What to do when things go (horribly) wrong

Like many others around the world, I found myself having a strong emotional reaction to the news that Donald Trump is going to be the 45th President of the United States.

Shock, anger, confusion... I raced through Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief before finally landing on acceptance sometime around 7.30pm.

Hang on a minute. Acceptance? How did I get there? Was I actually just in denial (the first of the five stages), or had I genuinely found a way to make peace with the news?

Not coincidentally, I had spent the day at an Ontological Coaching conference with global expert Alan Seiler of the Newfield Institute. Ontological Coaching focuses on the client’s ‘way of being’ (which loosely correlates with 'mindset') as the entry point to unlocking more constructive strategies for behaviour and communication. One of the areas we had focused on was that of ‘breakdowns’, which are interruptions to the flow of our lives - in other words, when thing don't go as we expect them to. I had expected Hillary Clinton to win, and to learn that this was unlikely was a fairly significant breakdown for me.

(The word 'breakdown' tends to conjure up images of a person curled up on the floor in the foetal position, but a breakdown could be as minor as stubbing your toe - if it's unexpected. Technically, it also includes unexpected good news, which would be a positive breakdown.)

A ‘breakdown’ is so called because it represents a breaking down of something that we have been taking for granted – e.g. an assumption or view of the world. Prior to the breakdown, we more or less assume that things are the way we see them, and we expect things to flow in a certain way based on our assumptions. When events unfold differently to our expectations, our assumptions are challenged, and so we experience a breakdown of what was otherwise so obvious to us that we don't even think about it.

Here's where things get interesting.

If we choose to plough on with life, we can be experience strong, lasting negative emotion (anger, despair, anxiety) and the breakdown can persist or even worsen. On the other hand, if we use the breakdown as an opportunity to identify and examine the underlying assumptions, it can provide us with a valuable learning opportunity.

Let’s be frank: this is not easy when you're caught up in strong negative emotions. A few hours after I heard that Donald Trump was likely to win, I telephoned my father. He was surprisingly philosophical about the situation and offered me a few logical reasons that the election was unfolding as it was. But I didn’t want to hear it. I was so caught up in my indignation and dismay that I wasn’t ready for any learning. Yet.

Thankfully, my my indignation was overtaken by a far more useful emotion: curiosity. Ultimately, I was driven by a need to understand how more than 50 million American voters had knowingly cast a ballot for such an obnoxious, unqualified, hate-filled man.

This led me to ask myself the following questions, which are embedded in the ontological approach:

  • What is it about the way that I am observing this situation that is causing a breakdown for me?
  • How could I see it differently?

As I watched the news coverage unfold (in particular, the footage of Trump's supporters explaining why they had voted for him), it dawned on me that more than 50 million Americans were really happy about the outcome of the election. They were assessing the situation from a completely different frame of reference - theirs, not mine. So what could I learn from their frame of reference?

As much as Americans are criticised for being ignorant about the world beyond their borders (with apologies to my American friends), I’m going to say that the rest of the world is equally ignorant about the extent of disempowerment experienced by a huge proportion of the American population. Those of us who enjoy a stable income, education and good health have no idea what it’s like for those who are (for example) locked out of employment because the manufacturing sector has come to a grinding halt. It seems that Trump spoke to those people's concerns more effectively than Clinton did, and we saw the result of that across our screens today. There is much to learn here.

It’s easy to blame this outcome on gender inequality, and that was almost certainly a factor. But it wasn't everything, based on what I've heard about the proportion of women who voted for Trump. And it’s also incredibly disempowering to interpret this outcome as a rejection of the notion of female leadership, when Europe and Asia have provided us with so many examples of women leading their countries without gender being such a divisive issue. Again, there is much to be learned here.

I am in no way suggesting that this breakdown has changed my view on how challenging the election outcome will be for the American population and the world in general. And it will probably further my commitment to disengaging from the traditional news media. But it seems to me that life (through Brexit, Trump, etc) is holding up a mirror, and it’s up to us to take a good look at what it’s showing us, preferably before Pauline Hanson re-enters Australian politics. Oh, whoops.

We’re all waking up today to a different paradigm – not least of all the considerable proportion of Americans who didn't vote for Trump. It’s highly unlikely that this outcome will change. But from a place of acceptance of what we cannot change, there is the opportunity to recognise what we can change and move forward from there.

Ultimately, compassion and courage will serve us better than condemnation.

Of course, none of this just applies to the U.S. election results. Life is a series of breakdowns, and our ability to learn from them determines how well we cope with life. In other words, our resilience. So next time you find yourself struggling with an unanticipated challenge, ask yourself the two questions above. It may not change the outcome, but it will almost certainly change your perspective of it.

Learning trumps losing, every time.

“When they go low, we go high.” ~Michelle Obama

(On a slightly different note, I ate two New York cheesecakes to take the edge off my shock, and the irony of this is not lost on me.)