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Feeling Stuck? How to Create from Adversity | Balance Coaching

  • POSTED ON APRIL 03, 2024
A young, green sapling sprouting from the center of a weathered tree stump, symbolizing new growth and resilience amid adversity

Feeling Stuck? How to Turn Adversity into Opportunity 

These days, it feels like everyone, including me, is facing some sort of adversity. People are experiencing the impact of climate change, fractious politics seem to offer little hope, and as always, many of us are suffering personal loss, job loss, or a loss of equilibrium as the world careens into an unknown and unpredictable future. Even worse, people in wartorn countries are literally fighting for their lives every day. Given that there is no lack of adversity in our personal lives and in the world right now, how can we make our circumstances work for us rather than against us? 

Even in the worst of times, the interpretation we ascribe to our circumstances will determine our experience of those circumstances. You can have awful, even life-threatening circumstances, and the story you create about your circumstance will determine your experience of that circumstance. Turning adversity into opportunity doesn’t mean you bypass the truth of your circumstance, but it does call on you to use your creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness to create a new story about the circumstance you are experiencing. Another name for this is reframing. In the Co-Active world, it is known as balance coaching.  

A Transformative Story About Adversity 

In 1998, I was diagnosed with two lethal forms of cancer. The day I received my diagnoses, I imagined I would be dead within a year. For the first several weeks after my diagnoses, I was in no psychological state to reframe anything. I was barely able to process the fact that my life was forever changed and that my envisioned future would likely never come to pass. Over time, however, I settled into my new lifestyle of treatment and uncertainty.  

Even though my situation was dire, I started concentrating on a different story. At that time, despite a lack of optimism about my ability to survive, I at least created a new story to counter some of my pessimism. My new story was that I was going to make my last year to live the best year of my life and I was going to help as many people as possible. I didn’t deny that I had cancer; I didn’t even think I would live a long time. However, my new story made cancer a tool for me to use rather than something usurping the role of being the main character of my own story. Much to my surprise, I learned this very awful thing that was happening to me could benefit other people and ultimately support me as I went through two decades of medical treatments.  

At some point, I realized I was not the only one suffering from a cancer diagnosis, and I started to think about using my own experience to help others. Because I spent a lot of time in the hospital that year, I got to know many patients and the medical staff. On one of my visits to the hospital, my nurse said to me, “Most people come to the sixth floor to die. But you see your time here as a business opportunity!” Until she said that to me, it never occurred to me to put coaching and cancer together. People knew I was a coach and that I was always interested in helping other patients navigate their cancer experiences while I forged my own path through my cancer treatment. Who better than me to understand what they were going through?  

I then developed “chemo coaching,” and my coaching practice became filled with people newly diagnosed with cancer. Who knew that cancer would give me a niche and grow my nascent coaching business? Much to my surprise, cancer, the biggest adversity in my life at that time, gave me a successful coaching niche, put my name on the map in the coaching world, and provided a reasonable income even though I could only work part-time due to my physical constraints.  

Twenty-six years later, I’m a medical miracle! The vast majority of people with my dual diagnoses have died. While I can’t credit changing my story for saving my life, it has made my life worth living, and I have helped many other people change their stories as well.  

Reframing Your Story: A Guide to Cognitive Reconstructing  

How do you reframe your story? Most importantly, you have to be willing to entertain different stories to describe your situation.  

We believe reality is whatever story or narrative we make up about our circumstances. Many people are “one story” people. They replay their story over and over again in every situation in their lives. When your story is one of resilience and resourcefulness, it benefits you to keep telling it. However, if your story leaves you feeling powerless and unable to change anything, it’s time to create a new story. This means you must be able to see possibilities in your particular circumstance. Every situation has more than one possibility or interpretation. You may not be able to see it initially, but over time, as you adjust to your changed circumstances, new possibilities can arise.  

Balance Coaching Approach 

The reason balance coaching is so powerful is that it is a body-mind experience. The coach asks the client to physically change their body position to focus on something in their environment. Ostensibly, whatever they are focusing on has nothing to do with the story they are currently telling themselves about their situation. Instead, the object provides a screen upon which to focus their imagination, and they can create a different story from their projection.  

For example, a client has lost their job. They are justifiably upset and can be caught in a story of shame and blame. The coach asks their client to focus on something in their environment. They look out the window and see a tree lush with green leaves. How might the tree perspective help them tell a different story about their current circumstances?  

Learning from Nature’s Resilience 

Trees lose their leaves every year, but the tree doesn’t die. And each year in the spring, the tree grows new leaves and maybe even more than the year before. The tree also has a strong root system that is attached to other trees around it so they can nurture one another. The tree has bark that protects its insides from attack. In the event of a windstorm, the tree can withstand strong gales by bending with the wind or having a firm enough grounding in the soil that it doesn’t get knocked over.  

The tree is an excellent metaphor for dealing with job loss. The coach can ask the client to imagine being the tree. Stand like the tree and embody that energy. The tree sheds its leaves knowing it will replace all the leaves over time. Leaves come and go just as jobs do. Like the tree, the client likely has a network that can provide support and possibly referrals to other jobs. The client knows they have survived other losses and can survive this one as well (the bark). Finally, the client can see how they can move into their new situation and make it work for them (swaying in the wind). A new story has just been created. And a new feeling in the client’s body.  

Creating Your Story: The Brain’s Narrative Power 

We can create stories out of anything. And we do! Nothing happens during the day without our brains creating a story or interpretation of what is happening. Pay attention to all the stories you make up today once you finish reading this article. It is how your brain processes all your experiences and how you create your reality!  

Anytime a story or narrative has a strong attachment to your identity story, it will be harder to change. That is why it is helpful to have a coach or trusted person who is creative, good at seeing possibilities, and nonjudgmental about your story to help you re-craft a new story. If a client believes themselves to be their job and not someone doing their job, then losing their job will feel like death. An outside person can help the client see things from a different perspective and thus help the client get curious and even excited about seeing themselves in a different way.  

One other ingredient of reframing is the ability to play. Play is a natural part of human development. Kids play all the time: they make up stories, and they pretend they are all sorts of people and things. Play and the use of imagination are necessary to our survival. And they are necessary to reframing our story. I used to joke that cancer was “the gift that keeps on giving,” since it took me over 20 years to finally recover from all the medically induced problems that arose from my very successful cancer treatment.

Judith Cohen Profile Photo
Written By

Judith Cohen  

Judith Cohen (MCC, CPCC, MSW) is a Master Certified Coach and has been a member of the CTI Faculty for almost thirty years! Judith was hired as the first CTI Certification Examiner in 1996 and is still passionately committed to training Co-Active coaches and bringing Co-Activity into the world. Judith became totally deaf in 2007 due to her cancer treatments in 1999. Now binaurally cochlear implanted, she hears normally once again. She listens to clients and students with the extraordinary skill, sensitivity, and depth she gained from retraining her brain to listen through her implants. She is passionately committed to training her hearing students to listen in the way that she now does. Judith is also a T-Group facilitator at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. For three years, she was the author of CTI’s only advice column for coaches, “Ask Judith” and she also wrote (with input from Rafael Boker), “Decoding the Coaching Genome: Understanding the ICF Core Competencies.” She is an engaging motivational speaker focusing on change, leadership, and resilience.  

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