Life’s Unexpected Twists: Insights from Exploring the Roles of Emotions, Motivations, Self-Efficacy, and Secondary Control

Academically Reviewed By: Dr. Joel B. Goodin

Life's Unexpected Twists: Insights from Exploring the Roles of Emotions, Motivations, Self-Efficacy, and Secondary Control

Life can throw curveballs that knock us off the course we planned. These sudden, critical events can turn our personal and work lives upside down in an instant. It’s important to understand how these surprises affect our feelings, drive, and actions if we want to cope with life’s uncertainties.

Jeanine E. Turner, Joel B. Goodin, and Cathryn Lokey researched this topic. Their study, “Exploring the Roles of Emotions, Motivations, Self Efficacy, and Secondary Control Following Critical Unexpected Life Events,” explored how these key factors shape how people deal with unexpected setbacks over time. This research is key to highlighting how people handle life’s unexpected twists and turns.

Understanding Critical Unexpected Life Events

What Constitutes a Critical Unexpected Life Event?

A critical unexpected life event is a major incident that shakes up an individual’s normal routine. These events require a person to mentally and emotionally adapt in significant ways. Such events are surprising by nature and might include anything from a devastating personal loss to unanticipated good fortune, incidents which bring their own challenges and chances for personal development.

Categorizing Life’s Unpredictable Moments

The authors Turner, Goodin, and Lokey break these moments down into three main groups: transitions, failures, and traumas. Each group has its own features.

  • Transitions are shifts that happen without warning yet still fit within what we’d expect in life. This includes unexpected leaps, like suddenly landing a new job or making an impromptu move to another city.
  • Failures are tough moments that cause major disruptions, such as getting fired or botching a crucial test.
  • Traumas are extreme and often change your life radically. These are often events like accidents, severe illnesses, or grieving the loss of a loved one.

The Chain Reaction of Surprises

Even though they’re tough, transition events can open doors to personal growth and rethinking your goals. On the flip side, failures often lead us to doubt our skills and carefully review our plans. They can be disheartening but also teach valuable lessons. Traumas hurt the most. They stir up a lot of emotional chaos but have the capability to push us toward deep personal growth. The way a person handles these surprises depends on their feelings, drive, and self-confidence.

Understanding how to deal with life’s ups and downs is essential. To do this, we need to know the common reactions and categories of responses that come with these events. This knowledge can help us create healthy coping mechanisms and become more resilient when faced with uncertainty.

Woman in her home looking off to the right

Emotional Reactions to Life’s Surprises

Research by Turner, Goodin, and Lokey sheds light on what emotions people feel when they encounter unexpected events in their lives. They split emotions into two types: those that make us feel good (positive) or bad (negative), and those that either get us moving (high energy) or slow us down (low energy). For example, happiness and relief are positive feelings, while fear and sadness are generally negative. Some high-energy emotions can really kick us into gear, like excitement or even panic.

Understanding Low Activation Emotions and Their Impact

Simple emotions that don’t get us moving or thinking deeply, like sadness or feeling okay with things, often lead to either not doing much or just thinking about stuff.

This research doesn’t give exact numbers on how participants reacted emotionally, but it does paint a broad picture. Often, when people are going through big changes, they might feel really good and experience pumped-up emotions. This prepares them for new challenges. But if someone makes a serious mistake, they’re more likely to experience intense negative feelings – which can be tough but might push them toward making positive shifts in life.

How we handle our feelings can massively shape our ability to bounce back from tough times. Having a positive outlook can help us stay motivated and tackle problems head on, which can make us tougher in the long run. On the flip side, though, if we’re feeling down and out of steam, we might just pull back from challenges, which isn’t going to do us any favors when it comes to adapting and growing as a person.

Goodin’s Attribution control model of well-being for handling Life's Unexpected Twists
Goodin’s Attribution control model of well-being

The Power of Belief, Primary, and Mediated Control

Understanding primary and secondary control is key to understanding how people deal with surprises in life. Research shows that primary control, also known as self-efficacy, is when you believe your own actions can change things and lead to different results. When someone feels confident that they can affect the outcome, they’re more likely to keep trying, even when it gets tough.

On the other hand, secondary control, or mediated control, is about accepting that outside elements like destiny, divine forces, or help from others influence what happens next. This doesn’t mean giving up. Instead, it means being smart about using help that comes from beyond yourself and matching your hard work with these opportunities.

The study points out that individuals with a strong sense of both primary and secondary control are likely to be more emotionally stable and bounce back quickly. For instance, people who trust their own skills (high primary control) but also believe in a little help from fate or others (secondary control) are better at handling life’s unexpected challenges.

There isn’t clear research on how the participants feel about control, yet it seems there’s a link between holding certain beliefs and values and how well people can manage stress. Those with a sense of self-power tend to act boldly and look for answers. At the same time, people who think there’s some benevolent outside force usually make sense of what they go through and stay tough over time.

The Road to Resilience, Coping, and Long-Term Outcomes

The study highlights some key factors that boost long-lasting coping skills and toughness when dealing with major surprises in life. For starters, rethinking your values and aims is crucial to accepting change. By thinking about what matters most, people can change their direction to match their true beliefs, leading to more satisfying results.

Having control is key. Being able to shape our own lives builds resilience. At the same time, knowing we have the support of others gives us comfort when things get rough. Also, how we fit unexpected events into our life story is important. These moments can make us grow and help us understand who we are better.

If you’re going through changes or tough times, it’s crucial to think about what you really value. Accept that you have power but also recognize the help you have around you. Work on blending your experiences into your life story.

Here’s some practical advice for readers: Take time to think about your life, and get support from friends, family, or even professionals if needed. Plus, learning to be flexible with your goals and expectations can really help. Writing things down in a journal is a great way to figure out who you are and celebrate your personal journey.

close up of man and woman sitting across from each other, man holds clipboard and pen

Dealing with Sudden Changes in Life

Life can throw curveballs that completely shift our paths, leaving us feeling lost or overwhelmed. However, research gives us some good ways to handle these unexpected changes. Below are some tips based on what studies have found.

Accept the Change

  • It’s important to identify and accept whatever feelings you have, like confusion, fear, or even excitement. Knowing it’s common to react strongly helps you start adjusting.
  • Look at the change in a new way. Try seeing the sudden shift not as an obstacle but as an opportunity for growth and new experiences. Rewrite how you see the event in a positive light.

Seek and Utilize Support

  • Reach out for help. It’s good to talk with people you trust, like friends or family. Even joining a group where you can share what’s on your mind helps. Others might offer new ways to deal with what’s happening.
  • Get professional advice. If change is really messing with your head, it might be time to chat with a counselor or therapist. They have tips and tools that can make it easier for you to sort through your feelings and figure things out.

Regain Control

  • Pick what you can handle. Try to concentrate on the parts of the situation you have power over. When you set small, easy-to-reach goals, you start feeling like you’re back in charge step by step.
  • Make a plan. Come up with a clear strategy for facing the changes head on. If you break everything down into pieces, it won’t feel as overwhelming.

Reflect and Reevaluate

  • Think about what matters. Now’s the time to reflect on what’s important to you. These thoughts will guide how you react and decide what comes next.
  • Change your goals. Be ready to tweak your aims and what you expect, given your new situation. Being adaptable could lead you to exciting discoveries.

Integrate and Move Forward

  • Write it down. Keep track of your thoughts, emotions, and actions as you adjust by writing them down. This can help sort out feelings and make sense of what you’re learning.
  • Seek Out Lessons. Change always teaches us something; embrace these lessons, consider how they’ve molded you, and use them to strengthen yourself.

Practice Self Care

  • Prioritize your health. Make time for activities that boost your body, mind, and spiritual health. Making time for physical activity, eating healthy food, following rituals that matter to you, and getting enough sleep can vastly improve one’s ability to deal with stress.
  • Give yourself a break. Big changes won’t feel normal right away. It’s okay to give yourself the space to adjust and get better.

If you use these tips, you’ll be better equipped to deal with sudden changes in your life. Surprises can be tough, but they’re also a chance for us to grow and find our hidden strength.

woman sitting in chair with notepad in hand with a pen, smirking at a person sitting across from her

Summing Things Up

This study has shown us how emotions, motivations, beliefs about control, and being resilient are all connected. This knowledge helps us understand ourselves better, especially how we deal with tough times.

When life throws a curveball, how do you deal with it? What methods worked for you to get through tough times, and in what ways have these experiences changed your story? Reflecting can help you understand your strengths and where you can improve. Learn more about the world of cognitive science with Dr. Joel Goodin in his podcast titled”Tips to Improve Memory: Exploring Cognitive Science”.


Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the Roles of Emotions, Motivations, Self-Efficacy, and Secondary Control Following Critical Unexpected Life Events. Springer Science + Business Media, LLC

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