Imagine a totally stress-free life. No money worries or family disputes. No dealing with difficult people or uncomfortable situations. Relationships would always be harmonious, and your health would never be a concern.
Now, consider what you would lose in this smooth-sailing world. Could you still enjoy life if everything came easy? Could you ever experience success if you never faced failure?
There are plenty of platitudes about how we gain strength through challenges. But according to San Francisco psychotherapist and life strategist Tess Bringham, the process of overcoming obstacles gives us something even more precious: context.
“We need the difficult to understand and appreciate the easy,” Bringham said. “Challenges are not here to make our lives miserable (though they can at times) but are here to make our lives more meaningful and interesting.”
According to Bringham, when we brave challenges we gain access to vital information about who we are, what we value, and what we’re capable of. We may have some vague notion of these things before a challenge, but they always come into sharp focus when we’re tested.
Challenges are sobering by nature. They force us to adapt and do better, or risk being crushed under the weight of new requirements. Such circumstances offer enormous potential for growth, but only if we have the courage to take them on.
Most of Bringham’s clients are in their 20s: technically adults, yet much of the world and even many aspects of themselves remain a mystery. They are often stuck in lousy jobs and bad relationships, not because they don’t have other options, but because they fear the unknown.
“They’re so fearful of getting things wrong that they don’t try,” Bringham said. “But then you’re stuck. You’re not gathering any information about yourself. You’re not moving forward in any way.”
Challenges demand change, but how we approach the ordeal makes a big difference. It’s tempting to fear challenges. But when we approach them with curiosity, we’re bound to have a more meaningful experience.
“Just making that choice, that small mindset shift, will help you really see challenges for what they are,” Bringham said. “They are here to tell us something. A lot of times they say something is wrong in your life. Something you’re doing is not working, or this person in your life just isn’t working for you.”
Approaching an obstacle with curiosity gives us a sense of perspective and possibility that fear often derails. It also encourages us to be more mindful about how to strategize, so we can respond to elements within a challenge as they unfold.
Fear, on the other hand, makes us want to escape and seek distraction.
“This is why we’re led to things such as bad relationships, drinking too much, working too hard, or not working enough,” Bringham said.
Learning From Failure
Nobody wants to fail, but the regret of not trying at all can be even worse. Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former U.S. Army surgical nurse who now serves as assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, warns that if we don’t challenge ourselves we stagnate, leading to depression and anxiety.
Challenges are essential for both personal and professional growth, and the benefits don’t just come when we win. Marsden says that even when things don’t work out like we hope we still gain from the experience.
“There is quite a bit of research showing that a failure can do more to encourage growth than a success – especially if one is willing to learn from the failure,” Marsden said.
It certainly feels better to win, but failure can reveal a lot about ourselves and our coping mechanisms that an easy success will never uncover. Failures can help us understand how our actions contributed to them, and present ideas for how we may be able to overcome them in the future.
In this way, a failure may just be a detour on our way to success.
“Overcoming a challenge that was once perceived as a failure not only builds self-esteem and confidence, but also grit— the motivational drive in the face of an obstacle, and the determination to not give up,” Marsden said.
Challenges also require resilience: the ability to bounce back after a failure. To cultivate qualities like resilience and grit, Marsden recommends studying people who are passionate about their goals, and adopting strategies that help keep us on track and making progress.
“Break larger goals into smaller goals and assess your performance as you work toward the goal,” she said. “If you are afraid you might not hold yourself accountable, ask a friend or coworker to help hold you accountable.”
Blessings in Disguise
Mistakes are inevitable, especially when we’re pushed beyond our comfort zone. But people who can accept and even embrace their failures are naturally happier than those who constantly punish themselves for choosing wrong.
Bringham says having the right perspective in regard to mistakes plays a huge role in how effectively people navigate their challenges.
“You can either beat yourself up forever, or you can decide that there was a reason why you made that choice,” Bringham said. “Take the information you learn and let it inform your future decisions. Don’t sit and wallow and decide you’re not a good decision maker.”
Trescott believes the things that can crush us can also make us more relatable and meaningful human beings.
“It’s like the hero’s journey. Those are the stories that people applaud in life,” she said.
It’s not enough to just accept the challenges you’ve endured. Trescott encourages people to learn to appreciate them. See them as gifts that allowed you to refine your character and perhaps redefine you.
“You have to take the experiences that have felt shameful and/or painful and, instead of hiding them or forgetting them, you have to be willing to integrate them into your life story,” she said. “They literally have to become the foundation upon which you rise up and grow out of.”
We’re more likely to engage in this process if we can look at our hard times as wisdom that we’ve earned. We start to see future challenges not as random punishment from a cruel universe, but as experiences intentionally designed for our growth. When we mess up, it’s not the end of the world. We’re just being shown where we must improve.
“It’s like having the beginner’s mind. If you go into something like you know everything, you’re going at it from a defensive position,” Trescott said. “But if you come at it as if it’s supposed to teach you something then you see things more as an opportunity rather than something that you’re up against.
With an open mind and a sense of curiosity, challenges no longer have to be a scary experience, but an invitation to be something greater than you are today.
“I think challenges are how you catapult yourself to the next level,” Trescott said.