman on Girls Only Project – a non-profit company focusing on women in sport issues. Kirsten is currently in private practice in Durban at Newton Sports Agency.
Photo 1 caption: Dr Kirsten van Heerden is one of only a handful of people in South Africa to have both represented her country as an athlete and also hold a PhD in the area of sport psychology. Photo: Supplied
With editing by gsport