Aftermath

I’m always a bit shocked when I hear the infamous statistic that “90% of startups fail.” The beginning of any entrepreneurial endeavor can seem like a good idea at the time, much like the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Do we ever see failure coming? With all the growth and growing pains, influxes of capital, decisions upon decisions, and general entrepreneurial delusions, is it there a feeling of failure that we try to avoid? What happens if we don’t realize the full potential of the company? What happens when the doors close in front of us?

When the end (of anything really–a company, your position, a relationship) comes, it doesn’t seem to matter how prepared you were for the final verdict. The traffic of thoughts in your mind can reel between “It’s over” and “It can’t be over.” There’s often a plaintive gasp: “It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.” You rewind memories that retrace the past steps leading to now, and mutter preferred cuss words at all the wrong turns–“If only I’d done this, that or the other, I’d still be in the game…we’d have succeeded”–as if things could be fixed retroactively through the rearview mirror. Other thoughts can spiral into a whirling vortex of self-doubt, inadequacy, loathing, and loss. It can seem as if reality shows up swiftly, and so radically different, from where we thought we were and where we wanted to end up.

Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times that, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

How can we make room for all of it–what’s happened, what’s happening now, and the rush of feelings in us? How can we learn to be ok with how things did unfold? How can we relax our after-mathing (crunching the numbers, how-tos, how-comes, why’s and coulda-beens) in the wake of the outcome? How can we find peace with what just went down, and with what is?

The key in times like this, as William James noted, is to “Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” Resisting, fighting, and denying what has happened or our experience keeps us at bay from a more easeful flow and instead keeps us holding up a wall in front of us, increasing our struggle. So much of our tension can be released by including all of our experience with the act of acceptance.

Acceptance, a key quality of resilience, is also part and parcel of mindfulness, which “teaches us the ultimate resilience–to trust in our capacity to wisely and compassionately meet whatever comes our way,” as therapist and author Linda Graham notes in her book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being. “Mindfulness–the steady, non-judgemental awareness and acceptance of experience–leads to self awareness and to shifts in our perspectives that allow us to see clearly what’s happening and how we are reacting, to respond to triggers and traumas with far more open-mindedness, and to face the process of necessary change with far more flexibility and tolerance.” Together with empathy–“a wholesome practice of connection and acceptance that expands our awareness of resources we can draw on, both within ourselves and from others”–we begin to see the hallmark qualities of emerging resiliency.

“We use both mindfulness and empathy to recognize, allow, tolerate, accept, and finally embrace and honor who we are exactly as we are, and what is or has been exactly as it is or has been,” writes Graham. Acceptance helps us recover our own resilience in those moments when we find ourselves mentally aftermathing scenario calculations that we can’t retroactively fix. We can breathe with what is–right now–and make room for everything. And, in so doing, we can find a sense peace that allows us to gather up our inner resources and move on unencumbered by the past and making fresh choices for the future. In other words, if we remain stuck in the quagmire of what we wish would have happened, we limit our capacity to move beyond it, and therefore limit ourselves.

Graham notes that acceptance involves no blame and no shame: it allows us to honor and accept an entire event and integrate it into our sense of self. In order to integrate an event into our sense of self, she suggests creating a narrative of the event with the following components:

  1. This is what happened.
  2. This is what I did to survive it (understandable, even brilliant).
  3. This has been the cost (compassion makes it safe enough to even look at that).
  4. This is what I have learned (a new narrative of self that allows us to live with, even be proud of, ourselves).
  5. This is how I can respond to life now (be resilient going forward).

Being able to move through these steps, relatively uncharged, with the matter of factness as if you were reading the back of a box of cereal–involves compassionately meeting not only whatever comes your way, but compassionately meeting yourself. That is an act of acceptance and inclusion that is befriending and gentle and present.

As Pema writes: “Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.”

Self-acceptance fortifies your emotional foundation to endure what happens so you can enhance your capacity to handle the detours and plot twists, and uncertainty of what’s next in life and work. And in so doing, even in the aftermath, you connect with your truest self–a place of inherent goodness, a place that exists in the background of the post-event after-mathing figurations. Catching ourselves, and returning to that place, steels us in a way, because we know we can return home there when the going goes haywire.

As Carol Orsborn said, “Mastering the art of resilience does much more than restore you to who you once thought you were. Rather, you emerge from the experience transformed into a truer expression of who you were really meant to be.”