When a major life event knocks you off your stride, it can be difficult to keep focus on what's happening in your career. In fact, your professional life can seem entirely irrelevant altogether. It's a time when tough situations seem to enter a chain reaction, and we start to fear what might go wrong next. Looking back, you may come to see this chapter as a milestone in your career or life. You may even later recognise it as your mid-life crisis.

We've worked with clients braving some unspeakably difficult and turbulent periods in their lives. Bereavement, divorce, bullying in the workplace, burnout, being fired, severe financial duress.

Here, we collate some practices our clients have found helpful to “come out of the tailspin with grace” (as one client eloquently put it):

Sort out at least one key anchor

Look around you, and identify at least one thing you have, for which you're appreciative. A family member or friend you didn't used to spend much time with, but who ends up supporting you through this tough phase. The fact you have your own home to go to and cocoon in at the end of the day. A job you like and work you're proud of.

Search for what you still have, in spite of what's been taken away, lost, or damaged. And then find ways to invest in it. Where relationships are concerned, this could mean taking more time out to meet in-person, rather than talking over the phone. If it's your garden you're most grateful for, it could mean investing in some new gardening gloves and plants. If it's your work, you might invest more time in projects you're passionate about.

If you don't have a firm anchor, think about what will put more ground beneath your feet. If you're unemployed, consider returning to a previous employer - the familiarity may be welcome. If you have to move home, consider moving to a neighbourhood you already know and like.

Your anchor will help give you a sense of greater stability, and will help alleviate the feeling that things are out of control.

Rediscover the (small) things that count

Tough times will bring what you truly have into focus. As things that were once a significant part of your life and self-identity, are peeled away, it will help crystallise your lowest common denominators: the things that make this tough phase just that little bit more bearable.

Search for what brings you joy, gives you extra comfort, and gives you little pick-ups. Integrate more of these things into the routine of your everyday life.

Supportive practices our clients have found useful include: keeping a regular workout schedule, going to bed earlier so that they can read their favourite type of literature, and talking more day trips out of the city to go for walks in nature.

If you're not sure what practices might help you, experiment. Think about what you wish you had time to do, but don't (a big clue!).

'Why?' is not a fruitful line of questioning

There seems to be a correlation between clients who get caught up trying to work out why certain things happened, and their remaining hampered by the effects of what happened.

Examine what happened, and explore what it means for you. But mind the boundary between a) understanding it and finding your peace with it, and b) combing over the same territory again and again looking for the "missing clue". If you feel that piecing it all together is important for you, consider returning to it when you're experiencing more stability in your life. At this time, you'll have the added benefit of the perspective brought by time and more space from the situation.

One major decision at a time

During tough chapters in our lives, we are often faced with big choices or we have to make drastic changes to our lives. Take pause, and, where possible, only try to tackle one main choice at a time.

Bounce your new choices off of people you trust. It may help you gain perspective on what feels consistent with what matters to you, and what doesn't. Do this in acknowledgment of the fact that you might be changing, and that this might involve you breaking previous mould you had. Equally, your newly-forming values may run counter to those of the people closest to you. In either case, sounding your new choices off of trusted friends may broaden your perspective on hidden opportunities, and on what's at stake for you (or on what's unreasonably held you back for some time!).

If you saw it coming, take heed of the lessons

It's often hard to get perspective on crises or the true impact of life events until some time has passed. That said, if you saw the situation you're now in coming, or if you heard alarm bells that suggested you might want to make changes in response to a developing situation, keep this firmly in mind as you decide what to do next.

  • What did you sweep under the carpet, hope would just improve or turn a blind eye to, either with respect to yourself, a situation, or someone else's pattern of behaviour?

  • What changes could you have made earlier to lessen the negative impact of the situation you're now in?

  • What was it about the situation that stopped you addressing it earlier?

  • What was it in you that choose not to take action earlier?

  • Where else has this shown up in your personal and/or professional life?

  • How can you use this insight to inform changes you make in your life going forward?

Influence what this phase comes to mean for you

Decide what this rough phase is going to mean for you when you end up looking back on it. Often a large part of the reason people get stuck in downward spirals is that they experience an increasing sense of loss of agency: "This and this and this are happening to me; I am at the effect of events and have no control." Some periods in our lives can genuinely feel like we are getting a real battering. But consider what this phase of your life could end up meaning for you, if there were to be a positive development as a result of it.

Imagine yourself some years in the future, looking back. Consider:

  • Who did this tough phase in your life make you?

  • How did it inform your next steps (to achieve something you value)?

  • What less positive thing did it mark the end of?

  • What more positive thing did it mark the very beginning of?

  • How would you ideally like to look back on this phase in your life?

This small shift in focus can invest a tough phase with a little more sense of meaning and a little less sense of powerlessness. It can help influence decisions in greater alignment with what's most important for you.

Everything considered, there is no one way to weather some of the worst storms life throws at us. Usually it's precisely when we're in the midst of it all that we can't find the perspective - or will - to take constructive steps forward. However, taking some small steps and riding out the turbulence is often what it takes to come out of a tailspin with some grace.

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