Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband David Goldberg died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48, Sheryl was plunged immediately into devastating loss and grief, widowhood, single parenthood of two young children, and a personal journey of ultimately recovering her hope, her centeredness, her resilience, even recovering a sense of joy and deeper sense of life purpose.
Just weeks after David’s death, Sheryl was finding someone to substitute for Dave at a father-child activity.“But I want Dave,” she cried to her friend Phil, who replied.“Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”
Sheryl shares the poignant story of her process, and the deep elements of anyone’s process of coping with sudden and tragic loss from illness or injury, job loss or poverty, sexual assault, natural disasters or the violence of war, with potentially traumatizing overwhelm, finding the resources and tools to find one’s way, in her New York Times #1 best-seller Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joywith honesty and vulnerability, poignancy and wit.
Sheryl also shares relevant research discoveries of her friend and co-author Adam Grant, psychologist and New York Times best-selling author. Option B is a reliable guide through the unexpected, the unprepared for, the unimaginable; it’s skillfully crafted, interweaving the practical tools offered by positive psychology with the inspiring stories of so many, so many who have faced similar losses and recovered their resilience and joy, too. Pushing the envelope even further into public policy recommendations (extended bereavement leave, trauma-sensitive schools, helping pregnant teens complete a college education).
“Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is about the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. We look at the steps people can take, both to help themselves and to help others.We explore the psychology of recovery and the challenges of regaining confidence and rediscovering joy. We cover ways to speak about tragedy and comfort friends who are suffering. And we discuss what it takes to create resilient communities and companies, raise strong children, and love again.”
May the guidance and inspiration of these excerpted reflections, stories, and exercises be useful to you and yours.
We all deal with loss: jobs lost, loves lost, lives lost. The question is not whether these things will happen. They will, and we will have to face them.
– Sheryl Sandberg
I’m excerpting here from three of the major practices/paradigms for building resilience explored in Option B:
– Three P’s that derail resilience: personalization, pervasiveness, permanence
– Raising resilient kids – four core beliefs
– Taking back the joy – leading beyond happiness to strength
THREE P’s THAT DERAIL RESILIENCE: PERSONALIZATION, PERVASIVENESS, PERMANENCE
“We plant the seeds of resilience in the way we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery:
1) personalization – the belief that we are at fault
2) pervasiveness – the belief than an event will affect all areas of our life
3) permanence – the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.
“I’d fallen into these three traps myself, starting with personalization. I immediately blamed myself for Dave’s death. [Even after] the autopsy proved Dave had died in a matter of seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia caused by coronary artery disease…I still found other reasons to blame myself. Dave’s coronary artery disease was never diagnosed. I worried that he had complained of chest pain but we had missed it. I thought endlessly about his diet and if I should have pushed him to make more improvements. [It helped when] the doctors told me that no single lifestyle changed would definitely have saved him.
“As I blamed myself less, I started to notice that not everything was terrible. My son and daughter were sleeping through the night, crying less, and playing more. We had access to grief counselors and therapists. I could afford child care and support at home. I had loving family, friends, and colleagues; I marveled at how they were carrying me and my children – quite literally at times.
My first days back in the office were a complete haze. Everything felt unfamiliar. In my first meeting, all I could think was, What is everyone talking about and why on earth does this even matter? Then at one point I was drawn into the discussion and for a second – maybe half a second – I forgot. I forgot about death. I forgot watching Dave’s casket being lowered in the ground. As the days turned into weeks and then months, I was able to concentrate for longer. Work gave me a place to feel more life myself, and the kindness of my colleagues showed me that not all aspects of my life were terrible.
“The hardest of the three P’s for me to process was permanence. For months, no matter what I did, I felt like the debilitating anguish would always be there. When my children cried, I would flash forward to their entire lives without a father. Dave wasn’t just going to miss a soccer game, but all the soccer games. All the debate tournaments. All the holidays. All the graduations. He would not walk our daughter down the aisle at her wedding. The fear of forever without Dave was paralyzing.
“Eventually I tried a cognitive behavioral therapy technique where you write down a belief that’s causing you anguish and then follow it with proof that the belief is false. I started with my biggest fear: “My children will never have a happy childhood.” Staring at that sentence on paper made my stomach turn but also made me realize that I had spoken with many people who had lost parents at a young age and went on to prove that prediction wrong. Another time I wrote, “I will never feel okay again.” Seeing those words forced me to realize that just that morning, someone had told a joke and I had laughed. If only for one minute, I’d already proven that sentence false.
“Following Dave’s death, I had stronger second-derivative negative feelings than ever before. I wasn’t just grief-stricken; I was grief-stricken that I was grief-stricken. I wasn’t just anxious; I was meta-anxious. Small things that never really concerned me before, like the possibility of my kids getting injured riding their bikes to school, worried me incessantly. Then I worried that I was over-worrying.
“Rabbi Nat Ezray, who led Dave’s funeral, told me to “lean in to the suck” – to expect it to be awful. Taking my rabbi’s advice and accepting that this completely sucked helped a great deal. Instead of being surprised by the negative feelings, I expected them.
“A few days after Dave’s funeral, my son and daughter and I made a list of our new “family rules” and hung it over the cubbies where they put their backpacks so we’d see it every day. Rule number one was “Respect our feelings.” We discussed how the sadness might come over them at awkward times, like during school, and that when it did, they could take a break from whatever they were doing.
“I gave this advice to my kids but also had to take it myself. Leaning in to the suck meant admitting that I could not control when the sadness would come over me. I needed cry breaks, too. I took them on the side of the road in my car…at work…at board meetings. Sometimes I went to the women’s room to sob and sometimes I just cried at my desk. When I stopped fighting those moments they passed more quickly.
“After a few months, I started to notice the fog of intense pain lifted and then, and when it rolled back in, I recovered faster. It occurred to me that dealing with grief was like building physical stamina; the more you exercise, the faster your heart rate recovers after it is elevated. And sometimes during especially vigorous physical activity, you discover strength you didn’t know you had.”
RAISING RESILIENT KIDS
“We owe all children safety, support, opportunity, and help finding a way forward, especially in the most tragic situations….We all want to raise resilient kids so they can overcome obstacles big and small. Resilience leads to greater happiness, more success, and better health….And I learned from Adam, resilience is not a fixed personality trait. It’s a lifelong project.
“Building resilience depends on the opportunities children have and the relationships they form with parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends. We can start by helping children develop four core beliefs that have a real impact on their resilience:
1) They have some control over their lives
2) They can learn from failure
3) They matter as human beings
4) They have real strengths to rely on and share.
One study tracked hundreds of at-risk children for three decades. They grew up in environments with severe poverty, alcohol abuse, or mental illness, and two out of three developed serious problems by adolescence and adulthood. Yet despite these extreme hardships, a third of the kids matured into competent, confident, and caring young adult with no record of delinquency or mental health problems. These resilient children shared something: they felt a strong sense of control over their lives. They saw themselves as the master of their own fate and viewed negative events not as threats but as challenges and even opportunities. The same hold true for children who aren’t at risk: the most resilient ones realize they have the power to shape their own lives. Their caregivers communicate clear and consistent expectations, giving them structure and predictability, which increases their sense of control.
“The second belief that shapes children’s resilience is that they can learn from failure. Not only do we learn more from failure than success, we learn more from bigger failures because we scrutinize them more closely. Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that children respond better to adversity when they have a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. A fixed mindset means viewing abilities as something we’re either born with or not: “I’m a whiz at math but don’t have the drama gene.” When kids have a growth mindset, they see abilities as skills that can be learned and developed. They can work to improve. “I may not be a natural actor, but if I rehearse enough I can shine on the stage.”
“Whether children develop a fixed or growth mindset depends in part on the type of praise they receive from parents and teachers. Dweck’s team randomly assigned students to receive different kinds of positive feedback after they took a test. The kids who were praised for being smart did worse on later tests because they views their intelligence as a fixed attribute. When the “smart” ones struggled, they decided that they just didn’t have the ability. Instead of attempting to complete a more difficult test, they gave up. But when kids were praised for trying, they worked harder on the challenging test and made more of an effort to finish it.
“The third belief that affects children’s resilience is mattering: knowing that other people notice you, care about you, and rely on you. Many parents communicate this naturally. They listen closely to their children, show that they value their idea, and help them create strong, secure attachments with other.
“In Denmark, mattering is part of the school curriculum. During a weekly hour called Klassen Time, students come together to discuss problems and help one another. Danish children do this every week from age six until they graduate from high school. To sweeten the deal, each week a different students brings cake. When children present their own problems, they feel listened to, and when their classmates seek guidance, they feel they can make a different. The children learn empathy by hearing others’ perspectives and reflecting on how their behavior affects those around them. They are taught to think, “How do others feel? How do my actions make them feel?”
“The fourth belief held by resilient kids is that they have strengths they can rely on and share with others. I thought it might help to create “family rules” which we could put on the wall to remind us of the coping mechanisms we would need. My kids and I sat down with a big piece of paper and colored markers:
Respect our feelings
“The family rules still hang about the kids’ cubbies, but only recently did I notice that asking for help is in all four categories. Now I see that this is at the heart of building resilience. When children feel comfortable asking for help, they know they matter. They see that others care and want to be there for them. They understand that they are not alone and can gain some control by reaching out for support. They realize that pain is not permanent; things can get better. Even when I felt helpless because I could not fix or cure my children’s grief, if I could walk alongside them and listen – companioning – I would be helping them.”
TAKING BACK JOY
“A life chasing pleasure without meaning is an aimless existence. Yet a meaningful life without joys is a depressing one. “Survivor guilt is a thief of joy – yet another secondary loss from death. When people lose a loved one, they are not just wracked with grief but also with remorse. It’s another personalization trap: “Why am I the one who is still alive?”
“For more than four months, I’d been completely focused on my kids and my job, and just making it through each day. I had stopped doing anything Dave and I had done together for fun like seeing movies, going out to dinner, with friends. Then one day on the phone Dave’s brother Rob gave me a true gift. “Since the day Dave met you, all he ever wanted was to make you happy. He would want you to be happy – even now. Don’t take that away from him.”
“With Rob’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to try having fun for my children – and with my children. “We take it back” become our mantra. Rather than give up the things that reminded us of Dave, we embraced them and made them an ongoing part of our lives. We took back rooting for the teams that Dave love: the Minnesota Vikings and the Golden State Warriors. We took back poker, which Dave had played with our kids since they were five and seven. Along with taking things back, I looked for ways to move forward. I started small. We began playing hearts, a card game my grandfather taught me. We began biking on weekend, which Dave couldn’t do because it hurt his back. I started playing the piano again, something I hadn’t done in thirty years.
“ ‘How we spend our days,’ author Annie Dillard writes, ‘is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ Rather than waiting until we’re happy to enjoy the small things, we should go and do the small things that makes us happy. As blogger Tim Urban describes it, happiness is the joy you find on hundreds of forgettable Wednesdays.
“We could begin to find the “flow” again, total absorption in a task. Flow might sound like a luxury, but after tragedy, it can become essential. Whether you see joy as a discipline, an act of defiance, a luxury, or a necessity it is something everyone deserves. Joy allows us to go on living and living and being there for others. Even when we’re in great distress, joy can still be found in moments we seize and moments we create. Cooking. Dancing. Hiking. Praying. Driving. Singing Billy Joel songs off-key. All of these can provide relief from pain. And when these moments add up, we find that they give us more than happiness; they also give us strength.”
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity. – and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around the backbone.
– Sheryl Sandberg
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Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.
– Bern William
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The human capacity for burden is like bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.
– Jodi Picoult<
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There exist some evils so terrible and some misfortunes so horrible that we dare not think of them, whilst their very aspect makes us shudder; but if they happen to fall on us, we find ourselves stronger than we imagined, we grapple with our ill luck, and behave better than we expected we should.
– Jean de La Bruyere
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You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.
– Henri Frederic Amiel
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In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
– Viktor Frankl
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The leaders I met, whatever walk of life they were from, whatever institutions they were presiding over, always referred back to the same failure – something that happened to them that was personally difficult, even traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom – as something they thought was almost a necessity. It’s as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.
– Warren Bennis
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With the right support, beliefs can fuel action and become self-fulfilling Believe you can learn from failure and you become less defensive and more open. Believe you matter and you spend more time helping others, which helps you matter even more. Believe you have strengths and you start seeing opportunities to use them. Believe you are a wizard who can cross the space-time continuum and you may have gone too far.
– Sheryl Sandberg
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
The Option B website offers brief video interviews of more than 30 fellow human beings who share their stories of building their resilience. Well worth checking out.
Here are two stories from the book:
To illustrate the importance of the second factor of post-traumatic growth: gaining appreciation for the life we have now, in spite of loss and tragedy:
“My childhood friend Brooke endured an arduous adoption process filled with huge disappointments, which melted away when she finally held her baby. In the happy months that followed, Brooke met Meredith, another new mom. Meredith had struggled to get pregnant and the two women bonded over their “miracles babies.” The kids connected too, becoming that Brooke called “little baby besties.”
“Then one day Meredith found a small lump under her armpit. She was only thirty-four and felt perfectly healthy but had it checked anyway. PET scans revealed that she had stage 4 breast cancer. In addition to offering Meredith her full support, Brooke felt compelled to get he own mammogram. When she tried to schedule it, her gynecologists office advised her to wait half a year until she turned forty and insurance would cover the cost. But Brooke insisted on the test, which revealed that she had stage 4 breast cancer too.
“The two friends went through chemotherapy together. Brooke responded to the treatment, but Meredith’s cancer had already spread to her liver. She died three years later. “I always tell her parents, her husband, and her daughter that she was my angel,” Brooke now says. What save me is that they caught my cancer before it had gone to any vital organs. And that is because of Meredith.”
“Brooke has been in remission for seven years and in addition to gaining physical strength, she has gained emotional strength. “I went through chemo and buried my young friend. That gives you perspective whether you’re looking for it nor not. The little things don’t stress me out. I am much stronger, much more centered and reasonable now. Something that sent me spinning before I now see as relative to what could have been and I am like, ‘ah, that’s nothing. I am here.’”
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To illustrate the importance of the third factor in post-traumatic growth: resourcing with people who understand your story:
“Resilience is not just built in individuals. It is built among individuals – in our neighborhoods, schools, towns, and governments. Collective resilience requires more than just share hope – it is also fueled by shared experiences, shared narrative, and shared power.
“When Steven Czifra arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, he felt like an outsider – and not just because at thirty-eight he was twice as old as a typical freshman. Growing up, Steven suffered physical abuse and started smoking crack at age ten. Burglaries and carjacking led to stints in juvenile hall and then state prison. After fighting with another inmate and spitting on a guard, Steven was sent to solitary confinement for four years. He had since testified to the California State Legislature that isolation is a “torture chamber.”
“After his release from prison, he discovered a love of English literature, and after several years at community college he was accepted to Berkeley. He’d earned his spot, but once he got to campus, he felt different and disconnected. “I went to the English classes, but I didn’t really see myself in the faces of the people there,” he said. Then one day Steve was walking through the center for transfer students and was stopped by Danny Murillo, another student in his thirties, who said he instantly recognized Steven’s “demeanor.” Within a minute, they realized that they’d both spent time in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison. “What happened in that moment,” Steve said, is I saw myself as a student at Cal with every privilege and every right to be there.”
“Steven and Danny became close friends and united to speak out against the cruelty of solitary confinement. They also help start the Underground Scholars Initiative, a group that supports Berkeley students affected by incarceration. Having experienced the deepest desolation, they wanted to come together as a community. “As a collective of students, we wanted to put each other in the best possible position to succeed,” Danny said. A lot of times formerly incarcerated people don’t want to ask for help. We’re trying to get them to understand that it’s actually a sign of strength to recognize when you don’t have the skills to do something – and reach out for help. Wanting to improve is not a sign of weakness.”
“The Posse Foundation is another organization founded on the importance of grouping students with similar backgrounds to combat feelings of isolation. Posse took its name from a remark made by a talented but lonely former student who observed, “If in only had my posse with me, I never would’ve dropped out. “Posse recruits underprivileged high schoolers who have demonstrated extraordinary academic and leadership potential and sends them in teams of ten to attend the same college on scholarship. Since 1989 Posse has helped nearly seven thousand students attend college with a 90 percent graduation rate. If we are serious about creating ladders of opportunity for everyone, we need to provide greater public and private support for long-term intensive efforts like Posse.”
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Guiding Others in How Best to Help You
“Not everyone feels comfortable talking openly about personal tragedy. We all make our own choices about when and where and if we want to express our feelings. Still, there’s powerful evidence that opening up about traumatic events can improve mental and physical health. Speaking to a friend or family member often helps people understand their own emotions and feel understood.
“I finally did what proved so difficult to do with friends and colleagues face-to-face: I described in my facebook posts how a causal greeting like “how are you? hurt because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened. I pointed out that if people instead asked “How are you today?, it showed that they were aware I was struggling to get thorough each day.
“How are you today? Became a shorthand way to express empathy. That question also helped me realize that my all-encompassing grief might not be permanent. I started responding more frankly. “I’m not fine, and it’s nice to be able to be honest about that with you.” I learned that even small things could let people know that I needed help. When they hugged me hello, if I hugged them just a bit tighter, they understood that I was not okay today.”
Helping Kids Express Emotions
“My kids also attended Experience Camps, a free weeklong program for children who have lost a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver. Two of the core values at the camp are building community and inspiring hope. In one exercise, kids went to stations to confront an emotion associated with grieving. For anger, kids used chalk to scrawl words that made them angry on the pavement. Some wrote “bullying”; others wrote “cancer” or “drugs.” Then on the count of three they threw water balloons on the ground to smear the words away and release their anger. These exercises helped show my children that their emotions were normal and other kids felt them too.”
Gratitude for Gifts Received and Claiming Contributions Made
“Journaling helped me make sense of the past and rebuild my self-confidence to navigate the present and future. Then Adam suggested that I should also write down three things that I’d done well each day. At first, I was skeptical. I was barely functioning; what moments of success could I find? Got dressed today. Trophy please! But there is evidence that these lists help by focusing us on what psychologists call “small wins.”
“In one experiment, people wrote down three things that went well and why every day for a week. Over the next six months, they became happier than a group writing about early memories. In a more recent study, people spent five to ten minutes a day writing about things that went “really well” and why; within three weeks, their stress levels dropped as did their mental and physical health complaints.
“For six months, almost every night before I went to bed, I made my list. Since even the most basic tasks were hard, I started with those. Made tea. Got through all of my emails. Went to work and focused for most of one meeting. None of these were heroic accomplishments, but that little notebook by my bed served an important purpose. It made me realize that for my entire life I’d gone to bed thinking about what I’d done wrong that day, how I’d messed up, what wasn’t working. Just the act of reminding myself of anything that had gone well was a welcome shift.
“Making gratitude lists has helped me in the past, but this list served a different purpose. Adam and his colleague Jane Dutton found that counting our blessings doesn’t boost our confidence or our effort, but counting our contributions can. Adam and Jane believe that this is because gratitude is passive; it makes you feel thankful for what receive. Contributions are active; they build our confidence by reminding us that we can make a difference. I now encourage my friends and colleagues to write about what they have done well. The people who try it all come back with the same response: they wish they’d started doing this sooner.”
The Option B website offers lessons from the book, many videos, articles, and transcripts from conversations with resilience experts, many video interviews of people who have recovered resilience in various categories of adversity: grief and loss, divorce and family challenges; health, injury and illness; hate and violence, abuse and sexual assault, incarceration, etc. As well as the opportunity for readers to share their own stories of facing adversity and building resilience and to join a support group most relevant to them.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.)
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)
Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talks:
Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders December 2010
So We Leaned in…Now What? December 2013
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant. (Penguin Books, 2014)