There’s no nice way to say this: sometimes life sucks. It can feel like life is conspiring against us and like people are out to screw us over. But what if life is happening for you, not to you?
Why is this happening?
First, it’s natural to have the thoughts of why is this happening to me? or why can’t I catch a break?
Where this becomes a problem is when we stay in those thoughts. A brief visit to that place is inevitable. Living in that place is does you no favors.
There are many tools we can use to help us open to and embrace our current experience. We can get into our bodies and return to the present moment. We can accept that it is what it is. Another tool we can use is a question that Tony Robbins asks:
What if life was not happening to you, it was happening for you?
Of course, if you’ve been in the world of personal development for a while, this starts to sound cliché. When you’re in the swirl of a life upheaval, when everything seems to be going wrong, when you can’t seem to catch a break, it’s hard to see how any of this can be for you.
What does it even mean? How can life be happening for me when I’m working so hard, yet can’t seem to catch a break?
I find it helps to look for specifics. You see what you seek. If you know what you’re looking for, you will find it more easily.
Below, I share 7 ways that life might be happening for you and not to you.
7 Ways Life Is Happening FOR You
Here are 7 different ways challenging life situations might be arising for you and not happening to you.
(1) To Teach You a Lesson
As much as I can get into the spiritual and theoretical side of things, I am a practicalist at heart. So this is the first place I tend to look.
Sometimes there is something very practical we need to learn from a situation. A challenge arises to teach us a lesson about something we must do or implement to prevent that particular challenge from recurring.
I am always on the lookout for patterns. If I notice that the same type of situation recurs often, it is likely that I can implement a system to contain it. That system might be a tighter process, new rules, or adopting a new ritual.
For example, several years ago I noticed that I often felt like I couldn’t get any time for myself. I woke up each day and was sucked into email and handling issues for clients. By the end of the day, I had nothing left for me. This pattern kept repeating, and I felt resentful of clients for “taking advantage” of me. But it was really in my control.
I made a change in my schedule, creating a rule to put myself first. Ever since I resolved to make that change, I go to the gym and do my morning rituals before I check email. I say yes to myself to create time for my best work, and I approach my business with more intention. That helps me feel better.
(2) To Serve Your Awakening
The challenge or pain that arises may not produce an obvious lesson. Perhaps it’s just part of our destiny on our spiritual path. Meditation teacher Tara Brach often shares a prayer that comes from the Buddhist tradition,
May whatever arises serve the awakening of wisdom and compassion. May whatever’s going on in our lives, whatever circumstances, may they serve.
When I sustained a traumatic brain injury a few years ago, I often came back to this prayer, to this belief that this experience was intended to serve my awakening.
Recognizing this allowed me to be with the experience as I struggled through the after-effects of a traumatic brain injury, including screen time limits, and forced rest.
(The lesson about rest was also a practical lesson; there is often a lot of overlap in these categories).
(3) To Catalyze Your Growth
In evolution terms, the toughest challenges cause a species to draw on its resources to adapt. It’s the challenge that facilitates our growth, strength, and flexibility.
Sometimes challenges land in our lap to illuminate the skills we need to cultivate.
Recently, I was telling one of my spiritual mentors about a particularly tough challenge I was facing: a person was spreading lies about me and verbally attacking me. I shared that even though I felt anger and frustration, I was also able to feel compassion for the person who was attacking me. For me, that felt like a huge marker of growth.
While acknowledging my growth, my mentor asked me if I was able to feel compassion for myself. I reflected on this and realized that I hadn’t, and perhaps that’s what this experience had come to teach me.
(4) To Deepen Your Service to Others
Tara Brach notes that many spiritual traditions teach that our suffering awakens our compassion. A life hardship or challenge may arise to give you the tools you need to serve others more deeply or at a higher level. It can help us foster greater empathy and compassion for others.
After a decade of working as a residential real estate broker, my experience in selling my own home was an empathy-building exercise: it showed me where I can change my process to better serve my clients.
I have increased my compassion and ability to empathize because I have a deeper understanding of the emotional nuances that they experience in the process.
On a personal level, throughout my life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, OCD, suicidal impulses, body issues, physical illness, and ADHD.
I recall a time years ago when I was unemployed. I became depressed, wondering, how does a person who graduated with honors from two Ivy League universities end up here?
My experiences have at times been painful, but they give me a perspective that few others have when it comes to coaching high-achievers who feel ashamed by their struggles. My clients often tell me that I can articulate what they feel better than they can. I can do this only because I’ve been there.
(5) To Test You
Often people say that these challenging moments are like tests from God or the universe, testing whether you really want what you say you want. Sometimes it can feel like a test of our life skills: are we expanding our capabilities to be non-reactive and to handle explosive situations with grace?
Recently I’ve been challenged by a situation where I’ve been forced to navigate choppy waters with the tenants in my client’s apartment. The tenants have been verbally abusive and lied about conversations to my client. In deference to serving my client and protecting her interests, I’ve refrained from defending myself, which is not easy.
All of this comes as I complete a 10-month coach training program that has focused on deep inner work. In many ways, this situation feels like a final exam, not in terms of how I would coach them (because they don’t want to be coached), but in terms of how I coach myself through it.
Can I let go of the need for the last word or the need to defend myself? Can I look at this simply and matter of fact, focusing just on the facts and releasing the stories — both theirs and mine? Have I expanded my capacity to approach a situation like this with compassion and grace?
In fact, one big lesson for me has been a reminder that I must have compassion for myself in this situation too.
(6) To Offer You Proof
I often find the notion of testing difficult. Why does God need to test us? If God is all-knowing, shouldn’t God know our capabilities? Whenever I think about this, I come back to this thought:
What if it’s not a test? What if it’s proof?
The Divine knows our capabilities. It’s we who don’t know. We need to see the proof of what we can handle.
The challenges we face in life give us proof of what we can handle. They show us what we are capable of.
(7) To Help You Cultivate Trust
We don’t always know how something will turn out to be for us. The more we can learn to trust, the more open we can be to the experience.
Sometimes the challenges we face are simply an opportunity to cultivate deeper trust that things will work out.
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This post was originally published on August 3, 2018 and most recently updated on November 23, 2020.