As a life coach, I spend a lot of time helping clients to pay close attention to their autopilot reaction to challenges in their lives. What you consider to be challenges and how you respond to them are defining factors in the quality of your life.

Next time your sense of well-being is disturbed, try the following 5-step process and see if it leads you in a better direction. Don’t be surprised if you get stuck on the first step. This is profound work and doesn’t happen overnight. The key is to keep practicing with deep personal honesty until this response comes naturally to you.

1. Attitude: Your attitude will pre-determine your ability to work with and learn from life’s challenges each and every time they show up. If you tend to think of them as ‘wrong’ and as ‘things that shouldn’t happen’ then you will automatically be thrown into a defensive and confrontational posture. On the other hand, if you receive them as simply calling you or the situation into question, a more relaxed, self-trusting, and open response is possible. If the same pattern happens again and again, rather than going into high drama defensive victim mode with such thoughts as ‘here we go again,’ ‘this always happens to me,’ ‘everyone else . . . ’ or ‘what’s wrong with me?’ try another point of view. Rather than suffering through the challenges that come your way, consider embracing your life as a perfectly customized journey of learning, growing and healing. Give yourself permission to be vulnerable and to explore your own behavior without trying to justify it as ‘right.’

2. Feel It, Name It, and Rename It: Once you have opened up your attitude and are ready to learn from your experience, take a few deep breaths and focus inward to what it feels like inside of you meeting this unexpected and perhaps undesired experience. Are you scared? Mad? In shock? Be really honest with yourself and name your feelings and name the challenge. For example, I am working through a challenge with my downstairs neighbor. She complains about things like the fact that she can hear my cats running down the hall. This triggers anger in me and I tend to fly into judgment of her as a small-minded person with a princess complex. My mind reels with anger at her choice to make an issue of everything and anything I do that she doesn’t like, rather than choosing to acknowledge all the things that are good about having me for a neighbor and/or choosing to contribute to creating a harmonious shared living environment.

When I look below the surface I see that this trigger relates to a much deeper issue I am working on that has to do with feeling profound sadness when I encounter all the big and little ways that we choose less than the goodness, kindness, and caring that is available to us in our relationships with one another. When I see any presenting irritation in that context, I am better able to respond in a way that encourages my own learning and growth rather than falling into the same old pattern of judgment and self-preservation. When I redefine the true issue at hand in this way, I take ownership of it by recognizing the difference between the deeper issue and the outer trigger of the situation at hand. By renaming the true issue, I can respond more appropriately.

3. Neutral Observation: Neutrality means not belonging to or favoring either side in a challenge. It is the opposite of analyzing and judging the behavior of others as a way to feel righteous or good about yourself. Neutral observation occurs when we choose to activate that part of ourselves that is not IN the situation involved, but rather is able to move around it and look at it and ourselves from many points of view, free of our triggered feelings and thoughts. This is how we gain insight instead of just running the same old reactions from our past. When we are open to a new point of view rather than automatically making the situation, other person, or ourselves ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ our imagination and deeper insights can lead to entirely new and more rewarding ways of seeing what is really going on.

4. Inner Work: Always do your inner work as described in steps 1-3 above before deciding how to respond to the outer situation. Think of the outer situation as merely the hook or trigger that is calling you to finding greater inner freedom. When you have done your inner work, rename the challenge as your own personal learning opportunity as in the example in #2 above. Trust that what comes your way in life is FOR YOU not against you.

5. Outer Work: Having stepped free of your autopilot, knee-jerk reaction to a given challenge by doing your inner work, it becomes fairly easy to choose how you want to respond to or engage in the situation at hand. As tempting as it is, for example, for me to say something judgmental and unkind to my neighbor like ‘get a life,’ or ‘you better be careful or your mind is going to get so small that you’ll lose it altogether,” I have learned that it serves me far better to say something like, ‘yes, isn’t it a happy sound when my cats run down the hall,’ or to quietly say a prayer for the highest good in the situation and to go do my own inner work.

I know these steps seem simple when you read them. I’ve heard many a client dismiss or become irritated by my guidance towards one of these steps, defensively thinking they already know this. But, the name of the game here is not intellectual knowledge, but application. It is in the doing that we learn. Practice, practice, practice and then challenge yourself to take this process deeper and deeper until you really get free.