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What next? Preparing for Challenge — Three Great States

Recall a time when you were working towards a meaningful goal that was also really challenging. What kept you engaged, even when you met obstacles? Did you feel like giving up at any stage? What brought you back?

When we’re engaged in a task that’s challenging but meaningful, that meaning or purpose is an important part of what keeps us engaged. Seeing progress or impact – however small – is another factor. And it’s likely for a task we’ve set ourselves that we have some level of trust or confidence in our ability to tackle the challenge.

But what happens when the challenge is not of our choosing? Dealing with such challenges can be tough, especially over an extended period. Sometimes it may be all we can do to hold on and ride it out. We may be able to live richly, using the practices in the previous newsletter series. At other times we may be able to get to a place of calm engagement , orientate ourselves and respond to the challenge – whether initially or over time.

How can we apply an understanding of the factors that support our engagement in meaningful, self-directed challenge to other challenges?

Towards the end of last year I came to a significant roadblock in my physical rehabilitation after my cancer treatments. Even though I’d been doing rehab exercises for several years, I’d been able to stay (mostly!) engaged in them by focusing on my goals and noticing even small improvements and with moral support from friends. Then for no apparent reason I seemed to be going backwards, with more restricted movement and more pain. I grew frustrated, angry, sad, and ready to give up. After giving myself space to experience the feelings, I looked again for what I could do, and reached out to a dear friend who is also a physiotherapist. She not only listened patiently and generously, but also made practical suggestions. After getting additional help, we identified the problem, modified the approach and I’m re-engaged with my rehabilitation and making progress!

A framework I was introduced to early last year neatly groups the factors important to engagement. It was developed by Stephen de Groot (co-founder and Director of Brivia Consulting in Canada) to explain the essential elements leaders provide to create engagement in the people for whom they’re responsible.

The framework is called Three Great States, and comprises the elements of Safe, Significant and Situated. De Groot explains that when we experience these, we are able to feel and do our best.

Reflecting on past experiences of challenge through the lens of the model has given me a different understanding of those situations, such as why I was able to respond more readily to some challenges, while others were more disruptive. It also provides a means to prepare for challenge and more consciously assess what I need during challenge, whether from my own means or asking for help.

Let’s examine the individual elements more closely in the context of challenge:

Safe comprises physical, emotional and mental safety, including comfort, security and trust. External elements of safety may or may not be within our control or influence.

There are things we can do to build (or rebuild) a sense of inner safety, such as:

  • The practices in the Living Richly newsletter series: looking after your rest, acknowledging how you feel, and being mindfully present, starting with things you can enjoy or be grateful for.
  • Being aware of strengths, skills and experience that we can draw on during challenges. Mining past experiences can help increase our awareness.
  • Observing what helps us return to calm or to feel strong or resourceful, such as intellectual or artistic pursuits, spiritual practices such as meditation, time in nature, listening to music.
  • Seeking professional help when dealing with challenges, whether inner or external.

And remember, feeling less safe due to external factors such as COVID takes more energy and we can fatigue more easily. Being compassionate towards ourselves can help build inner trust and safety.

Significant comprises a sense of being valued, having worth, belonging and connection to something greater than ourselves. Ways we can contribute to our sense of significance include recognising:

  • How and where we make a meaningful difference to others. For example, a person, animal or part of the environment who we support, or a community we contribute to. Did I help someone to smile today?
  • Progress towards goals, however small. Seeing progress may require looking over a longer time scale or from a different perspective, or by seeking feedback. During extended challenges it can be helpful to focus on shorter term goals such as day to day, even moment to moment. Noticing the ‘little wins’ can add a lot to your sense of significance.

Situated comprises an understanding of where we fit within a bigger picture, such as how our own goals contribute to larger organisational goals. We can contribute to our sense of being situated by being clear on the purpose of our actions during challenge, even for a short time and at a very localised scale.

Looking at my rehabilitation roadblock, my engagement collapsed pretty quickly and comprehensively once I was in regular pain (less safety) and began to question my ability to reach my goals (less significance), and even whether they were realistic (situated). Reaching out for help supported me in re-creating engagement.

Understanding what contributes to feeling safe, significant and situated, and how those elements in turn support our ability to respond to challenges can help us identify where to focus our efforts.

Getting started: Think back to a challenge you set yourself and reflect on what kept you engaged. Where can you see evidence of the safe, significant and situated? How could that experience and understanding help you in dealing with future challenges?

Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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