Navigating Resilience with Self-Compassion After a Death or Trauma

A few months back I finally got around to reading ‘Option B’ by Sheryl Sandburg and Adam Grant. It was a book that numerous people suggest I read and said they would be interested in hearing my thoughts.  Ultimately, I think if everyone read it – but be warned there are a lot of trigger warnings (so maybe read this blog post first and navigate resiliency.)

Throughout the book Sandburg talks about her journey with traumatic grief and her initial belief that she will never feel joy again.  Grant worked with her to navigate the research on growing more resilience through attempts to heal herself and her family. Grant summarizes that resilience as a muscle to strengthen rather than some fixed amount.  When we don’t have life obstacles forcing us to be resilience, we never learn to strengthen it.

A large part of the book revolves around the research of Dr. Martin Seligman.  He labels the three pitfalls to resilience or the three beliefs that keep us from growing to be resilient.  Because this is a topic that I talk about a lot, I wanted to share some of Seligman’s ideas and then how we can work to navigate them with self-compassion.  The three P’s that prevent resiliency after a traumatic event or loss are: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Personalization is the idea that somehow the I event is your fault, or you could have prevented it from happening.  Most of us tend to immediately ask blaming questions when we hear about something terrible happening.  Why is our first response to someone getting mugged to ask what they were doing to cause this?  It’s because we WANT to believe there is a reason for bad things happening.  We want to believe that some how we can control our lives enough to prevent the terrible from ever effecting US – those things happen to OTHER people.  It isn’t a far leap then to point blame at ourselves when something traumatic happens.  Doing this though causes us to be stuck in a cycle that doesn’t allow for growth or recovery.
What about the mom whose baby died before birth?  Guess what, it is not your fault.  You only knew what you knew at THAT point in time and there was nothing you could have done, knowing what you did know.  I know that is a hard sentence to process: you only know what you know.  You are not to blame for not knowing things you did not know.   The question of WHY you didn’t know – is a big question and this isn’t the blog post for that – but it is NOT YOUR FAULT.
What about the girl that was violently assaulted?  That was not your fault.  It is the fault of the INTENTION on the perpetrator.  It did not matter that you liked the guy; it did not matter that you wanted to be with him; what matters is that somewhere the partners intention became to cause harm to your body.  It was not your fault.

Pervasiveness is the belief that this event or loss will affect all areas of your life.  The reality is the world keeps moving, as surreal as it feels that the rest of the world is moving forward while your world has just crumbled.  In the days, weeks, months right after it is hard to get out of bed or take a shower or focus on anything for longer than a few minutes.  Your world is falling apart, and you are trying to make sense of it and pick up the pieces.  This is normal.  The point is you keep going.  You keep moving into this new and unknown world and every experience needs to be relearned as ‘life after’.  What you will find after the first few days back to work, is that it didn’t really change.   The first few days talking with friends will again feel familiar.  You have changed.  But you can find your new normal – even in situations that didn’t actually change.
It is important to know that your grief does affect you in all aspects of your life, but those aspects of your life are still the same.  I like to navigate this like exposure therapy – baby steps to reintegrate yourself back into your life.  Give yourself a promise to go for 20 minutes, but permission to leave if all you want is to cry in the bathroom (this counts with work, social activities, volunteer roles, date nights, family gatherings, etc.).  Baby steps forward are still steps forward.  I will also add that if you are trying to push yourself to do something that you really just don’t want to do, you don’t have to do it.  Maybe your new life after doesn’t involve weddings or baby showers (or at least for the first year).  If you are avoiding due to fear, then maybe we should eventually try steps forward.  If you are avoiding because it is a thing you never liked to do in the first place, I would rather ask the question ‘Why?’.  You don’t have to do anything you do not want to do – even if someone else doesn’t understand.

Permanence is the belief that the intense emotions that come with grief will last forever.  The goal of grief work is for the duration, intensity, and frequency of those “hit by a bus, can’t get off the floor” moments to be less over time.  What we want is for you to be able to talk or think about the event without a visceral body reaction.  Step one to not have the visceral body reaction is to allow yourself to feel the visceral reactions and work through it.  The fog and pain will not last forever if the work is done to honor your feelings as they come.  I promise this intense pain does get easier.

Those three ideas from Dr. Martin Seligman are vital to be able to name and understand.  The point I need to add is that this is not possible if you can’t find some self compassion.   In order to believe it will get better, you have to allow yourself time to not be ok.  I often work with people that struggle getting through the ‘not ok’ stage because they just want to be ‘OK’ yesterday.  We can’t avoid the intense pain and we can’t just wish it away.  We need to be in it.  We need to trust ourselves to know that pain is part of healing.  Feel the intense feelings and take care of yourself in them.  That could mean a warm bath with a glass of wine or talking with friends.  But if you are overflowing with anger and rage, self care might look more like breaking $5 goodwill dishes in the basement or filling up a room with balloons to pop (cleaning up the mess is also therapeutic) or a batting cage or a shooting range.

Unfortunately, time does not heal all wounds.  Self-Love and Self Compassion can create growth over time.

When navigating grief and trauma, I like to use the visualization of wading in the ocean.  Sometimes we are meet with calm, refreshing waters but often we are met with big, angry waves that can pull you under.  The more often you are in the water, the less energy it takes to stay afloat when a big, angry wave comes.  This isn’t because you have tamed the ocean, it is because you have gotten stronger and learned how to work with it.  THIS is the ideal of resiliency.  We get stronger and smarter.

Trust that you will learn how to live your new life with this event on your timeline.  Trust that you will place this event and it is not going to control your life.  Give yourself some compassion to know that the hard days are the days you are doing the real work and it is not a straight line to growth.  Hard days do not mean you are going backwards.

One of my favorite quotes: Trauma creates change you do not choose, healing is about creating the change you do choose.
-Be Well

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