Sifting Through the Ashes of Disappointment: Three Keys to Resilience

Over the past few months we’ve witnessed hurricanes wreak havoc in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires rage through northern California. We flinch at the images of families sifting through the ashes of the dream homes and flood-ravaged debris in their neighborhoods. I’ve been corresponding with an acquaintance who lives in Houston. He’s living with family while he and his wife try to figure out how they are going to finance a nearly total home restoration - the gap between their insurance coverage and their anticipated costs. He doesn’t sleep much these days.

I have a friend whose marriage is unraveling as the result of her husband’s betrayal. I want to say she’s scrambling to pick up the pieces, but it’s still so raw I don’t know that she’s fully able to assess the impact it’s having on her or her children.

Another friend is just starting to emerge from the chaos of an unexpected job transition. After years of focused service at a company, he was laid off. At the same time, his former employer was hiring new staff. Bucket of salt? Meet fresh, gaping wound.

Trauma comes in different shapes and different seasons. It can be the loss of a loved one, the death of career dream, the implosion of a relationship or one of a thousand other scenarios. The question isn’t: Will we walk through it? The more pressing query is: What will we do when the dream/ relationship/ job/ house burns down?

There’s a powerful passage on resilience in Sheryl Sanberg and Adam Grant’s book "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy." 

We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways 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 that an event will affect all areas of life; and 

(3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. The three P’s play like the flip side of the pop song “Everything is Awesome”— “everything is awful.” The loop in your head repeats “It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.”

Have you been here? The deafening echoes of these lines can be paralyzing. But the key to resilience is deconstructing each of these myths. I remember struggling with personalization. I’d just been passed over for a great job at a firm I’d been eyeing for decades. My initial reaction was: What’s wrong with me? Where did I fail? What about me are they rejecting? I went so far as to contact one of the hiring managers to ask these questions.

Fortunately, she didn’t call me back. 

The truth is: It’s not always about me. Scratch that: It’s never about me. There are variables in play that don’t have anything to do with my worth, value and skill set. Sometimes it’s OK to say “I think they made a mistake.” Or “I’m not sure I got a fair shake,” as long as we follow it up with: “This ultimately isn’t my fault. I’ll bounce back and live to fight another day.”

The second, pervasiveness, can be brutal. Sometimes hurt in one area of our lives is so overwhelming, it seems to spill over into every other dimension. If we learn to compartmentalize, in the best possible way, we can counter the myth of pervasiveness. 

I once had a friend who was faced with crippling debt. His income stream had tapered off and was using credit cards to stay afloat. And he kept it all a secret from his wife. Eventually, the stress squeezed him to a point of confession to his wife. Her response? “That’s it? We’re in debt? I thought something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Let’s close ranks and figure this out.” And they did. Don’t ignore the brutal realities of your situation. At the same time, it’s helpful to narrow the boundaries of the impact zone. Have you heard disaster interviewed on the news after they lose everything? Invariably someone will say “It’s just stuff. We’re happy to be alive.” These are people who transcend the lie of pervasiveness.

And then there’s permanence. Permanence says “What’s bad now will always be bad.” As a college student, I went through a particularly bad breakup. My 1995 breakup anthem was Resurrection Band’s “Thought I’d Never Love Again.” Much to my roommate’s dismay, I think this melancholy rock ballad looped on my stereo for weeks. The opening lyric is a gem: “I remember rolling thunder, I remember holding you / But when the cold rain hit that pale grey stone, I swear my heart was buried too. I thought I’d never love again.” 

It’s twenty-years later and I know better. Sure, there were some dark days for my twenty-year old self. How could I have known then that something infinitely better was waiting for me in Kelly, who’s put up with me for almost seventeen years now? Just because we can’t imagine something better in the moment of tragedy, doesn’t mean it’s not coming.

I can’t speak to specific trauma, be it personal, professional or relational, but you can still choose resilience. It’s not about you, it doesn’t have to ruin everything and it won’t last forever. Get up. Keep swinging. Something good is on the other side of this.

Craig Custance