'Be a warrior, not a victim': An ex-SEAL's guide to surviving life's setbacks

I’ll never forget the devastating words of my doctor: “You’ll never be able to walk again.”

At first, I didn’t think I heard the doctor correctly. What 9-year-old boy could possibly imagine getting such devastating news? It was the look on the doctor’s face and the way my mother was squeezing my hand that told me I’d heard him right.

I looked down at my legs, hating how my own body had betrayed me. Wouldn’t let me play sports, run around, or play with my friends. And now, even walking was going to be denied to me.

Fifteen years later I had the honor and privilege of serving my country as a Navy SEAL. I was badly injured as a SEAL in parachuting training exercise, but recovered from that as well.

I got back up because I refused to stay down. I became who I am today, in spite of being told I would never walk again.

But how I overcame the rare hip disease that had destroyed my hip bone and socket as a child, as well as my parachuting injury years later, isn’t what I want to talk about here. I want to focus on how every person reading these words can apply the lessons I learned from my experience overcoming great challenges to your own life and struggles.

You too need not surrender to the adversity life tosses in your path if you follow five steps when life knocks you down and you’re having trouble getting back up. There’s no magic formula involved here; not for me, and not for you either. It takes hard work and dedication to a process that may entail many steps. But here are the five I always use whenever I need to get back up after falling.

Step One: You succeed, first and foremost, by making the decision to get back up. No systematic approach, of however many steps, can work until you embrace this resolve. We all fall sometime. Refusing to stay down is the first step to climbing back up. Once you have made the decision to reject the notion of failure, you have your feet firmly set for the climb.

Step Two: Accept constructive criticism, but be extremely stubborn on your focus. Someone saying you can’t succeed has to make you want to do it even more. Your success proves these defeatists wrong and shows that what everyone else thinks doesn’t matter. The naysayers will shoot down your dreams and goals, because they don’t know your heart, your soul. If you shoot for the stars and only hit the moon, you may have fallen short, but those who doubt you likely never took a shot at all.

Being stubborn means resilience in the face of negativity You’ll begin to see that you have what the naysayers don’t. Their criticisms and their judgments, are rooted in their own weakness, not yours. If you’re stubborn enough, you will rise above the limitations they would seek to impose upon you.  

Step Three: Maintain a positive attitude. You become what you think about, what you talk about, and what you act upon. Print off everything that you say to others and all posts on all of your social media accounts. If you are constantly being critical and putting others down, this is who you are, this is your character, your legacy. You’re leaving behind a trail of hate and negativity that lingers like a thorn bush, snagging anything that it touches. You ruin anything productive that others may desire.

Conversely, the opposite will put you on the route to achieving your potential, walking the narrow path that few in this world are privileged to follow. The path is lined with motivation and determination that become the crutches to help you climb back to your feet.

Step Four:  When you’ve fallen, look up instead of down at the ground around you. Focusing on failure is the surest recipe for continuing to fail. No one can measure the ability of your mind and your soul power, so focus on success and what’s above you. Start with setting short-term goals.

I was able to defy the odds and walk again by focusing only on what I could do, and not on what I couldn’t. When I was bedridden as a child, and then using leg braces and crutches, I had to focus on the shortest possible goal so that I could actually succeed. That meant being just 1 percent better, nothing more. That has stuck with me ever since I was able to walk and then run again.

Step Five: Be a warrior, not a victim. Never let someone’s voice – or your past or current circumstances – victimize your mind’s capacity and ability to overcome the odds that are stacked against you in order to succeed.

You must absolutely refuse to surrender to the negative in your life. It is a cancer that attacks the very core of what you could be. It forces you into a hole that you can’t climb out of and sucks you down into a darkness that leaves you resorting to blaming others and constantly searching for a way to take down your colleagues, coworkers, friends or even family members. Being and staying positive is a conscious decision, not a random act. Negativity is the surest way to tear yourself down, and the surest way to insure you won’t be able to get back up.

I got back up because I refused to stay down. I became who I am today, in spite of being told I would never walk again. I was able to serve others and serve this nation in the best way that I could. If you’re struggling and going through circumstances you don’t think you can rise out of,  you can do the same. I want to help you along your walk in search of a place to belong.

Don’t surrender your life to your circumstances. Charge forward and never ever give up on your dreams so you can always be the best version of yourself, never surrendering when you fall because you know you will climb back bigger and stronger.

Patrick Bisher is a decorated Navy SEAL for his service in Iraq and the author of "No Surrender: Faith, Family, and Finding Your Way", (Post Hill Press, July 4th).