My guess is you’ve been told things like this quite a few times: “There’s always a silver lining” or “Look on the bright side”. When something bad happens and we tell someone else about our woes, they often remind us to find the positive in whatever our negative experience was.
How do we do this?
Well, spiritual teachers through the ages have spoken of an amazing technique to reliably realize better and more wholesome states of mind. Across the generations and cultures of the world, most of the great religions and teachers were pointing at fundamental truths.
And this is one of them:
Now this is not the kind of alchemy you might be thinking of, where people try to find ways to turn ordinary metal into gold or discover the elixir of immortality. The kind of alchemy I’m talking about is psychological alchemy.
Psychological alchemy happens when we fully acknowledge and face negative experiences, then dig out aspects of those experiences that can, like fertilizer in a garden, allow new growth to occur and enhance our lives.
Psychological alchemy is how we turn something negative into something positive.
And this article will be a discussion on how to actually find the positive in the negative.
Now before we go on, let me just say this: this list is by no means all there is to Alchemy. Far from it. This is a list of suggestions and starting points. A foundational place, from which you can build grander things on top of.
Now with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in!
Stop, Breathe, & Feel
The first step in Alchemizing something nasty is to stop, pause and acknowledge the nastiness upfront. This is an important step and is something that’s missing from most of the kind-hearted “look on the bright side” advice people will give you; if you don’t take time to look that unpleasant thing square on, you won’t be able to use it to fuel something better.
Being willing to be uncomfortable while standing in the open letting the impact of the negative experience wash over you, is vital if you’re ever going alchemize it.
Because the gems of wisdom in the experience are guarded by the pain of facing how much it hurts.
This is why you won’t ever really learn how to alchemize anything if you just brush off negative experiences with easy dismissals.
“My car broke down and I twisted my ankle, but hey, at least I didn’t twist both of my ankles”, is a better perspective on things for sure, much better than sulking and pouting. But if all you think is simple “it could have been worse” or “it’ll all be for the better in the end” thoughts, then deep insight is much, much harder to come by.
Now I don’t mean to suggest you go sit on a tree stump, in the pouring rain with a beer and wallow in your misery. That would just be silly.
I recommend taking 5 full breaths and placing your attention on where in your body you’re feeling the worst.
One of the best ways to face up to how we’re really feeling, is to pay attention to our bodies. All too often, it’s easy to get stuck up in our heads and disconnect from the kaleidoscope of subtle feelings and signals our bodies are sending us all the time.
So breathe and reconnect to how you’re feeling in a grounded, body-centered way.
Good, now to do something about it…
Sum It Up
The second step in Alchemizing is to sum up, in clear direct language, what actually happened.
This is a great way to make sure you’re not operating on false assumptions or unclear perceptions.
So, as an example, imagine you got got cut off in traffic and it cost you your job (let’s just pretend you work for a boss who’s tyrannical about you being on time) and while going back into your car, you spill scalding coffee on yourself.
Now here’s how that could be clearly summed up: “I lost my job and burned myself with my coffee”.
It’s amazing how just re-stating what happened in language devoid of judgment, can make the experience just feel less overwhelming.
There’s a saying in some psychologists circles that goes something like this:
“Name it to tame it”.
When you clearly name something, when you define it with bright lines, then somehow it feels more manageable. And no one can make good decisions when they feel overwhelmed. So sum up what happened and let yourself take a step back from everything.
Now that we’ve got some perspective we’re ready for the final step but here’s a hint: you’re probably not going to like it.
If you follow business or self help literature, then you’re probably familiar with the term “Extreme Ownership”. Created by 2 ex Navy SEAL’s, it describes the mindset of the best leaders across all domains. The technique is exactly what it sounds like: taking ownership of everything about yourself and your environment, so you can learn from mistakes and move forward.
Now this technique is also very useful in the personal sphere was well. Because, let’s face it: if we get into a spot of trouble, it’s almost never entirely the fault of things outside of our control. We usually have something to do with much of what befalls us.
And at the end of the day, what we can control is all we should be really worried about at all.
And because of our recurring part in our own misfortunes, we can always look at our situations through the lenses of self-improvement.
What part did I play in this?
How could I have seen this coming earlier?
What’s the grain of truth in what this other person’s saying?
Questions like these are always unpleasant to ask, but offer up valuable lessons, if we’re willing to ask.
Because, if something negative happens to us and in a month, that thing turns out to help us out in some other way, well that’s always welcome. But there’s no way for us to know whether such fortuitous happenings are in the cards for us. All we can do is figure out what we could have done to be a little better, next time these situations come around.
And they will most certainly come around again. Until we learn the lesson inside of them.
So there you have it!
To start turning negative things into positive ones, you need to face up to how bad you feel, clearly sum in up, so the event is clearer in your mind and take ownership of what you could have done better.
Armed with that, you can head back into that arena, with even a 1% improvement. Do this enough times and you’ll find you’re able to see problems coming from distances unfathomable to those who haven’t put in the work to turn the negative into the positive.
Now dive back into that arena, grasshopper!