From a broken heart to addiction, there are many common challenges that people face in their lives. In his new book, “Real Life,” self-help guru and talk show host Dr. Phil shares his tips on how to best prepare yourself for these crises. An excerpt.
Chapter one: Prep talk
If we are fortunate in our lives, somewhere along the way we encounter at least a few special people who change us in powerful, positive, and sometimes unexpected ways. These individuals, although wise, are sometimes not at all persons you would consciously seek out for counsel. One such person I was blessed to have in my life was a flight instructor I met back in the sixties, a man from whom I expected to learn how to get airborne and nothing more. I could not have been more wrong, because he proved to be one of the great “gifts” in my life.
Bill was, by his own account and all appearances, just a good ol’ flying cowboy without a lot of formal education who happened to love anything that had to do with flying. But his contributions to my life ultimately proved to include much more than flying, as this very book will attest.
I was just a teenager when I started taking lessons, but he “saw” into my future in that airplane. About the time I was finishing my training, he told me that I had checked all the boxes, done all the drills, met all of the requirements, and could certainly go get my license and wing happily off into the wild blue yonder. He then paused and said something that really got my attention. I have never forgotten that moment standing next to the plane on a grass landing strip outside a small town in north Texas. “Phil,” he said, “you’ve got the basics, you know how to get ’er up and down and around the ‘patch,’ and frankly you ain’t half bad. But I have come to know you, and I know just as sure as I’m standing here that you are going to need more than you got. You won’t play at this flying stuff, you will attack it and make it a big part of your life rather than flying to Grandma’s house on a nice clear Sunday afternoon. You’re going to be out there ‘mixing it up’ come rain or come shine, daylight or dark, and that’s okay, but the truth is things just happen when you mix it up. Maybe it will be your fault for being too aggressive, or maybe you will just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but chances are that somewhere along the way this plane will carry you into a crisis. When you are airborne, all you’ve got is yourself. You’d have to depend on who you are, and if you aren’t prepared for it ahead of time you can die in this airplane. So it’s up to you — but know that it may come and if it does, you will be one of two types of pilots: one who was ready and survives to tell the story, or one who wasn’t and doesn’t.”
He didn’t wait for a response; he had spoken his piece and that was that. Even then I realized the significance of that exchange, mostly because he had just spoken more words than I had ever heard him say at once in the entire time I had known him. Now, you have to understand here that I was a teenager in the worst sense of the word. I suspect a lot of people who knew me then probably figured I had eaten a lot of paste as a child! Boy oh boy, did I have ants in my pants to “sky up” and go for it. Yet for some reason (and certainly out of character for me), I actually listened to his wise counsel. We weren’t even almost done because I wasn’t even almost prepared for when things would go wrong, and though I didn’t know it then, they would in fact go wrong — way wrong.
Fast-forward four years and several hundred hours of flying later. I took off in a high-performance single-engine airplane just before midnight (some would call such behavior crazy) and on the heels of a strong winter storm that had blown through the Midwest like a freight train (some would repeat themselves). The flight started like every other I had flown, but it ended very differently. I was cruising at 10,000 feet when all of a sudden the engine just quit — and I mean quit. It didn’t sputter, it just quit. The sky was pitch black without even the tiniest sliver of moon to illuminate it, and there were two feet of fresh snow blanketing the ground so that everything below me looked one-dimensional. I couldn’t tell the difference between the houses, fields, and roads, and there was no horizon to use as a guide. The silence was deafening, making me feel utterly and totally alone. I couldn’t pull over as I could if I had car trouble, and I couldn’t grab a life preserver. I had just five minutes to work with — that’s 300 seconds. The clock was ticking, I was going down — no negotiation, no maybe, I was going down. Whether I lived or died would be determined by the grace of God and what I did in those 300 seconds. There was no time to panic or call someone on the ground. Looking back, I realize that I probably went into a kind of “internal autopilot.” All my training and preparation kicked in. During those additional training exercises I had completed at Bill’s behest, he must have had me simulate emergency dead-stick landings dozens and dozens of times, some during the day, some in the black of night. And in that cockpit, as I quickly came to grips with my situation, I heard his voice in my mind: Fly first, navigate second, and communicate last ... the clock is ticking. I felt very alone, but I calmed myself with the fact that I had prepared completely for this exact situation — my emergency just meant that all those practice drills were for a purpose. It was now “showtime.” Let me tell you, that night I learned that there are just some things in life that come down to you and everything that’s inside you. That’s it; that’s the deal.
An old joke among pilots (which wasn’t very funny that night) is that any landing you walk away from is a good one. I flew that airplane-turned-glider for those 300 seconds with more purpose and focus than anything I had ever done in my life. It was a “good” landing because I did walk away. I’d love to say I swaggered away like John Wayne in "The High and Mighty," whistling and slapping the wing as I left. But the truth is, I was so shaken and scared I was having trouble getting either one of my feet to cooperate in any way that even resembled walking. That five minutes of my life changed me forever, but it was all the preparation that led up to those five minutes that allowed me to make the right choices when it counted. If Bill hadn’t cared enough to tell me the truth as he saw it, if he hadn’t inspired and helped me get ready for what was ahead, I have no doubt I would not be here now, typing these words.
I know now that the outcome on that cold and dark winter’s night was determined long before I ever took off. I survived not because I was lucky or because I was some great, macho pilot, cheating death with flair and panache. I survived because I had listened, because I had done my homework; I was prepared for the crisis before it happened. That night built into me a sense of confidence that if I prepared myself for the emergencies and crises that I would most likely face in life, I could at least influence their outcomes as well.
I hope that you never find yourself in a crisis like I was in that night. But we both know that while your crises will probably be different in both form and substance, they may already be on your schedule. The question is: Will you be ready? Will you have done your homework for yourself and those you love? Just like my night in the airplane, the outcome will probably be determined by what you do or don’t do between now and then. So this is as good a time as any to start thinking about those days in life we would rather skip.
Real life brings real problems
Sometimes I wish I could predict, and even control, the future but I can’t, and neither can you.
Nobody has a “Get out of jail free” card. Although I have identified seven of the most common crises, you may have a list of five or ten more. There is no magic number, but I wanted to focus on the ones that, in my experience, you are most likely to encounter either yourself or through a loved one. They are likely to happen whether you’ve got an eighth-grade education or a Ph.D. They may happen whether you walk the red carpet or clean carpets for a living. They may happen whether you’re in a big city, living life in the fast lane, or in the woods, moving at a snail’s pace.
That means we are left to manage, adapt to, and survive what does come. Unfortunately, some people just knee-jerk react to what pops up in front of them. Some choose to live in stark denial, deluding themselves into believing that if they just don’t think about the inevitable and undeniable crises of life, maybe they just won’t happen. I think Scarlett O’Hara expressed it best: “I can’t think about that right now — if I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Well, frankly, Scarlett, my dear, those tomorrows do come, and if you haven’t prepared for them, those tomorrows can kick your butt. You will see that these strategies (or more accurately, non-strategies) can come at a very high price.
Even though we may not like to think about it, we all know that life is unpredictable. We can’t expect that, just because yesterday was sunny, it won’t rain today or tomorrow. A part of us always maintains a watchful eye, and no matter how well things seem to be going now, there can be the underlying nagging thought: Will the “other shoe” drop? And the truth is “yes,” the other shoe probably will drop at some point. I say this not as a pessimist, but as a realist and a coach, so that you may decide to do what it takes to have the peace that comes from being ready when it does.
If I had waited until that night at 10,000 feet to make a plan, it would have been way too late. When one of these seven days does arrive, I would want you to be able to say, “This is a crisis that I have prepared myself for. I’m at a fork in the road, and I can either panic and fall apart or I can use all of my skills and preparation to manage this day. The choice is mine.” Of course, the only way you can say that is if you are the person with a plan, the person who did their homework. The time to think about what you’re going to do when you’re in rough waters is when you are still in smooth waters, because on those seven days you’ll likely be way too busy physically, mentally, and emotionally to start making a plan.
Monsters live in the dark
I don’t think of life as being good versus bad or fair versus unfair. Life just is. I don’t think the world is out to get you or me or that we should view life as a ticking time bomb that’s going to blow up on us. I want all of us not just to survive these days but to come out of them with a new place to stand — with new tools, new wisdom, and a deeper understanding of how you got there, so that if it’s something you were doing that was ineffective, you can change it, and if it’s something that happened out of the blue, you can weather it and be stronger for it. The tools that I’ll share are designed to help you do just that, as well as, in the process become more successful as an individual — a wife or husband, a mother or father, and a member of your community. It’s a skill set that should be taught but seldom, if ever, is. It ought to be part of the preparation for growing up, but for most of us, it just isn’t.
I want all of us not just to survive these days but to come out of them with a new place to stand — with new tools, new wisdom, and a deeper understanding of how you got there, so that if it’s something you were doing that was ineffective, you can change it, and if it’s something that happened out of the blue, you can weather it and be stronger for it.
My goal is not only to help you learn how to cope well but also to empower you to fill the void of information in your children’s lives — whether they are still young or grown with their own families. You don’t have to live your life in fear of these seven days, the “dropping shoe,” or any other crisis for that matter. You don’t need to live scared if you have a plan in place and if you take some time to recognize and fill any voids in coping skills — before you need them.
People who play the game with “sweaty palms” are probably scared because they should be, because they know they have a void. One woman told me that she saw herself going through life as if she were sitting at the edge of one of those stiff metal folding chairs. She feared that the second she got excited about life it would be pulled out from underneath her. I’m guessing she has a “void” in her coping skills and knows in her heart of hearts that she is not equal to the challenges that could come. She’s not alone. Many of us live this way because fearing the unknown is what we do. We can’t see the road ahead of us, so sometimes we just envision the worst. But what if you did think about, acknowledge, and have a sense of what’s likely around the corners of your life? None of us knows exactly how our lives will play out, but wouldn’t it help to know what at least seven of the most common difficult days or crises most likely to touch your life will be like? Wouldn’t looking at these days before they hit be a lot smarter than waiting and having to struggle with the shock, distress, and confusion on top of all the stress of dealing with the event itself?
Sometimes those first moments of a crisis can be crucial. One way to explain this is to think about what happens between a mugger and his unsuspecting victim. When you’re being mugged, the number one edge that your attacker has over you is those first few seconds when he steps up to you and pulls a knife, holds up a gun, or takes a swing at you. That moment of shock is a state of mind that he is actually counting on to give him the time he needs to victimize you. Now imagine if you knew your attacker was about to strike. If you saw him coming, he wouldn’t have this advantage. Of course, you would never be totally calm in this situation or in the major kinds of crises we are talking about here. You would definitely go into high alert and arousal. But the difference is, you wouldn’t panic and fall apart — not with the mugger and not with one of the seven most challenging days of your life.
I want you to feel certain that you can handle whatever comes your way and, more important, to live each day in that place of confidence. This is part of what I call your attitude of approach — something we’ll talk about in detail in the next chapter. Monsters live in the dark. But once you turn the lights on, you say, “Oh, okay. I can handle this.” And you can. I believe you can. More importantly, I want you to believe that you can.
The 7 most challenging days of your life
For most of us, our formal education and other life experiences don’t give us any information about crisis management, problem solving, or even problem recognition. Much of this book is based on my opinions and experiences of what I have seen work for people dealing with these seven days in their lives as well as in my own life. But I didn’t write it in a vacuum, because most, if not all, of my opinions are also supported by the results of those studies. I also did not discover some great new information to break the “code of life,” which is okay because I didn’t need to.
As is my usual focus, this book is about real people and real problems of living. When I started working on this book, I was curious about what people saw themselves wrestling with in these current times. In order to get a current snapshot of what some of our friends and neighbors see as their greatest stressors and toughest days, a Web survey was conducted at www.dr.phil.com with more than a thousand respondents. We asked what they believed their top stressful events were, based on their opinion about the level of interference these stressors created in their lives according to a scale from 0 to 100 percent (0 meaning the event had no interference, 100 meaning total interference).
Ask yourself if you agree or disagree with the ratings of these various events in light of your own experiences. In other chapters, I’ll discuss the relationship between stressful events, such as these and possible consequences or reactions that may be associated. Fifteen stress events that were reported to interfere at a level of at least 75 percent are ranked as follows:
Rank stress event
1 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan
2 Death of close family member
3 Major disease diagnosis
4 Major disease diagnosis of family member
5 Severe illness (living with a chronic state of illness)
6 Death of a spouse
7 Financial ruin
8 Change in financial state
9 Traumatic legal problem
11 Self-identity crisis
12 Change in mental health of family member
14 Severe injury
15 Death of close friend
The results of the survey were largely consistent with many of the studies that have been conducted on stress in the past. It alerts us to possible areas we need to be watchful of because — as you’ll read in later chapters — these events can be linked to other physical and emotional consequences that can make a situation even worse. For example, the researchers Holmes and Rahe conducted a study with a stress scale a generation ago, and the findings suggest that interpersonal stress events, such as the death of a spouse and divorce, were the greatest stress events and furthermore could be linked to physical diseases. The data didn’t answer the question about which came first, the stressor or the disease, but either way both are problems worth attending to.
Here is a breakdown of the seven days I have chosen to discuss. If you find yourself experiencing one of these days you will recognize the painful descriptions. As I have said, these seven days were selected based on my opinions and my observations of their potential for interference with your life and peace of mind, and on the commonality with which I have seen them occur in people’s lives.
The day your heart is shattered
On this day, you lose something of great value and your heart is broken. It’s safe to say that none of us will escape this day, and chances are that at some time in your or your loved one’s life, you have already experienced it. It’s also likely that you’ll go through this day more than once, and each time will be different depending on what it is that you are losing — a loved one lost to death, a marriage, a friendship, your career, or life’s dream — but one common denominator is the sense of grief, mourning, or gripping pain that can bring you to your knees.
The day you realize you have lived your life as a sellout This is one of the seven most challenging days because it’s the one when you realize that you are living without courage and without integrity. You finally admit that fear has been ruling your life and that almost every choice you have made up to this point has been fear-dominated. You realize that you have sold out on yourself and your dreams because you were afraid you might fail or displease those people whose opinions you value. You cannot look back on your life with a sense of pride because it’s not even your own life you’ve been living — it’s been for someone else, or maybe everyone else ... everyone except you. You have let your “authentic self” down.
The day you realize you are in way over your head
How you cope in this world is what I call your adaptability. On this most challenging day, your ability to meet life’s demands has broken down. Mentally, emotionally, and physically, you feel completely overwhelmed — whether the source of your meltdown was financial or just the realization that you can’t keep living as though you have everything under control because you don’t. This day you are overwhelmed and feel that you are out of options. You feel as if you are drowning in demands and can’t do a thing to keep your head above water.
The day the body breaks down We hate to think about getting sick, but a health breakdown is one of the inevitable facts of life. The chances that either you or your loved ones are going to encounter a major health crisis at some point are pretty high. Even if you live a healthy and accident-free life, at some point your body will just wear out. Like all of these difficult days, the attitude of approach you take into a situation when you or somebody you love is diagnosed with a life-threatening or health-compromising disease, or experiences an injury or a breakdown, is crucial.
The day the mind breaks down
The day you recognize and acknowledge that you or a loved one’s mental or emotional functioning is in trouble can be a day of pain, shame, fear, and confusion. We as a society are much less enlightened about mental as opposed to physical breakdowns, and as a result the challenges perceived in finding answers can be daunting, to say the least. Looking for answers can sometimes be as scary as the problem you are seeking help for because of the pain and fear of judgment by self and others. Amazingly, mental health is something that’s still not openly discussed very much in this country, yet it’s one of the most important aspects of our existence. It is something that defines all our lives in some form or another. When mental health breaks down, it can take many different forms, but statistically is most likely to be expressed as anxiety, depression, or the less frequent but more severe mental disorders that involve gross impairment of reality testing or, more simply put, an inability to distinguish what is real versus what is fantasy, delusion, or hallucinations.
The day addiction takes over One look at the headlines, and it’s clear that addiction is sweeping through this country at an alarming rate. It used to be that drug addicts were found mostly in dark alleys or other seedy parts of town. But today you might find them anywhere from the suburban bedroom to the executive boardroom. Hearing about a soccer mom or successful businessperson who’s addicted to drugs isn’t a fluke anymore. Part of this is how much easier they are to obtain — you can get your drug of choice with the click of a computer mouse. And it isn’t limited to drugs alone; alcoholism too is occurring at alarming levels. Whether it’s your own addiction or that of someone you love, it takes over your life and can easily destroy it.
The day you have lost your purpose and have no answer to the question, “Why?”
This is the challenge of finding meaning for your life. It deals not so much with who you are but why you are. This can be a crisis of faith or a feeling of losing your compass or purpose in this life. What’s the point? What’s your purpose? It’s that feeling of being insignificant. Time is finite, and you have a limited amount of time to make an impact. What are you going to do? If you have lost your connection to meaning in your life, you need to examine this area and get plugged in to something that will stabilize you when nothing around you makes any sense. This could be anything from a new foundation in your faith to devoting yourself to a cause you have always wanted to join to just being the best dad, mentor, employee, daughter, or friend that you can be.
When you face your challenges on these seven days or on others that may come into your life, and you watch yourself come through to the other side, you can be exhilarated and empowered by it. You can hold your head up even when everything around you is falling down.
Life is not a success-only journey
The fact is that despite our best-laid plans and deepest desires, real life isn’t always easy. It isn’t a success-only journey for any of us. Going through life can at times feel like going through a wind tunnel. Sometimes life comes at you in a steady breeze; other times it’s like a category five hurricane. The storms of life may not always have happy endings, but they can at least be dealt with and sometimes even put you in a better place on the other side. What’s at least as important is that you will be able to be in a position to lead your family — to be calm in the middle of the storm.
If you live a faith-based or spiritual life, you may say that you will pray to God when a crisis hits and He will save you. That makes perfect sense, but you also have to get busy yourself. I can tell you that as somebody who embraces a faith-based life, I am also very active in using all of my resources to help myself. I figure that’s why God gave them to me. My point is that no matter where your strength comes from, your job is to kick, fight, scratch, and claw for your best position in this world. Whether you think you got them through the DNA chain or as a gift from God, you have resources that are going to be called into play especially on those seven days, and what I want you to do is learn how to mobilize them.
Hold your head up
We are all products of our learning history, and if there were never any challenges, we wouldn’t develop mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I’ve always said that if you face adversity in life and you don’t learn from it, it’s a penalty. If you learn from it, at least you can consider it tuition. I’m not saying that changing your attitude of approach or having an action plan is going to keep you from having problems or keep you from the challenges that life is going to serve up. It won’t. I’m not saying that it’s going to prevent these seven days of your life. It won’t. You may still hit the same bumps on those seven days, but now you can react differently.
The way you walk through this world is going to be different. It’s sort of like this: Imagine someone who is a black belt in martial arts walking down a dark alley late at night. Then imagine someone who doesn’t have that training going down that same alley. The difference in their experience of that walk is huge.
Ultimately, my goal with this book is to equip you to walk with confidence and power, not based on a false bravado, but based on readiness.
Excerpted from “Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Dr. Phil McGraw. Reprinted with permission from Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.