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Coming Back Stronger

Do you ever wonder why some people come back from adversity even stronger than before? I certainly have. I’ve often puzzled about why people in similar circumstances have radically different responses, with some falling even further, while others rise above the challenge.

I didn’t understand why, though, until I read the chapter on “Falling Up” in Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage.

That was good to know. But more importantly, the chapter also explained how you can learn to come back stronger.

Why is there a difference?

When you’ve faced a failure or adversity, do you feel overwhelmed or hopeless? Do you want to curl up and binge-watch a favorite show or disappear into a novel – or take other measures to escape?

If you said yes, you’re far from alone. Many people respond this way because they can’t see any possibility for things getting better. At best, they’ll stay stuck in the bad situation. At worst, life will continue to spiral downward.

But some people can see what Achor describes as the Third Path. And this path brings you to a place where you’re even stronger and more capable than before.

This is also known as Post-Traumatic Growth or Adversarial Growth. This is when you don’t see adversity as a weight to drag you down. Instead, it’s a stepping stone to something even better.

You might experience the “something better” as increased spirituality, greater compassion and openness, improved life satisfaction, more self-confidence and personal strength.

And to do this, you need to define yourself by what you make out of what happened, instead of being defined by the adversity itself.

How do you find the way up?

This may sound great, but how do you find that Third Path? Achor offers a few suggestions.

  1. Invent a new counterfact. When something bad happens, often our first impulse is to focus on all the bad things about it. You might feel unlucky, or like these kinds of things always happen to you, and that’s the story you tell yourself. But you can turn this around with a counterfact. This is a way of looking at the situation more positively, and doing this helps you handle adversity. For example, if your car got totaled in an accident, you could focus on the car damages – or on the fact that you didn’t get hurt. This relates to part of what I wrote about last week, how the staff at Orlando Health still found ways to be grateful even when dealing with the aftermath of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

  2. Change your explanatory style to be optimistic. When something bad happens, or we fail at something, it can be easy to take a pessimistic view. To feel like whatever happened is so big and impactful that it’s made everything bad forever. You’ll never recover. Or you can take a more optimistic approach and recognize that it’s probably not as far-reaching or long-lasting as you think. To believe that things willget better. What makes this even more important is the fact that how you respond to the event depends on your viewpoint. And if you take that optimistic approach, you’ll look for the Third Path and find ways of making things better.

  3. Use the ABCD model. In this model, A = Adversity, B = Belief, C = Consequences, and D = Disputation. The way this works is:

  • Adversity is the event you can’t change.

  • Belief is how you react to the event.

  • Consequences are what follow when you act based on that belief.

  • Disputation is when you recognize those ideas as just beliefs, not facts – and then you challenge them. Imagine another person telling you this belief, and then really debate it. Be skeptical. Demand proof to support it, evidence to confirm that the belief is really true. You may discover that it’s not true at all.

  • Or even if you do find proof to support the belief, ask if it’s as bad as it seems. People are extremely adaptable to adversity. We can adjust and recalibrate to almost anything, even when things are pretty grim.

Connection to mindful eating

When I read through the strategies Achor suggested, I couldn’t help noticing that the second one sounded quite familiar. In fact, it’s another way of saying one of the things we talk about in the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program. Your thoughts and beliefs lead to certain feelings, which prompt you to act in a certain way, and you get results that reinforce the original thought or belief.

So that part relates very closely. For example, if you go to a social gathering with the thought that you always overeat at parties and can never change – you’ll end up overeating and reinforce the belief. But if you change that explanation to something more positive, your results are more likely to shift. Consider what would happen if you go in saying you’ll eat mindfully and balance that with enjoying the company. You could end up doing exactly that.

The third idea also struck me as very related to mindful eating. So often when you end up overeating, maybe even binging, it can feel catastrophic. You may feel like you should just give up mindful eating altogether. But is it that bad? Is one lapse the end of the world? Usually not. Try to think of how you’d talk to a friend about this and use the same approach for yourself.

And the counterfacts can help, too, especially if you often eat for emotional reasons. If something bad happens, instead of reaching for food, maybe you can find a way to reframe it to a more positive viewpoint.

How this has worked for me

After Mom died, I didn’t realize that I was taking this “falling up” approach, but I was. Although I don’t think I used Achor’s strategies. Instead, I was trying to be the sort of person Mom would be proud of, and that meant finding some positive way to handle her death. For me, that meant being able to climb Mt. Katahdin and scatter her ashes, publish my memoir about the experience, and help others with mindful eating.

Though now that I think about it, subconsciously I did use the ABCD approach. My initial belief was that nothing good could come of losing Mom, but I later challenged that and found a different approach.

I wish that I had known about the counterfact approach, though. That way, instead of being crushed with grief, I might have focused on how lucky I was to have Mom to begin with.

That shift in thought has also been helpful with the current uncertainty around my cat’s health. It’s easy to feel sorrow and angst about his condition. But what I want to focus on is how lucky I am to have had him in my life for almost 17 years. He’s brought a lot of laughter and joy to me and others, and that will remain, no matter what happens now.

Also, this may sound a bit odd, but the cat situation has also helped me feel more connected to others. Love of our animal companions is widely shared, and I’m grateful for all those who’ve expressed support and sympathy. It really has made me feel more open and empathetic to everyone else who’s ever cared for an aging and/or ill pet.

And I find it very useful to remember something else Achor pointed out, that humans evolved to be adaptable. It’s what we do. And when we find those ways to adapt, it gives us a huge boost of self-confidence and courage and resilience.

How about you? Have you had any experiences of falling up? I’d love to hear about them!

And either way, I hope this gives you some ideas of how to start keeping an eye out for that Third Path and becoming even stronger than you were before.

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