Bumps In The Road Early Retirement Journey

How to Overcome Anything

In case you missed my last dozen or so posts, I’m 0 for 3 with the FIRE tenets.

I think what kept me at my last job two years past its expiration date was this hidden but known feeling that I would not be able to properly convey my skills and experience in high-stakes settings like an interview. I want to take as much responsibility for the outcome of my job hunt as possible because my behavior is the only one I can change.

Each rejection just recalled old feelings of rejection and I would spiral. I delved into rejection from middle school crushes. Friends that moved on to live other lives without me. Extended family that have extended me very generous courtesies over my lifetime but ultimately prioritized their needs over mine. Slights and rejections from customer service people. I felt all those things over and over and over again.

Each new application would generate this hope that all would be right again if this company would just see me. See me, hire me, rescue me. I didn’t even know I needed to be rescued. When did I become a damsel in a distress, anyway, when my entire existence has been focused on being as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

As much as I thought acting would be a curious endeavor, as I’ve always enjoyed film and theater, I knew I couldn’t handle the rejection. I chose a technical field because I thought my “smarts” would speak for itself. I’ve been reading more about “smart” people, really any “people” who have marketable skills but have struggled with the interview process. I didn’t realize fully it was a subset of skills onto itself.

Outwardly, I blame the interviewer because I feel if I’m not able to communicate my message and value to you, you’re asking the wrong questions. I’m the talent!

Inwardly, I feel like a failure and the aforementioned feelings resurface. So, I started reading more about resilience. How do all these personal finance people I read about flit through job after job pushing forward their career trajectory seemingly unfailingly,  and I’m having such a hard time just trying to move one step up.

I’ve been told more than once now to consider mindfulness. Oh, baloney. It’s that yuppie hippie stuff.

I can do this. If it’s a skill and I have enough time to prep, I can master anything. But before the interview, during the interview, after the interview, I can’t turn my mind off. I’m so busy assessing the panel and what I think they should be saying or what I think they might be thinking, or what I think they want me to say, I black out sometimes. I stumble over my words. But sometimes I say exactly what I want to say and answer exactly what they ask, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

The cycle continues.

Then I read this one statement in the article that helped to shift my thinking. Failure is a part of life. And my response to this type of trauma – shattered beliefs about myself, others, and the future – is a normal response, not a mental defect.

Sometimes you just need someone to affirm what you’re already thinking. Failure is a part of life. And when I question my worth, my value to others, and hope for the future, this is a normal response. It is not a character flaw. The extent I might take it and the length I wish to go are things I can change.

This is where people are different. Responses to trauma or adversity can go one of three ways. The research suggests some of us will live in that spiral and it will manifest as anxiety, depression, PTSD, or worse. Some may acutely experience those symptoms and recover back to a baseline. Others of us can experience trauma; even manifest pathology; overcome and come out better than we were before. I think where I’ve been misled is that the third group is the norm. No. According to the article, either of these outcomes is equally likely.

However, there are things we can do to build resilience and experience growth after adversity, i.e. post-traumatic growth.

As I’ve said, if there’s a way to prepare for future outcomes, I can do that.

Here’s how.

1. Recognize failure is a part of life.

This is where I have the most trouble. As a Christian, I fantasize about the Garden of Eden and Paradise, when we were all whole and pure and without sin. We did not know evil. I want to return there. I want my life on earth to be as close to that as possible. When something undesirable happens to me, my prayer is always to go back in time and not make the choice that led to this terrible outcome. I often want to wish away my negative outcomes. But in order to pursue growth after adversity, I must eliminate wishful thinking. Wanting to not have experienced this trauma, to not be in this situation, to not have to overcome one more thing does not actually rewind time. Most of us will encounter some sort of trauma, adversity, or failure. For some of us, it will be the thing that derails our entire life. For others of us, it will be a bump in the road. And for those of us lucky enough to be equipped with the tools necessary, we can grow past our trauma. Recognizing failure is a part of life is the first step.

2. Change your thoughts.

Oh, okay, I’ll just do that. No, I know it’s not that simple, but it is effective. Thinking affects feeling. You may know it now, but this was not always something clinicians recognized. However, the field of neuroscience has proven that what we think affects how we feel.

The prefrontal cortex plays a role in emotional responses and hormone regulation. In overly simplistic terms, the left prefrontal cortex is activated when we are happy and the right prefrontal cortex is activated when we are sad. Strengthening the left (happy feelings) prefrontal cortex reduces activation of the right (sad feelings).

The amygdala is near the prefrontal cortex and also involved in mood and emotional regulation. It was once believed the amygdala was responsible for emotion and the prefrontal cortex was responsible for cognition. More and more scientists are realizing emotion and cognition are more intertwined than was once thought to the point that concepts such as emotional intelligence and cognitive behavioral therapy are part of the current therapy landscape.

If you’ve ever done or said something without thinking, more than likely your amygdala was taken over by what it perceived as a threat. The prefrontal cortex did not get a chance to tell it to stand-down – that you, the human, was not actually in physical danger.

Now, we know when an emotional trigger threatens to hijack your amygdala, you can have a cognitive intervention. Afterall, this is America, we do not negotiate with terrorists!

Remind yourself that some failure, obstacles, and/or negative stimuli do occur, and you were gloriously designed to process and overcome them. Gather all the facts and think about what has actually occurred. Distinguish between the reality of the situation and any disproportionate emotions and defeatist thinking. Is the worst case scenario you’re imagining really likely? Will this one misstep really ruin everything forever? Is this really the worst thing that has happened to anyone ever in the universe’s entirety? After an especially discouraging experience, practice regaining control of your amygdala with the help of your prefrontal cortex.

Thought exercises to strengthen the left prefrontal cortex, or the happy brain, include activities that hack the repeated exposure effect. These cortical strengthening exercises include repeated exposure to healthy thoughts; jettisoning regrets or other unhealthy thoughts; and increasing healthy behaviors like meditation or mindfulness. Other examples include amplifying positive emotions and celebrating the good stuff -your accomplishments, your small wins, and your personal victories. Developing your left brain can lead to quicker recovery from distress.

3. Change your behaviors.

You’ve accepted failure is not going anywhere, and it’s not just happening to you. You’re working on cognitive interventions and retraining your response pathways. The third step to achieving post-traumatic growth is fundamentally changing your behaviors. This is where you can reset the upset.

Some examples of this include:

  • Do things you enjoy.
  • Create a new identity. Do you remember from your school days, when over the summer, there was always someone who came back with a newer, more improved version of themselves. Do that. Make it a lifelong journey, if you have to.
  • Relearn optimism.
  • Relearn hope. There’s a school of thought, that humans who have encountered repeated failure can acquire something call learned helplessness. If the outcome is not going to change, why try? Some walls will not be knocked down, but can you unscrew the door? Is there another way out of your problem? Can you call for help?
  • Repurpose or share your trauma.
  • Serve something greater than yourself. This is a form of spiritual fitness.
  • Rebuild your sense of agency and self-regulation.
  • Recharge your self-motivation.
  • Build new relationships or nurture worthwhile relationships with family and friends; develop trust and shared meaning and experiences with others.
  • Practice mindfulness for 30 minutes everyday or do something that makes time stand still. One study showed a group of participants who practiced mindfulness for 20 to 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks reported a positive impact on their mood and outlook.

You won’t be able to rewire your brain overnight or even in a week, but it is possible to achieve growth after adversity. It is possible to build resilience. It is possible to get past this unbearable trauma. It just is.

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