Finding Possibility in the Midst of Adversity

By Alison Bonds Shapiro


What do we do when adversity hits? Is there a way to work with adversity that makes a difference and is it something we have influence over? The answer is yes. The way we approach whatever happens to us can have a profound affect on the outcome. Call it the power of positive thinking. Call it finding the good in any situation. Call it making lemonade out of lemons. Call it any cliché you like, but the truth is, our approach makes a difference.

When I was growing up I though these clichés were ridiculous.I thought they simply meant taking a dismal picture and pretending it looked better than it was.I was naïve.Life is much more complicated than that and neurological research has amply substantiated the power of the way we think to affect our bodies, our minds, and the people around us, and, therefore, the outcome of our situations.

The sequence of emotional reactions most people have to adversity is disbelief, followed by fear, followed by grief and anger. Anger may then be followed by despair and depression. In between anger and despair we make decisions that affect the outcome of what has happened to us. We can decide to stay stuck in those feelings leading to despair and savor being a victim or we can decide to deal with whatever has befallen us and discover what is now possible. Here are four ways we can help ourselves make this choice.


First:Forgive ourselves. Most of the time we hold ourselves accountable in some way for what happened to us. Even if we don’t think we are directly responsible, we might think we shouldn’t have been in that particular place at that particular time. It’s one thing to acknowledge responsibility, take corrective action and move on.It’s another thing altogether to get stuck in self-blame. Self-blame is wasted energy. The sooner we can acknowledge and then forgive ourselves for whatever part we have had in what has happened, whether large or small, the sooner we can use the energy we have available to deal with the problem.


Second:Start from where we are.That seems self evident, but often it’s not. We wouldn’t consider it adversity if we were happy with whatever we are dealing with. The word adversity comes from the same root as adversary. Many times our immediate response is to fight what has happened and try to push it away and refuse to look at it.If we don’t look, we don’t have information.

Instead of fighting what happened, we can sit quietly and notice our internal conversation.Are we talking about “poor me?”Are we telling ourselves that whatever happened to us just isn’t fair?Are we making up a story about the way things ought to be?If we are, we have an immediate clue that we are either holding onto the past or trying to live in the future.We are not looking at the present and paying attention to things just as they are.

Try being genuinely curious. Practice letting go of believing that things “should” be one way or another. Just look and pay attention. The situation is what it is. The more information we can gather, the more we will have to work with.


Third:Believe in the power of our own creativity to help us work through the problem.Every human being is creative in many ways. Getting through just one day of our daily lives demands creative problem solving abilities moment to moment whether we realize it or not.We respond to everything we encounter from choosing how we dress ourselves to choosing how we open a can with our own unique approach. We all have practice solving problems. If we look at adversity as a problem to solve, we can put our creativity to work on it.

Fourth,and perhaps most important:Look for the possibilities, the good things, in whatever we encounter and keep our minds open to change. The world is bigger and more complex than we can begin to imagine or take in and it is constantly changing.We are human. Our brains and our five senses can only process so much information.No matter how intently we try we won’t immediately see everything that is possible.

Because we can only take in a part of the available information, we make choices about where we focus our attention. We see what we set out to see.

Adversity hits. We don’t like it. We assume nothing good can come from it.When we assume nothing good can occur, we don’t look for the good.Instead we look for the difficulties and say: “See! See how hard this!” Once we have decided this is hard, hard is what we see.We find what we look for.It’s as simple as that.

Don’t be in a hurry. Practice patience. Look for the possibilities. No matter how difficult the adversity, new possibilities are always unfolding and are always more amazing than our limited imaginations can see.

Alison Bonds Shapiro works with stroke survivors and their families, offers motivational talks for rehabilitation patients and their care networks in numerous locations including a leading HMO in Northern California, and advises a nonprofit dedicated to stroke survivors. She is also a highly regarded business consultant and leads the board of trustees of a graduate school in San Francisco. Her website is

Based on the book Healing Into Possibility. Copyright Ó 2009 by Alison Bonds ShapiroReprinted with permission of New World Library/H J Kramer,Novato,