Two life coaches share their tips for turning unexpected crises into golden opportunities

No one ever wants to hear the words you have cancer. But in 1994, Tracy Fitzpatricks doctor broke the bad news to her. At the time, Fitzpatrick was a Boston-area consultant in her early 40s. Her youngest daughter was just 18 months old.

It was, believe me, a very hard and scary time, she recalls.

Fast forward to the present. Fitzpatrick is cancer-free and feeling more fulfilled than ever, she says. Her road to recovery, as well as her background in labor policy and workplace rights, inspired her to become a professionally certified, full-time career and life coach. Shes channeling her energy into empowering fellow cancer survivors and others to turn obstacles into opportunities.

I saw how these proactive, self-reflective tools helped me recover from my own shock as a result of having cancer, and I longed to share these tools with others, Fitzpatrick says.

Whether youre faced with a health crisis or an issue in your relationship or career, its possible to emerge feeling stronger, happier and with a clearer purpose. Heres how to do it.

Step 1: face reality

Before pushing forward from any challenge, pause to accept whats happening and to process your feelings, says Melisa Alaba, the CEO and founder of the Elevate Me Global Network and the author of Live Out Loud: 52 Ways to Reawaken Your Spirit and Live a Life of Purpose.

In other words, its OK to stop and have a good cry. If you dont give yourself time to grieve your loss, its going to be harder to move on, Alaba says. You may be doing things, but emotionally, youll still be stuck.

Step 2: acknowledge your strengths

After the acceptance stage, its time to home in on your strengths when handling hardship.

Ill often ask [clients]: Whats been helping you through this so far? How have you handled adversity in the past, and would that work for you now? Fitzpatrick says. They begin to see that even when theyre feeling terrified, theyre not just a victim [of] the circumstance theyre an empowered actor.

Reflect on what youve learned and gained from the experience. For example, if youre going through a divorce, write down all of the gifts that remain from the marriage, such as your children and also what being separated allows you to do.

Alaba did this exercise after splitting from her husband. I realized I was resilient and that I could take care of myself, she says. I also realized there were some big dreams that I had not been able to pursue in that relationship, like travel and building a business. Now I have the freedom to do these things.

Step 3: set goals

Think about who you are now, where your passions lie and how you envision the next chapter of your life. What really brings you alive? It can be little day-to-day things, or it can be new areas of learning, Fitzpatrick says.

Writing in a journal can help you figure this out. Watch your life with a magnifying glass for just a couple of weeks, and it will become evident what really engages you, she says.

Next, its time to integrate the things you love into your life. Some people choose to channel them into their work, while others pursue activities such as volunteering. Theres no one answer, and each person has to figure it out themselves, Fitzpatrick stresses, noting that most of her clients decide on a career move.

For one of Fitzpatricks clients, this exercise revealed that she enjoyed doing puzzles. That led the former homemaker to start a business advising high school students and their families on college choices. Shes putting together puzzles, but in a different way, Fitzpatrick explains. She puts together who the students are, what theyre looking for in their next step and what school is right for them.

Step 4: reframe doubts into good questions

Setting goals is one thing; acting on them is another. The biggest barriers to getting through challenges and achieving goals are often internal, Fitzpatrick says. For example, receiving treatment for a serious illness or being laid off can stir up overwhelming feelings of anger, fear and uncertainty.

Fitzpatrick suggests reframing doubts into good questions. Are you assuming you arent qualified for that new position you saw advertised, or do you know for a fact? Instead of presuming you dont have the right experience, first ask what experience is needed. Fear can freeze us in place, Fitzpatrick says. Be proactive about finding answers.

Step 5: assess the risks

Gather as much information as possible about the path you wish to take. If its a career change, set up informational interviews and speak with as many people as possible in the profession.

Someone once said to me: Its the difference between buying something online and going into a store and trying it on, Fitzpatrick says. What would it be like to be a screenwriter? What would your days be like? What would be the route to success?

Think about what transferrable skills you have and if your financial situation can support the change then build a support group around them.

Plant the seeds and eventually some of them will grow, says Fitzpatrick.

Step 6: pull a Beyonc and make lemonade

Make no mistake there will be ups and downs along the way.

Richard Bolles, who wrote the What Color Is Your Parachute books, points out that the process goes: no, no, no, no, no, no, yes, Fitzpatrick says. It doesnt become easy as soon as you decide to be proactive. It takes a lot of persistence to continue through to that yes.

Alaba adds, When you decide to make the shift, the first thing thats going to happen is, all hell is going to break lose. Its really the universes way of asking, do you really want this change?

For Alaba, who faced a recent bout with cancer, the answer was a resounding yes. When you realize what your purpose is, you start living on purpose. Its a total gamechanger, she says.

Fitzpatrick shares this sentiment. I look back on where I was 20 years ago, and my life is richly better now, she says. Its not easy to recover from cancer. Its not easy to find a new career. But that doesnt mean you cant be completely in charge of that process. You can make life good again, and its within your power to do so.

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