I recently read an excellent book called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy written by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and Adam Grant. In it, Sheryl discusses the sudden death of her husband Dave in 2015 and what she and her family learned about bereavement, hardship, coping, and – ultimately – hope. And, appearing many times in the book and even in the title itself is “The R Word” of wellness: “resilience”.
The ability to cope when faced with a challenge or stress and maintain or return to healthy functioning, resilience is being touted as key to balance, wellness, and recovery.
It doesn’t mean that people who are resilient don’t experience sadness, grief, anger, disappointment, or other difficult emotions – it means that they can use their strengths to face challenges, cope in healthy ways, and ultimately learn from experiences.
One message that particularly resonated with me in Sheryl’s book was that resilience isn’t a quality or skill that we either have or don’t have – it’s a way of coping that we can develop based on how we respond to challenges. She explains what psychologist Martin Seligman says can get in the way of recovery and developing resilience: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. The three P’s. Here’s what they are all about, how they affected Sheryl, and how we can all be aware of them to build our own resilience.
1. Personalization – “It’s all my fault”
Personalization is believing that we are at fault for the difficulties we face. Sheryl blamed herself for her husband’s death at first. She worried that she had missed signs that could have prevented his death, felt guilty for what her friends and family did to support her, and apologized for disrupting others’ lives as if she herself had chosen the situation. Over time, she came to accept that she wasn’t to blame and that she didn’t need to be sorry to others for the tragedy.
When bad things happen, we tend to look for a cause and may blame ourselves in the absence of anything else.
But analyzing our role in causing adversity isn’t constructive if it’s something over which we did not have control. Over time, we can shift our thoughts to focusing on recovery and coping rather than criticizing ourselves or feeling bad about how others may be affected by something that was out of our hands.
2. Pervasiveness – “Everything is terrible”
Sheryl’s grief was all-consuming and she understandably struggled to focus and be productive when she first returned to work after Dave’s death. But over time, she came to appreciate the support of her friends, family, and co-workers as well as professional counsellors, and she was happy to see her kids getting back to school and being less overwhelmed by their grief. She realized that not everything in her life was awful and began to find some comfort in the positive things around her.
Feelings of pervasiveness take time and effort to manage, especially when the challenge is something that affects a number of areas in our life, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.
Resilience doesn’t mean denying the negative feelings and impacts we’re experiencing.
Resilience means accepting them as normal and coping in ways that help us to also experience positive feelings and appreciate that though it may sometimes feel like it, not everything in our life is terrible.
3. Permanence – “It will always be like this”
After Dave’s death, Sheryl felt like she and her kids would never be happy again. She couldn’t see an end to the pain she was experiencing and was at a loss for how she would find hope again. She didn’t believe people who told her the pain would lessen over time.
To help them cope, Sheryl and her kids made a rule that they would respect their feelings. That meant crying when they needed to, even at school or work, and not denying their grief. They felt their feelings and accepted that they were in a devastating situation. And Sheryl says that over time, the anguish began to lift ever so slightly and she could recover more quickly from times when she would be overwhelmed by her grief. It happened over months, but it happened.
Since we can’t predict the future, it is tempting to assume that our present feelings will always be there.
If we’re sad or anxious, we feel like we will always be sad or anxious. What is often helpful is paying attention to the words we are using when thinking and talking about our feelings. For example, thinking “I will always feel stressed” will be more difficult to deal with than “I am feeling stressed today”. The first implies an overwhelming lifetime of stress to manage while the second suggests that things may change – maybe not right away or as soon as we would like, but time can bring healing if we take the right steps and get the right support.
The title of Sheryl’s book, Option B, comes from her recognition that she ended up on a different path than she expected. Option A was a life with Dave, but after his death, she had to do what she could to be healthy and happy while living with the Option B that she had been dealt.
If you are feeling down, worried, or stressed and are struggling to cope, you can talk one-on-one with our friendly, qualified counsellors at our weekly Free Walk-In Counselling service. It is available 3 days a week throughout Halton, and no referral or appointment is required. Get more information on our website.