Kick The Sh** Out Of Option B: Surviving Difficult Life Circumstances
As many of you know, this last year has been quite a roller coaster for my family. My dad’s diagnosis and eventual move into a memory care facility has turned our world upside down. The last six months have consisted of auctioning off the family farm equipment, selling my parent’s home of 45 years, and getting my mom packed up and moved into a newly renovated house. I know my family and I are not the only ones out there dealing with significant life events such as death, loss of a job, divorce, a major illness, bankruptcy, etc. We have all been a part of or known circumstances in which bad things happen to good people.
I recently read a book that was extremely impactful in helping understand and sort through some of the feelings that come with such life-changing events. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, written by Sheryl Sandberg recounts the story after her husband tragically passed away when a friend offered to go to her children’s parent-teacher conference with her. Through her grief, she stated that she did not want her friend to go with her…at that moment she only wanted her husband. Her friend wisely said, “Well, Option A isn’t available, so we are going to kick the sh** out of Option B.”
We all want to live in a world in which we get to live Option A. It’s a magical world where everyone stays married, we are uber successful in a job we love, no one gets sick and no one dies tragically. Option B is more realistic and is comprised of a world in which the worst happens and we have to adapt and lean on our friends and family. None of us escape Option B at one time or another…and so, of course, much of what happens in our personal life then negatively impacts our professional life. That is why we set out to answer two questions in this blog: How can we, in our own life, handle those tough times in a more effective way? What can we do or say when our friends and co-workers are experiencing a significant loss or life-changing event?
What To Do When Life Hands You Option B
Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg was leading a good life. She was the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the legendary New York Times bestseller Lean In. She was a renowned business leader and a role model for women around the world. She was happily married to Dave Goldberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey, and they had two young children. Then the unthinkable happened. On a family vacation in Mexico, her husband, Dave, died unexpectedly of heart failure while exercising in the gym. He was 48.
Since that tragic event, Sandberg co-authored her new book with Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant, chronicling her own progress from a state of overwhelming, paralyzing grief to being able to appreciate life in a new way. Grant was already an acquaintance of Sandberg and her family, and attended the shiva, the Jewish period of mourning, at Sandberg’s home. As the guests were leaving, Sandberg asked Grant to stay. “I was thinking, OK, he’s a psychologist…. I looked at him, I’m sure hysterical, I was like, ‘What do I do? How am I going to get my kids through this? Tell me what to do.’”
His response was something that might not have worked for everyone, she said, but for her was “incredibly comforting….He started summarizing research.” (Sandberg is a self-described “geek” who holds a B.A. in economics from Harvard) She said, “When anyone gives you any steps you can take — particularly for me, ones that social scientists had studied that they knew worked — that was a lifeline.”
How Can We Better Handle Our Own Option B?
What Sandberg learned, with the help of Grant, was that there are three myths people cling to that make it harder to spring back from adversity. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, bases the three myths on research. He is widely considered the founding father of the positive psychology movement. Seligman proposed that our ability to deal with setbacks is largely determined by three P’s: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.
- Personalization. Personalization refers to whether a person attributes a negative event to internal or external factors — in other words, whether it’s their fault. Sandberg said that after her husband died so unexpectedly, she blamed herself: “I pored over his medical records asking what I could have — or should have — done.” Once she read about personalization, however, she accepted that she couldn’t have prevented his death: “His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?
- Pervasiveness. Pervasiveness refers to whether a person sees negative experiences as global or specific, or as Sandberg says, whether “an event will affect all areas of your life.” Sandberg said she went back to work at Facebook 10 days after Dave died — and for a split second during a meeting, she was able to forget her grief and get absorbed in the discussion. At that moment, she realized that her professional life could still be rewarding and worthwhile, even after tragedy had struck in her personal life.
- Permanence. Permanence explains whether a person sees an event as stable or unstable, or how long they think the negative feelings will last. For months after Dave’s death, Sandberg said, “no matter what I did, it felt like the crushing grief would always be there.” Gradually, Sandberg said she learned that “we should accept our feelings — but recognize that they will not last forever. In other words, you don’t have to deny that you’re feeling sad or hopeless — but you can also take heart that one day soon, you’ll feel a little less sad and hopeless.”
What Can We Do When Others Struggle With Option B?
Keeping these three P’s in mind can have a positive impact when you do have to deal with your own Option B. But not only do we have to know how to survive these times ourselves, there will be people in our life that are dealing with negative events and knowing how to help those we care about can be significant. These are five tips that Sandberg suggests in order to acknowledge those difficult times:
- Ask “How are you today?” In Option B, Sandberg writes about how painful the casual greeting “How are you?” was to her after her husband’s death. It hurt, “because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary happened,” she writes. Instead, Sandberg suggests asking “How are you today?”—a formulation that shows you’re aware that the person is struggling to get through each day. For Sandberg, the phrase became a shorthand among her coworkers to express empathy.
- Instead of offering ‘anything,’ do something. The question, “Is there anything I can do?” seems innocuous enough, but Sandberg points out that it is the opposite of helpful, since most of the things the aggrieved wants either feel like an imposition or are impossible. (The Facebook exec’s example: “Can you invent a time machine so my kids and I can go back and say goodbye to Dave?”) A better approach is to do something specific, no matter how small, because “instead of trying to fix the problem, they address the damage caused by the problem.”
- Use “we” language and make your presence felt. One of the most painful parts of grieving, Sandberg recounts, is feeling alone. She writes: “Lots of people nicely tried to assure me, ‘You will get through this,’ but it was hard to believe them. What helped me more was when people said they were in it with me.”
- Share your problems, too. After the initial shock of the event fades, it’s important to restore balance in your relationship—and that means talking about worries and troubles even if they feel trivial when compared to those endured by the aggrieved. “I wanted those close to me to know that I was there to help carry their troubles too,” Sandberg writes.
- Follow the “platinum rule” of friendship. The golden rule of friendship is to treat others the way you want to be treated. The platinum rule, according to Sandberg, is to treat others the way they want to be treated. “Instead of making assumptions about whether or not someone wants to talk, it’s better to offer an opening and see if they take it.” In the end, everyone copes differently. The best way to be there for someone is just to be there—and make sure they know it.
Acknowledging our own and other’s struggles can be powerful. We hope some of these thoughts and ideas help you in some small way.