IMAGE: KARIM MANJRA | UNSPLASHA framework for thriving through and beyond the pandemicIt may sound counter-intuitive but the key to thriving is struggle. So, if you have really struggled in lockdown this is your opportunity – grab it with everything you have!by Tara J LalWhat I know about struggle     I discovered, sooner than I wanted, that struggle was an inevitable but unwelcome part of life. I struggled destructively for a long time and my life got smaller. Then I learned how to do it well and my life transformed.

     I was 13 years old when I stood in a crematorium in North London and watched my mother’s coffin moving away from me into the fire. I wanted to scream. To run to her. To hold her. I had no control over what was happening. No-one heard my silent screams.

     Then my father had a psychotic episode. He was the happiest man in the world and then he was the saddest man in the world. Again, I had no control. I clung on to my elder brother, searching for something or someone that felt safe, solid, known. He softened my struggles, cradled them for me.

     Then he took his own life and the world as I knew it shattered. I struggled with everything – intense fear, grief, loneliness, panic attacks, helplessness, shame, loss. The struggle engulfed me. It suffocated and strangled me.

IMAGE: JEREMY BISHOP |UNSPLASHThe loss of our old lives     When someone close to you dies. Your world changes. There’s no going back. There’s no return to normal, however much you yearn for it. You grieve in unimaginable ways. You struggle with the most intense emotions. COVID-19 forced all of our worlds to change.

     We experienced loss. The loss of life as we knew it. The loss of people, of physical connection, relationships, jobs, hobbies, travel, hopes for the future and so much more.

     We grieved our losses individually and collectively as we watched the landscapes of our lives morph before our eyes. We are living this seismic shift right now. How we struggle with this intense time of change will determine what our future looks like, what our new landscape is. Is it lush and green or withered and dry?

A new normal     Following my mother’s and my brother’s deaths, all I wanted was to ‘be normal’. For my life to go back to the way it was. I didn’t want things to change and I certainly never thought about thriving.

     When change is thrust upon us, as it has been with COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, we naturally look forward to a time when we can return to normal. We yearn for that. But were you really happy in every dimension of your life with your pre-pandemic normal? What parts of it were not serving you, holding you back from being the best person you could be, having the life you want? What would it look like if instead of striving to return to ‘normal’ we strived to ‘thrive’? And what if we learned how to use this new existence as a barometer to guide us to the lives we want, to show us what really matters in life?

     Evidence shows us that the key to human happiness is good relationships. Being in lockdown may well have hovered a magnifying glass over the quality of your relationships. Don’t forget what you saw. If there was something lacking, work to embrace and nurture those relationships. Care for them in the same way you care for your health or your beloved pet.

Striving to thrive     The word struggle means ‘to experience difficulty and make a great effort to get free of restraint or constriction’. In short, struggling isn’t enjoyable or fun. It takes energy and there’s no instant reward. If only we could bypass the struggle and skip straight to the ‘thriving’. Yet it is the experience of struggle, and how we struggle that creates growth and lasting change – the conduit to thriving.

IMAGE: DENYS ARGYRIOUP | UNSPLASH     For 15 years I ran away from my deepest struggle. The struggle to confront what lay within me. The shadow parts of myself I didn’t want to see, the pain I didn’t want to face, and the ocean of grief I didn’t want to feel. What are the shadow parts of yourself that when not acknowledged constrain you?

     Then, one day, when I was 32, I stopped running. I learned to stand still. I learned to turn towards, not away from the darkness within. This turning towards was the platform for learning to struggle well. It laid the foundations to thrive.
Re-scripting the story     Seventeen years on from the day I started turning towards not away from that struggle, my life has transformed. I didn’t have any epiphany, as much as I wanted one. I worked hard to face my fears, break down my self-limiting beliefs, allow myself to be vulnerable, find strength in sitting with difficult emotions, learn about myself, find my passions and my strengths, define my values, care for my relationships. This is how I re-scripted the story of my life.

     Today, I am a firefighter. I’m studying for a PhD. I attained my Australian surf lifesaving representative cap at the age of 48, and I wrote a book. I’d never really thought much about thriving until I realised what thriving felt like. It’s expansive, bountiful and vibrant. Yet it has a gentle solidity to it. A feeling of completeness, of connectedness. We have to know what thriving feels like to manifest it. We have to know what it looks like for us in every aspect of our lives. So, invest time in building the intricate rich tapestry of the life you want, not the prepandemic one you had.

IMAGE: NACHO BILBAO | UNSPLASHCREATING A FRAMEWORK FOR THRIVING – 12 pillars for learning how to struggle well1. Invest now for your future     One of the biggest barriers to thriving is our cultural dependence on instant gratification. We are addicted to it. Learning to struggle well, is an investment in your future. When you give up an addiction, your overall happiness may take a temporary dive, as you put in the effort to effect change, let go of old habits and learn new skills. You won’t get that instantaneous positive feedback. You do, however, give yourself a chance to live your best life.

2. Reset and redefine your goals     What did lockdown teach you about what’s important in life? Our default is always to return to the familiar, the known. It’s comfortable. Don’t just try to return to normal. Seek more. Go beyond. Dismantle the old to build the new.

3. Actively remember this time     Don’t try to forget it. In order to change and to thrive, you have to remember what you learned. This is why you need to write it down. Get yourself a journal and start writing.

4. Start with the end in mind     Ask yourself, what do you want your life to look like? Then write it down in intricate detail. Picture it and imagine how it feels to live that life, drawing on what you learned from the last few months.

5. Think about what it is that you struggled most with in lockdown     Dive deep into it. Beyond the superficial. Be curious. What challenged you the most and why? The ‘why’ bit is crucial. Don’t ignore it. It’s a key tool for learning about yourself.

6. What did you lose that you truly valued?     What did those losses mean to you? Use this as a guide to write a list of your top five values. Then constantly strive to live your life in a way that respects, integrates and acknowledges those values.

7. What did you discover that you gained through lockdown?     Write a list. Hold yourself accountable to stay with those gains. Use them as a driver for positive change.

8. What does ‘thriving’ look and feel like to you?     Look to your values, your strengths and your passions for guidance.

IMAGE: BROOKE CAGLE | UNSPLASH9. Did you find yourself acquiring more unhealthy habits?     If you did, dig deep into the ‘why?’ More often than not, we use those habits to numb difficult emotions. This is your challenge, to find the strength to just ‘be with’ those emotions. As you begin to move towards thriving, those unhealthy habits gradually start to fall away. They have less control over you.

10. What are the self-limiting beliefs you hold about yourself?     Unpack them. Where did they come from? Work to break them down. It will set you free.

11. Identify your deepest fears     At our core, as humans our greatest fears are founded on three things: ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m not lovable’ and ‘I don’t belong’. How did those fears manifest during the pandemic? Turning towards your fears, not away from them, with the right support, unleashes your greatest strength. It is one of the most powerful tools to thriving.
IMAGE: BROOKE CAGLE | UNSPLASH12. Find the right support for you     Support comes in many forms. It’s about finding the right support for you, at the right time. Play with the options. They are infinite. Psychologists, wellness coaches, good friends, meditation groups, self-help books or courses, community groups or organisations, clubs that speak to your passions. Find what works for you. Build a myriad of support. It connects you to life.

     There’s no flowchart to follow that will lead you to thriving. Each of our landscapes is different, but when you embrace your deepest struggles you shine a light on your own unique path. A path that guides you towards a flourishing, thriving you.

     Remember, this is your opportunity. Grab it with everything you have.

     Tara J Lal is a professional firefighter, Mental Health First Aid instructor, author, speaker and PhD candidate in the field of mental health. She was a finalist in the Rotar y Inspirational Woman of the Year awards 2017.