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The Reversal of Fortune Survival Guide

09/15/2015 12:17 EDT | Updated 09/15/2016 05:12 EDT
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Recently, a friend asked me if I could help a neighbour whose life had fallen apart. I have the bittersweet reputation of being someone who has lived through some soul-shattering events and has managed to stay vertical, so she thought I might be able to offer some comfort and advice. I pulled together a Reversal of Fortune Survival Guide of the things that helped me get through hard times, and thought it might be helpful for others:

1. Nurture your physical self.

When I was at a low point, I got back into yoga because a new studio named Zenbar opened and, frankly, I liked the idea of a bar dispensing Zen. In the beginning, it took all of my energy simply to get to class and lie on the floor in corpse pose. Now I sport a Spiritual Gangster sweatshirt, Chaturanga Dandasana like a mother, and bask in all the endorphins.

2. Nurture your spiritual self.

Whether it's formal religion or the church of rock and roll, it helps to believe in something bigger than yourself. Study after study has shown that people who have some form of spiritual life are more resilient than those who don't. Seek out a community to help soothe your soul.

3. Read and read and read some more.

There are over 350,000 self-help titles available on Amazon. No matter what you are struggling with, there is something written for you. These are my go-to picks:

  • Rising Strong by Brené Brown. The latest book by shame expert Brown helps you pull yourself up by your britches when you are "facedown in the arena." Brown's self-deprecating humor makes this a warm and engaging read as well as an excellent source of practical advice.
  • If You Have to Cry, Go Outside by Kelly Cutrone. Fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone is an amazing mix of butt-kicker and healer. Whenever I've lost my mojo, I pick up this book.
  • God Never Blinks by Regina Brett. Brett has seen more than her share of hard things. Anyone who has survived what she has and is still smiling always gets my attention.
  • Peace and Plenty by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Ban Breathnach is the Simple Abundance author who, after achieving runaway success in the mid-1990s, ended up losing everything. This book tells how she regained her life after loss.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is both wise and generous and this collection of advice columns is a densely-packed gem.
  • The Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart by Daphne Rose Kingma. The title is self-explanatory and Kingma's words read like a soothing balm.
  • Anything written by Anne Lamott. Anyone who uses the line "leave him lay where Jesus flang him" is good company in a storm. If you need a quick kickstart, read her terrific piece on the meaning of life on her Facebook page.

4. Surround yourself with compassionate people.

When something really bad happens, be prepared for some people to let you down. Many people simply don't know what to say or do, and will withdraw. Others may draw closer, which is not always what you need. In her beautiful essay, The Family Versus the Grief-Glommers, Jennifer Niesslein writes about the types of people who surrounded her sister when her husband died. Some were there out of a genuine desire to help, while others were there to fill their own need for drama or attention. Even genuine sympathy can make you feel worse. In Rising Strong, Brown differentiates between empathy, which is very helpful, and sympathy, which is less so. She writes,

Sympathy is removed: When someone says, "I feel sorry for you" or "That must be terrible," they are standing at a safe distance. Rather than conveying the powerful "me too" of empathy, it communicates "not me," and then adds, "But I do feel for you." Sympathy is more likely to be a shame trigger than something that heals shame.

In the depths, you need to surround yourself with people who build you up, not drain you. Delegate a good friend to help you gate-keep offers of help and don't feel guilty saying "no thanks." If you can afford it, find a good therapist. Many charge fees based on a sliding scale and you can be assured that they are there to support you.

5. Surround yourself with beauty.

When you are feeling fragile, it's important to focus on the good things in the world. Take a walk outside or go to an art gallery. Spend some quality time on Pinterest. Get rid of anything in your home that does not have a clear purpose or make you happy. Nurture the creative side of yourself. In the forward to her cookbook, Saved by Cake, novelist Marian Keyes documents how baking got her through a period of depression. I was saved by throw pillows, taking an interior decorating class to get me through a terrible time.

6. Know that things are going to suck for a while.

Emily Dickinson wrote, "A wounded deer leaps highest." That's awesome for the deer, but when I'm wounded, all I want to do is eat chips and watch Lifetime. The death of a loved one, financial ruin, receiving a life-altering diagnosis, or surviving a crime are going to knock you off your axis. As Conan O 'Brien said at commencement speech at Dartmouth:

Nietzsche famously said "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.

It's going to take a while to bounce back and the last thing you need to do is to feel the pressure to snap back right away. Healing does not have a linear, upward trajectory like a ski lift. It's more like a supercoaster with ascents and then unexpected plunges. Above all else, give yourself some slack.

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