6 Tough Experiences That Ultimately Make You Stronger

Think for a minute about your life and the experiences that have shaped you. What do you see? When I do this, I recall not the times I passed the exam, got the job or grant, fell in love, or made a new friend. I see the moments in my life that were painful — the situations that exhausted me emotionally and left me nervous about where and what I was doing. I remember these experiences not because they made me want to retreat from the world, but because they helped me evolve within it.

We have a choice in how we live our lives: We can play it safe and ignore what an experience is trying to teach us, or we can use it to help ourselves become more self-sufficient. Here are some experiences every woman should go through to help her understand her worth and to know how to take care of herself.

Letting Others Decide Things

At some point or another, you'll probably have a friend or family member who makes you doubt absolutely every decision you make. At another point, you may find yourself incapable of making a decision without consulting a particular person. You'll put up with it for a while — maybe a long while — but inevitably, there will come a point when you just can't take it anymore. In that magical moment, you'll realize that you care much more about what you think than what anyone else does, and that your gut will guide you to the right choices without input from anyone else. You'll learn that the person who knows best what you want and need is you. 

Hating Your Job

There are probably some fortunate souls who love their careers from start to finish, but odds are that right out of college, or maybe a few years after, you'll find yourself in a position that you aren’t too thrilled about. Your job may demand too much of your time. You may feel like it extinguishes any ounce of creativity you once had. Or you may just feel bored, like you're wasting away.

You have two options, and both are good ones, even if they don't seem like it in the moment. You can quit, or you can stay and figure out what you’d rather be doing instead in the meantime.

Quitting often has a negative connotation, but the truth is that it’s a confidence booster. Why? Because you’re saying to yourself, "You know that you deserve better than this." It’s empowering to take responsibility for your well-being, and leaving something that’s making you feel less like who you are is the first step. Just make sure that you have a plan in place for getting by financially until you find work more in line with your identity and goals.

“Giving ourselves what we need is not difficult,” writes Melody Beattie in her book Codependent No More. “I believe we can learn quickly. The formula is simple: In any given situation, detach and ask, ‘What do I need to do to take care of myself?’”

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What happens if you don’t quit? You’ll likely stay in the job, moaning to your friends or to anyone who will listen about how miserable you. One day, though, you'll start to ask yourself questions like, "What would I rather be doing? What am I good at? What makes me feel happy?" Beattie writes, “… We need to listen to ourselves …Respect what we hear … As we learn how to care for and meet our own needs, we forgive ourselves when we make mistakes and we congratulate ourselves when we do well.”

The more of these questions you ask, the sooner you'll know exactly how you want to feel in a job or a career. Then you'll be in a position either to quit or to ask for better working conditions, a promotion, or a departmental move.

Either way, living through a not-so-wonderful work experience makes you more mindful of how you want to spend your days. And the more aware you are, the easier it is to prevent yourself from taking another role that isn't right for you.

Unhealthy Relationships

It would be great if we all had perfect relationships, but life is not a rom-com. If you date, you've likely encountered your fair share of drama. Maybe you stayed in a relationship past its expiration date, or let someone treat you poorly. Maybe you cheated, or they did. Or maybe you loved too much or too little, or lost yourself. The list goes on. As much as bad relationships hurt at the time, they can lead you to healthier relationships after the fact.

Coming out of an unhealthy relationship forces you to take a look at who you were in the couple and decide whether you want to continue on the same path or not. If you want a different kind of relationship next time, you need to change your pattern of behavior. One thing that can repeatedly get you into the wrong relationship is low self-esteem. If you don't hold yourself in high regard, you're likely to attract people who will undervalue you. Others usually see and treat us how we see and treat ourselves. So ask yourself what we need to have intact to be in a healthy relationship. What parts of yourself do you need to face, and maybe heal, before you try again? The failed relationships that propel you to confront that and take action turn out to be a pretty valuable relationship after all. 

Falling Short

Nobody wants to be told that what they're doing is wrong, or that they messed up on that one account and brought the team down. Most of us want to be perfect at what we do and who we are. We think that being perfect would protect us from the hard things in life. In her book Daring Greatly, social worker and researcher Brené Brown sums up this mentality, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” But being perfect wouldn't actually protect you from those emotions, and if you never let yourself fail (or beat yourself up when you do), you miss out on a lot. 

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It’s the times when we let something fall through the cracks, or get a bad grade, or put the wrong pan in the oven that we have an opportunity to learn. Mistakes or failures suggest ways we can improve what we’re doing. They teach us to be more open to feedback, which can help us achieve our goals easier and faster.

Being Out of Control

According to the old adage, the only thing certain is change. But I think that uncertainty — the sense that things could change — is a pretty sure thing, too. I can’t recall the number of times I've worried about how a situation would play out. My uncertainty would cause anxiety, and pretty soon, my nervous system would be on overload. 

Fear of the unknown isn't fun, but it teaches you a lot. Once you're forced to accept that you have no control over a situation — that you can't manipulate the outcome in one way or another — the only response left is acceptance. When you accept what you can't control, you learn to pay attention to what you can, like your response to the situation. Motivational speaker Gabriel Bernstein says that fear is false evidence appearing to be real. Once we recognize that, we have the ability to see it as separate from who we are. By seeing it as something apart from us, we can learn that it’s something we can learn to react differently to.

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People Pleasing

For years, I cared more about what other people thought than what I did. I worried about making others happy more than I cared about my own happiness. I would say yes when I really wanted to say no, and so much of everything I did felt like an obligation because I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than to please others. These kinds of experiences are important, because they show us the negative impact of what licensed psychotherapist and life coach Terri Cole calls "the disease to please."

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If you know you're vulnerable to putting other people's needs ahead of your own, you can start to pay attention to how you feel when you know you're acting against your own needs and wants. Do parts of your body feel tight or stressed? Then you can think of that physical sensation as an alarm that goes off when you're about to succumb to your need to please. When the sensation hits, ask yourself, "Is this really what I want right now?" and if the answer is "No," find a way to excuse yourself from the situation until you can figure out how to express or at least protect your own needs. The more times you do this, the more you reinforce for yourself the idea that your desires are just as valid as anyone else's.

All of these experiences push us to question what we want, who we are, and how we want to live and challenge us. They aren’t necessarily feel good experiences, but a lot of them are what we need to live through to understand we have a choice in who we are and how we live.

Image: Victor Zastol'skiy/Fotolia.com

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