Have you ever lost your faith in life? 

You’re doing all the right things – working hard, taking responsibility, supporting others – and you’re making strong, steady progress. Then, out of nowhere, life throws you a curveball that smacks you right in the face.

Or maybe it happens more gradually than that.

A few years ago, it felt like my life was on a steady (and sometimes steep) upward trajectory. After 12 career- and character-building years as a lawyer, I had made a challenging but successful transition into a new career as a coach and facilitator. Not only had I found my calling – work that didn’t feel like work – but it was also opening up opportunities (experiences, travel, growth) that were far beyond what I had anticipated. More importantly, I felt like I was making a difference in the world – the holy grail, in my view. Life was sweet.

And then there were some major disappointments. It wasn’t one thing in particular but rather a series of changes or losses. I felt like the bottom had dropped out of my life. Relationships ended, once-plentiful opportunities dried up, and the things that used to excite me felt old and stale. I started to wonder whether my luck had run out, whether perhaps I had peaked too early, and whether the rest of my life was doomed to failure. What was happening?

To make things harder, the strategies that I had used to get to where I was didn’t seem to be working anymore. The focus that had been so effective before felt like forcing. It was as though my own life was resisting me.

I kept trying to mentally retrace my steps to figure out where my life had gone off track. But I couldn’t even see the track. It felt like there was no track – at least not for me.

I started to doubt myself and lost sight of my dreams.

In the scheme of things, it could certainly have been worse and I’m grateful that they weren’t. But they were about as challenging as they’d ever been. 

And that’s when I discovered a new perspective that changed everything:

“Life is happening for you, not to you.”

Apparently, it was Byron Katie who said this, although I can’t recall exactly where I heard it. And when I really sat with it, it had a profound effect on how I viewed my own life.

At a surface level, this is just a slightly more refined version of “Everything happens for a reason.” But whereas that can sound like a tired cliché, the idea that life is happening for me and not to me was revolutionary because it completely changed my relationship with life.

The way you relate to something is everything.

When you think that something is happening to you, it tends to put you in a more passive role. Even from a purely grammatical perspective, you become the object of the sentence – the thing that some action is being done to. This construction can subtly influence our perception of how much agency – or choice – we have in the situation.

On the other hand, when you think that something is happening for you, you gain a sense of control – not necessarily control over the situation but control over how you respond to it. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a sense that the circumstances, events and people in your life are happening for your benefit. You become a more active player in your own life.

And because I have such a strong orientation towards learning (both in terms of formal education and learning through experience), the idea that life is happening for me aligns with the idea that life is our teacher. We aren’t just taught through life – we are taught bylife. The circumstances, events and people in our lives are all capable of generating enormous learning if only we are willing to be the learner. Being a learner involves having the humility to realise that you don’t know everything and the curiosity to know more.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. But I’ve just lost my job/house/marriage/health/loved one, and NONE OF THAT is for my benefit.”

I hear you.

And I’m in no way saying that you should gloss over your loss. A setback usually involves a loss of some kind – and significant losses are likely to trigger some form of grief (not to mention the entire grief cycle). Grief is natural and healthy to the extent that it allows you to honour what you’ve lost and “digest” the emotions that come with it. But it’s important to be vigilant against becoming stuck in grief and unable to move on.

The perspective that “life is happening for you” gives you an opening to consider how you could move through this challenging emotional space in a constructive way.

Some questions for reflection

Now when something happens that is undesirable, unpleasant or unwanted, I ask myself these questions:

  • How is this situation of benefit to me? (Or: How is this situation serving me?)
  • What is my life trying to teach me right now?
  • What is my life asking me to become (more of)?
  • What have I become too attached to in my life?
  • What is my life asking me to let go of? (This could be a person, a situation, an attitude, a belief, and so on.)
  • In what way is life inviting me to shift my perspective on life itself?

Of course, the value of this approach is not to know it but to live it. 

What started as an “a-ha” moment several years ago has now deepened into “the way I live my life”. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days where I wonder what the heck is happening – but those moments are fewer and further between, and I can usually bounce back from them quickly when they do occur. Whereas at one time I would have reacted with anxiety, I now have the ability to step back from that anxiety and hold it lightly while moving myself into a more constructive, creative mindset.

When I applied this approach to my own setbacks, this is what I realised:

  1. Rest & Renewal: One of the most obvious ways in which life was happening for me was to give me an opportunity to rest and recharge after what had been an intense and emotionally taxing chapter in my life. I was mildly burned out and hadn’t realised it, because I genuinely love what I do and had a misguided belief that this made me immune from exhaustion. The setbacks I experienced forced me to slow down and invest in restoring my wellbeing, both physically and emotionally.
  2. Re-direction: After two years of freelancing, I had become way too comfortable with the steady influx of work and wasn’t doing the more challenging work of building my own business. This would have been fine, except that I have a strong sense of mission/purpose that seems to be calling me in a different direction to the work I was doing. The past 12 months – while challenging in terms of the uncertainty – has given me the time and headspace to truly get to the heart of what I want to create in the next stage of my career and life. (This is still a work in progress!)
  3. Resilience: Ultimately, I have gained a tremendous amount of strength from these experiences. My experience as a lawyer had trained me to handle the stress of long hours, intellectually demanding work and sometimes challenging people/personalities. But none of that prepared me for the stress of not knowing where my career and life was going, not to mention the lack of social and financial stability that is involved in pursuing your own path. But by being open to what life is trying to teach me, I have developed a deeper, more durable resilience that has enhanced my ability to absorb the shocks and tremors of life, and to use these experiences as fuel for my growth.

But there’s more…

Without a doubt, the most significant benefit of the setbacks I experienced has been the opportunity to reconnect with my sense of self-worth. In the past, my self-worth had been attached to external things like my education and achievements, as well as the approval that I’d gained from others, whereas now my self-worth is far more securely anchored in the deep love and respect that I have for myself. (Please subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in hearing more about this!)

These benefits did not arise overnight. But staying in an open enquiry about how my life is happening for me has helped me to gain those benefits much sooner and more easily, and without leaving it up to chance.

Are you struggling to recover from a major setback in your own life? If so, what would be different for you if you could accept (even just hypothetically) that this aspect of your life was happening for you rather than to you?

“Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” (Polly Berends)