Getting Great Mileage out of Shitty Experiences

I had a pleasant experience this weekend. One of my old clients checked in to tell me how she was doing. She thanked me for my insights, and I, in turn, had to thank her for the insight she gave me into my practice. Namely, emotions are to your health what a snail is to its shell. You cannot separate the two.

What she shared with me, and what many other clients have shared since, is how frustrated they feel when the old issues and pain that they thought they had dealt with come up over and over again as they progress through life. “What am I not getting here, that I can’t let this go?” is a lament I often hear.

That’s not how I see it. I see “damaging” life experiences like a difficult childhood, a controlling relationship, sexual abuse, etc, as being ultimately useful tools for insights. Sadly, this opinion of mine is not always greeted with awed  whispers about my brilliance—few people actually call me on it, but you can clearly read their expressions: “How dare you imply that abuse is a good thing?”

I can’t really take that seriously because it’s a visceral reaction that occurs before the brakes of logic are applied. Obviously I’m not saying that abuse is good. I’m saying that, since you’ve experienced it, instead of feeling shame and rage and shoving it under the carpet, you can choose to look at it as a difficult period that, while not pleasant, nevertheless taught you a lot, and made you the person you are today. Emotional bootcamp.


There are experiences in my own life that previous to which I could never have understood, and afterwards can now be a fierce proponents of victims. I have been in a controlling relationship, I have worked in jobs that were toxic and occasionally abusive, I have even been sexually harassed and nearly assaulted by a person in a position of trust over me.

Before these incidents, my reaction to a victim would have been benign, but ultimately superior: Poor thing. Good thing I’m too (smart/confident/in control) to let that happen to me.

After I’d been there (and recovered) it was much easier to understand how “these things happen”. And let me tell you, when someone says in my hearing “If I were him/her, I’d never….”

ExCUSE me. If you were her, with her experience in the world, her beliefs, and had only the tools she had to work with, in her shoes you would be doing EXACTLY what she’s doing.

BUT, if you’re in the place where you look back on your experiences as something to learn from, and you’ve made the choice to move on and grow from there, and you’ve been at it long enough to see that certain incidents keep coming up no matter how often you think you’ve dealt with him, then you’re in the right place for my opinion:

You’re growing like a sweet pea, spiraling towards the sun. As you ascend, you learn many lessons. Some of the experience you’ve had have a lot to teach you, but you can’t learn them all at once. But, like a great book you reread and learn more from every time, these experiences are the same way.

I’ll give you my example. After my harassment, I had to get over the feelings of shame, the idea that I had somehow caused the incident. About three months after that, when I left my job, I had to explore whether I was doing it for my own reasons, or simply to get away from the place where I’d been attacked. The third time it came up was about a year later, when I noticed the parallels between my harasser and another person who had let me down (that is, I was very upset when I discovered that people are not always as good as I assume them to be) The fourth time it came up was right after a service rig blew down and a man was killed. He had abused his position of trust and tried to force his subordinates to perform unsafe work. Luckily they refused, and in performing the work, he himself was killed. His job was to keep his men safe, and he betrayed that trust. The man who harassed me had done the same.

The very interesting thing about this example is the realizations they represent get more sophisticated and more widely drawn as you go along. As I grow, I can draw from these experiences. I don’t have to wish them away from me, or try to shut them out of my life. I can celebrate them as being tightly packed goldmines of experience that I can continue to mine.

Which I think is a much healthier way to think about things

Non illegitimi te carborundum.


4 thoughts on “Getting Great Mileage out of Shitty Experiences”

  1. People can have a passive or active perspective on life. Psychologists can measure it (for whatever that’s worth). Passive means thinking “things happen to me”; active means “things happen that I have to respond to”. The passive attitude correlates to a tendency to be depressed. I’ve had the same problem as you trying to explain to people that I’m not saying they are responsible for their predicament when I say that they are responsible for their response.

    1. I’ve also read that that people who think that the ability to learn is a skill as opposed to a talent fair much better in life and school because set-backs do not reflect on their abilities or character.

      If you fail and think, “I must be stupid. I just don’t get this” you won’t persevere over obstacles. If you fail and think. “Huh. This is harder than i thougt. I better try harder next time.” then clearly obstacles, even impossible-looking, shitty external barriers are not going to look so indimidating.

  2. On that note:

    I have often said that I believe whatever we get in this life is, at some level, something we wanted or needed. When I say this I am only applying it inwardly to myself. I never look at someone else in a shitty situation and say, “That person must have wanted it.” But I often look at myself when I’m in a shitty situation and ask, “In what way did I want or need this shitty thing to happen?”

    The strategy of pointing to others and saying they wanted whatever awful thing they got doesn’t help anyone. I highly recommend avoiding it. Everyone will hate you if you say it out loud. If you say it only to yourself you’ll end up coming off smug and heartless, and everybody will also hate you then too. So don’t even say it just to yourself no matter how tempting it might be. This is a very important point. Don’t pass it over, please.

    But when I apply this view to myself, my own suffering becomes much easier to bear. I remember one of the first major incidents when I tried applying this thinking to myself. It was in the early 1990s. I was brutally physically attacked on the streets of Akron by people I did not know at all for reasons I have never been able to comprehend. As far as I could tell then and as far as I can tell now in retrospect the attack was absolutely random. And, by the way, these guys were most definitely trying to kill me.

    I won’t go into the full story here. Maybe I’ve told it elsewhere, I don’t know. In any case, after the attack I thought to myself, “Buddhism teaches that what we get in life is somehow something we wanted, how does that apply here?”

    One might assume that this sort of thinking would lead to self-blame and make me feel even worse. But that’s not what happened at all. When I began framing it this way to myself I felt like less of a helpless victim and more like a person who could do something active to improve his own life. And I did. I moved to Japan and incredible, wonderful things started happening. For the first time in my life I stopped feeling like a victim of circumstance and really took control of my fate. Had I not started thinking this way I might still be living in Akron feeling sorry for myself.

    I don’t even care if this idea is objectively true or not. I believe it is or I wouldn’t use it. But even if it turns out I’m wrong, this way of thinking has been so incredibly useful I still wouldn’t give it up.

    While I never, ever apply this sort of thinking to others and say, “Ha! They wanted that awful thing to happen!” I do try and communicate this view to others because it’s been so useful to me. Of course the danger is that what I say will be misinterpreted by people like the guy who left the comment. But I’ve also seen clearly that absolutely anything you say can and will be misinterpreted. Even if you take a vow of silence, that too can and will be misinterpreted. Such is life.

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