How bad events can do us good

Hard times: Going through a tough time can help us at other times in our lives.
Hard times: Going through a tough time can help us at other times in our lives.

When something bad happens, we usually feel stressed. If the event is very bad, we might obsess about it and cease to function normally.

An emotionally intelligent person follows the dictate of Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

How can we put bad events to good use? I am glad that you want to know that.

Learn from experience

1. Our negative emotions evolved in part to help us learn what not to do. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment send us a message: Don’t do that again. Fear tells us to avoid dangerous situations.  Once, in a wilderness area, I walked out on a narrow spit of land that extended 30 metres from a cliff. About halfway out, I felt a big wind hit me.  Surprise turned to fear as I thought that I might be blown over the side and down hundreds of metres. I squatted down immediately and made my way back to the cliff. I never took a chance like that again.

Tougher and more confident

2. We can use a bad event to toughen us and to build our confidence. Years ago when I was practicing law, I was charged with illegal passing while driving. I went to trial on the charge, presented my evidence, and lost. That loss toughened me up, like losing in sports. My performance at trial was good enough to help build my confidence that I could handle a small trial. Later, when I handled a few important legal hearings, I felt no apprehension before.

We can use a negative experience to educate and to entertain others. I am doing that right now with the personal examples I mention.

Building your empathy

3. We can use the negative experience to become more empathic. My empathy for friends who lose a parent rose when I lost my parents. The loss helped me understand at an emotional level. With that understanding, I show a deeper level of empathy to friends who lose someone.

Helping out others

4. We can use the experience to help others who have similar experiences. Parents do this when they tell their children how they felt anxious and depressed due to bullying when they were young. The personal anecdotes help normalise both the events and the emotional reaction. If the parents describe how they overcame the bullying, so much the better. Psychotherapists sometimes use personal anecdotes to provide a model for clients. For instance, substance abuse counsellors describe their own struggles with addiction and how they found a path forward.

Education and entertainment

5. We can use a negative experience to educate and to entertain others. I am doing that right now with the personal examples I mention. Biographies fascinate me in part because they help me have experiences without consequences. When I read that a customs officer let a young Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Airlines) off rather than charging him with a felony, I felt a sense of relief. I also learned from that story to be careful about customs matters.  

How do you put bad events to good use?