Candyce Ossefort-Russell, LPC-S
Business professor provides ill-advised, harmful strategies for sidestepping grief
Reviewed in the United States on 19 June 2017
At the beginning of this book, I felt grateful to Sandberg and Grant for their clear articulation of how we as a culture fail those who are suffering by not talking to them about their adversity. Early chapters provide some ideas about how to bring up difficult situations and how to offer concrete, realistic help instead of fuzzy, generalized help. Later chapters on raising resilient kids and failing at work provide some good recommendations for building resilience, but it’s unclear to me what that kind of resilience has to do with helping people bear the intense emotions of grief and trauma.
The rest of the book was shockingly awful. Sandberg and Grant pushed way beyond basic recommendations for supporting grieving people into promoting their strategies for “overcoming” adversity as universally helpful. Their resilience strategies are so ill-advised for normal grieving and traumatized people that I can not only not recommend this book, I also need to strongly speak out against it.
As a person who was suddenly widowed 25 years ago, when my son was an infant; and as a psychotherapist who has helped people with grief and trauma for over 20 years, I’m horrified and insulted by the way Grant misapplies to grief and trauma his business-based positive-psychology strategies—strategies that are intended to help people with performance anxiety, not mortal suffering.
I know from experience that untimely loss is brutal, and I don’t fault Sandberg for submitting to Grant’s insistence that she follow his prescriptive exercises, especially because he frightens her by telling her that if she continues to feel her painful feelings, she’ll be “trapped” in negative emotion and her children “won’t recover.” Of course she wants her kids to be okay. So she uses his change-your-thinking exercises to momentarily stanch her wrenching pain. But in the long run, these strategies don’t get rid of grief’s intense feelings. Instead, Grant’s strategies sidestep anguishing emotions and push them underground where they fester and cause problems—years later and in future generations.
I think it was irresponsible of the publisher to allow two unqualified people to make these damaging universal suggestions to grieving and traumatized people. Sandberg is a brand-new widow. (Whether she and the general public want to believe it or not, two years into widowhood is very early.) Though I would have supported her writing a memoir of her early widowhood; I think it’s naïve for her to advise anyone on how to deal with grief and trauma for the long haul.
And Grant is a BUSINESS professor. He has zero training for working with people who are going through intensely emotional experiences, and no knowledge of up-to-date emotion science. The strategies he foists onto Sandberg emerged from research on learning and performance, not on dealing with overwhelming emotion. His cognitive-behavioral tools coerce Sandberg out of her pain and force her to prematurely and frantically chase after joy, gratitude, and meaning. These healing emotions don’t need to be hastily imposed onto people. Joy, gratitude, and meaning naturally arise when grieving people are given time and help to bear their intense emotions.
Though Sandberg was able to harness her strong achievement-drive to employ Grant’s tools for dominating her grief and leaping toward joy, all of the tools spring from a hijacking of a narrow theory about the single personality trait of resilience for willfully overpowering anguish. Throughout the book, Sandberg and Grant use terms like overcome adversity, triumph over sadness, and regain control. These warlike terms reveal that they view grief as a monster that we should fear and flee from, or battle and fight against, and to ultimately prevail over. Though ultimately fear-based, this ego-driven, conflict-filled story preserves the beloved American illusion that even in the face of horrific tragedy, we can acquire weapons of resilience in order to dominate the grief monster and bounce back to normal in just over a year.
When distressing grief reactions occur in a society like ours that denigrates long-lasting and intense grief responses, grievers can end up isolated, ashamed, and ill. They believe, “Something’s wrong with me. I need to make this stop.” “If I were resilient, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.” These beliefs are invalidating and they perpetuate a harmful fear of grief, and Option B throws gasoline on the flames of these beliefs.
Emotion science clearly shows that when we are plunged into intense emotional states such as grief, we need to feel understood and we need to be helped to express our emotions in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us. Grant never soothes Sandberg, never offers her kindness to help her bear and express her grief. Instead, he responds to her sadness, despair, or guilt with stern warnings that she’s “delaying her recovery” and “delaying her kids’ recovery.” His strident approach leaves me feeling fiercely protective of all grieving people, including Sandberg. I’ve already seen clients having normal grief responses who feel ashamed and afraid of their own emotions when they compare themselves to Sandberg.
I dislike the way resilience—as sold by Option B—is making grievers feel bad. I’m angry that Option B is turning resilience into a new hurtful grief myth that grievers have to fight against in order to heal, a myth that makes grievers feel ashamed and frightened if they can’t bounce back immediately, and if they don’t feel like prematurely striving toward joy when they’re honorably slogging through toward real healing.
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