03/11/2013 02:18 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Turning Chaos Into Opportunity; Facing Adversity, Problems and Flaws

This is an excerpt from my book, The Happiness Response, written in 1989. Here"s a link to more on the book and my work with positive psychology.

Chapter 10 excerpt: "Turning Chaos Into Opportunity; Facing Adversity, Problems and Flaws"

That which does not kill me makes me stronger,"
-- Nietzsche

"This first stage of the mythological journey -- which we have designated the "call to adventure" -- signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown."
-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

A heart attack during the night killed my father when I was 11 years old, in 1962. Just the day before, he'd been discharged from the hospital after treatment for chest pains due to blocked coronary arteries. The doctors had given him only a short time to live.

A house full of overwrought aunts and uncles awakened me from a sound sleep, to break the news my dad had died. I didn't cry when they first told me. I didn't cry as I walked down the block to tell my best friend Stan that I couldn't go to the movies with him that afternoon. I didn't cry with Stan's mother when she found out why I couldn't go. In fact it was years before I cried over my father's death.

I both loved and feared my father, who was a strict disciplinarian. After he died, I went through my adolescence trying to be strong, hiding my sadness and sense of loss, fulfilling my role as the man of the house. But I used my dad's death as a crutch to excuse my personal foul-ups, problems and shortcomings: "I didn't have a strong role model for self discipline and mature manhood"; "I didn't get help with my career from my father as my friends did from theirs"; "I was deprived as a teenager." I even blamed my father's death for my lack of self discipline when I slept through a 3:00 p.m. class as a college freshman. My teenage years were spent resenting the fact that Dad smoked too much and left our family too soon.

My father loved to play cards. He had a regular poker game each week, and he was the man the others always tried to beat. The night before my father died, he and I played a card game and I won three times. ''I beat Daddy!'' I excitedly reported to my mother that night.

I forgot about that card game until I mentioned it years later to psychologist Thomas Budzynski, inventor of audio-aided muscle biofeedback. Tom said the concept of ''beating Dad'' or ''doing better than Dad'' was very important for my self-esteem and for establishing my ability to succeed. As I looked back on that night from Tom's perspective, it was like finding a present my father had tucked away for me 26 years before. Since then, I've had the pleasure of having my own children "beat me" many times, often remembering how my father left me his gift.

Acknowledge That Adversity Is Part of Life

My father's death was one of my greatest losses. Perhaps my story has prompted you to think about the most painful adversity you ever faced or might have to face -- the death of a loved one, major illness, abuse as a child, addiction, financial disaster. The more painful the form of adversity, the more devastating the loss, anguish and emptiness it creates in your in life. It can take a long time to fill such voids, recover emotionally and put your life back together. Yet adversity is programmed into life -- it's part of growing up, of parenting, of aging and dying. For example, when young children die, their parents suffer great pain, desolation and anguish. But the human mind and spirit have the strength to recover from tremendous devastation. We are biologically and spiritually endowed with resources unknown to us until we need them. Perhaps that's why folk wisdom suggests we use only 10 percent of our brains' potential. The other 90 percent is kept in reserve for when we need it during injury or emergencies or when we are reaching the highest heights of our potential, or, as psychologist Abraham Maslow described, actualizing ourselves.

Adversity can be both awful and wonderful. Soldiers regale each other with tales of heroism and courage in the face of adversity. Adversity shapes us slowly but steadily just as water carves out canyons and wears down mountains. Like water, adversity is ever present and has many helpful and harmful faces: Sometimes the life-saving trickle of water provides a drink in the desert, only to turn into a deadly flash flood. The relentless killer of a storm at sea an hour later becomes a light shower, making rainbows and nurturing crops further inland. I like water. It washes me. I swim in it. I ski on snow. I put tea in it. It makes rainbows and helps my flowers grow, makes clouds for beautiful sunsets. I flush my toilet with it. I may be all wet stretching the metaphor, but adversity is not as adverse to me as it used to be. No matter how terrible the test, how enormous the obstacle, how dim the prospects for the future, we know we'll survive and go on. We're built for it, and can often come out better than before!

Adversity is a natural part of life. The way to handle adversity best is to flow with it and make the most of any new situation it presents. We must learn the rhythm of adversity so we can give ourselves permission to complain and to grieve as much as is necessary and appropriate, but no more. Life without adversity can lead to jaded ennui, boredom and emptiness, and can produce responses as uncomfortable and unhealthy as the most painful life events. Consider the rockers and other celebrities who succumb to success's darker side -- drugs, wild partying and material excesses.

Transform Fog Into a Rainbow

Steven, a client of mine, suffered for more than two years from the effects of a back injury he received on the job. He was a very angry man. He was angry at his employer for the negligence that resulted in the accident. He was angry at his doctors for letting him down by not healing him. And he was angry at his insurance company for not underwriting more treatment. In fact, Steven spent most of his time feeling angry and depressed, obsessing on all the injustices he suffered.

When Steven came to see me for counseling, I started the first session with my standard opening question, ''Why are you here?'' He began a mechanical recitation of the symptoms I often hear from chronic pain patients: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, loss of sexual desire, depression, headaches, boredom. Midway through the interview, when Steven seemed particularly low -- depressed and angry -- I asked him to take an emotional "snapshot" of how he was feeling. Then he continued his recitation, including detailed descriptions of the many painful and unsuccessful medical treatments he'd been through.

After I felt he'd spent enough time on the negatives, I asked Steven, "'What relieves your symptoms? What's good in your life? What are your strengths? Describe some of your positive experiences -- those that made you laugh, or feel wonderful, glowing inside."

"Nobody's asked me that before," Steven replied, a bit surprised, wiping the beginning of a tear from his eye. He thought for a moment, and began reciting another list dusting off a much more positive self-image that he'd ignored for far too long. "I'm a loving father;" he began, smiling softly. '"I really enjoy playing with our family's pet cat." His eyes twinkled. "I'm smart." Then, after a few minutes recalling good feelings he'd enjoyed with his children, Steven really began to glow. "Take an emotional snapshot, of how you feel now;" I told Steven. "You feel pretty good at this moment, don't you? Yet you were feeling pretty bad five minutes ago. You turned on your good feelings in just a few minutes. Sure, I helped, but you really did it on your own," I told Steven. "My goal is to teach you to focus on your good feelings, rather than your negative ones. You must learn to highlight your strengths and productive efforts, to make the most of your positive experiences and of whatever opportunities for happiness you encounter."

I pointed out that Steven put all his energy into negative reactions to his pain and the "rotten and unfair treatment" he received.

"What would you do, if you learned two years from now that nothing could be done about your problems?" I asked. "Would you stay angry and depressed anyway, the rest of your life? Or would you accept the fact that you might always have some pain, and start to make the most of the assets you do have? Why not start today? The worst that can happen is that your pain will persist. Even if it does, you'll be making plans, and taking steps to get on with a meaningful life. And in the best case scenario, if your pain should disappear, you will have made the most of each day, rather than suffering while you waited for the problem to disappear."

Facing Life's Little Deaths read the rest of the chapter (this excerpt is about 30 percent of the full chapter) here

For more by Rob Kall, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.