Five tips for surviving a wrenching change in your life
By William Thomas Buckley
Coming to terms with the death of a loved one, divorce, illness or loss of a job is always painful. Yet some individuals move through such transitions gracefully. What do these masters of change have going for them?
Those who study the process of change have identified distinctive coping strategies:
1. Optimism pays. “A popular misconception is that an optimist is naive,” says psychology professor Christopher Peterson. “But it’s the pessimist who’s the lousy coper, the one blinded by a negative attitude to viable solutions. The optimist is happier, healthier and a better problem-solver. He says, “I’m going to handle this thing.'”
That’s pretty much what Bob Dell said to himself after the initial shock of his personal crisis wore off. Bob had been with a meat-packing plant for more than 26 years when, without warning, the plant closed down. At 45, Bob had a wife, two kids, a mortgage — and no job or severance pay and only a high-school diploma.
“At first,” he says, “I asked, ‘How am I ever going to make it?’ Then I said, ‘I can’t stop. I’m going to find something new.’ “
Soon after losing his job, Bob was visited by an insurance agent. “I said I couldn’t afford anything because I was out of work,” Bob recalls. “He told me his company was hiring salesman and I should apply.”
Bob might have dismissed the idea; he’d never sold a thing in his life. But, typical of an optimist, he was open to all possibilities.
First, he had to take two tests. One was the insurance company’s career profile. The other was an experiment by Martin E. P. Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Seligman’s research indicated that assuming a basic level of skills, what made good salesmen was not so much aptitude as attitude. To be successful, a salesman needs a deep reserve of optimism to withstand constant rejection. According to Seligman, optimists tend to view setbacks as temporary rather than permanent. Seligman persuaded the company to hire more than 100 new agents who tested low in aptitude but high in optimism — arguing that they would sell more than newly hired people scoring high in aptitude but low in optimism. He was right: the optimists outsold the pessimistic new agents.
“Optimists believe that things will improve,” Seligman says, “so they behave accordingly. These people turn whatever situation they’re in to their advantage.”
Bob Dell was one of the 130 “optimist” recruits hired. In less than a year, he went from sausage-stuffer to super-salesman, earning twice what he’d made at the packing plant. Dell learned about the experiment later from an article in a magazine. With characteristic optimism, he dialed Seligman, introduced himself and sold the professor a retirement policy.
2. One step at a time. Of course, some situations are so terrible that it’s difficult to view them optimistically or put a good face on them. What do you do then?
Grace Shafir was 35 when her husband, Jere, died unexpectedly, leaving her with four young daughters and a foundering family business. “After grief,” says Shafir, “came a wave of terror. How could I keep the business going and put food in my children’s mouths? I worried until I realized I was wasting energy.
“My new strategy was to be too busy with my children and the business to think about anything else. I lived one day at a time. No five-year plan, or one-year plan. Just a plan for each day.”
This approach keeps us from being overwhelmed by the “big picture.” Says Ann R. Penberthy, a clinical psychologist. “Breaking things down into segments as little as 15 minutes builds a ‘history of coping’ that supports us. The question becomes not ‘How can I get along for the rest of my life?’ but ‘How can I get along for the next 15 minutes?’ This encourages people to stop worrying and start working.”
Grace Shafir doubted that she would ever come to terms with the death of her husband. Yet she awoke one day to the realization that she had gotten used to her loss. “My ‘how can I live without him’ helplessness began to fade when I saw myself reorganizing the business, raising the children and running the household.”
3. Keep the faith. Psychiatrist Frederic Flach calls this the “most vital ingredient” of the resilience we need to cope with personal crisis. Faith fosters hope. “Prayer,” Dr. Flach says in his book Resilience, “reminds us that there can be a design for our lives that we may not fully grasp but that we can live up to if we move with events as they evolve.”
In the Old Testament, Job suffered repeated personal calamities yet steadfastly refused to turn against GOD. When Job’s trials ended at last, his faith was rewarded. Similarly, individuals in crisis often share a sense of “being tested,” the purposes and rewards of which are revealed only much later — if ever.
For Grace Shafir, awareness of the true purpose of her life came as she awaited a memorial service for her husband. “Looking at my baby daughter sleeping in my arms,” she says, “it struck me that she was the future, and it as up to me to be there for her and her sisters.”
4. Take stock. Being hopeful doesn’t mean being blind. Success in coping depends on accurately analyzing the situation. “Don’t ignore hard facts,” Peterson cautions. “Upbeat beliefs are helpful, but they don’t change realities.”
Reality for Marsha Dowling (pseudonym) meant fighting to keep her home in the face of a difficult divorce. Her husband was determined to deny Marsha any proceeds from over ten years of marriage.
Alone, depressed and under tremendous financial pressure, she examined her situation and concluded that she must stand up for herself. She accepted the necessity of working seven days a week and never taking vacations until she was on firm ground. Facing up to the changed demands of her new situation helped Marsha cope.
Take inventory of your assets as well. In a crisis the practical role of money is often overlooked. Observes Susan Folkman, a research psychologist, “Money is extremely important in difficult circumstances. It increases your options.” For instance, someone unemployed, but with money in the bank, can hold out for a more suitable job offer instead of accepting the first opening that comes along.
Relatives, friends, neighbors or members of the clergy who can offer advice and moral support are another kind of asset. “There is perhaps no more effective way to relieve psychic pain,” says Dr. Flach, “than to be in contact with another human being who understands what you are going through.”
Expect your social support networks and friendships to change, however, says Robert D. Felner, a professor of psychology. “When you retire, you no longer have contact with the people you saw every day at work. If you get divorced, you may not see a lot of the married couples you socialized with.”
Although largely on her own, with no children and her parents deceased, Marsha Dowling benefited from a few close friends and her lifelong church affiliation. She also joined a support group.
5. Take action. Businessman Jim Bluett felt helpless when a heart attack nearly killed him at age 31. Doctors said that if he didn’t alter his habits and shed some of his 285 pounds, he might not be able to walk up stairs or even play with his two kids. “I didn’t like the idea of becoming a cardiac cripple,” Jim says. “I knew it was time to make some changes.”
Jim quit smoking, gave up coffee and went on a diet. Then, with the advice of his cardiologist, he took up walking and, later, jogging. A year and a half later, Jim had lost 125 pounds and was in such sound health that he ran a marathon.
Jim might have followed any number of routes to recovery. However, as Prof. Nancy K. Schlossberg points out in her book Overwhelmed: Coping With Life’s Ups and Downs, “It’s not the commitment to a particular strategy that makes the difference; it’s the commitment to mobilizing your resources, to trying new things.”
Not everyone benefits from every crisis, but many who got through the toughening experience of change successfully emerge better prepared to meet whatever challenges come their way.
Grace Shafir, who turned her faltering business around and later remarried, remembers that she once worried a lot about little things. “But after Jere died, I learned to stop being afraid. I realized that once I’d overcome the worst life had to offer, I could handle anything.”