"Witnessing the Dance" Series: A Review of Option B by Sandberg & Grant

What happens when you face loss? What happens especially when you're not used to facing this level of loss? For Sheryl Sandberg she calls up her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist and researcher, to talk about her experiences and they write Option B: Facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy. In a gift of her own personal experiences alongside Adam's informed advice, this reads like a really well-edited journal entry with research citations.

This book is full of research on psychology, changing thoughts, behaviors, and resilience. As I read the book my DBT-informed eye identified a few of the skills that fellow DBTers do. While I encourage a full read of the book, I also present a summarized, though not exhaustive, list of some of those points.

1. Make a daily list.

"I now encourage my friends and colleagues to write about what they have done well," (page 68) and to "write down three moments of joy every day," (page 100.) The authors share the positive outcomes of journaling to identify their blessings in and contributions to their worlds. These are especially impactful when it's about the "small wins" such as waking up, getting dressed, attending that dreaded social event or getting through a day at work. These are masteries in DBT world and are so very critical for feeling a sense of confidence and providing a tangible reminder about your abilities. We can only observe these daily items when we are mindful of them.

2. We may not be responsible for what happened and we can take responsibility for changing it.

One of the core DBT assumptions is experiencing something we don't like and agreeing to keep moving forward; it fully encompasses the dialectic of acceptance. In their chapter subtitled, "The One I Become Will Catch Me" the authors identify meaning and purpose in tragedy. In sharing his story, Vernon Turner said about his life, "I was not going to be a product of my DNA. I was going to be a product of my actions," (page 88.) We have to give credit to the context of how we were raised and we do not have to stay stuck in it. We can build our own fulfilling life by continuing to take action and move forward.

3. What we show publicly helps others frame their response.

We have much more control over our emotions and how people treat us than we think. When we choose to share how we feel or explain our perspective, we help set the stage for others and their responses. An artist who became deaf realized that, "his own reaction to his disability influenced how others reacted, which meant he could control how he was perceived. Reframing these moments became second nature," (page 108.) Changing our interpretations and actions puts us squarely in more control and indeed, the more we practice, the more it becomes a habit.

4. Reviewing the problematic event or behavior is painful and helpful.

The authors write that the idea of talking in "excruciating detail about how and why a mistake was made just seemed like piling on" and most of us would probably agree. However, debriefing can in fact help us learn how to "do better when we know better" as Maya Angelou would say. When a debrief is "expected and required, [it] no longer feels personal" (page 147) like an attack on a person. Rather the focus is on behavior and environmental contexts. In DBT individual sessions we do behavioral chain analysis to break down what happened before and after engaging in target behaviors. Anecdotally, both I and people with whom I work do not like chain analysis and they are the best way to process a behavior and improve skills.

5. Building relationships takes time and it's more efficient for a fulfilled life.

Sharing our struggles can feel like we are putting a burden on others. Taken to the extreme it is true that oversharing or sharing without taking personal action can feel heavy for others. However, most of us tend to overestimate how much we are actually sharing. Opening up about struggles with family or friends can be strengthening for us and them. "You'd think sharing would slow you down, but it takes time and energy to hide things," says one cancer survivor. Having this myth of "saving time"or "protecting others" gets in the way of connecting to others. In DBT we learn about needing relationships and attending to our needs and to those of others. By opening up on struggles you give the gift of allowing another person to care.

There are some aspects of this book that caused me to pause and I couldn't help but see this book through the prism of these observations: 

  1. Regardless of the authors' attempt to identify possible counterpoints, this is still a book written from a privileged perspective. Sheryl, who writes from her own "I" perspective, describes this loss as the largest impact in her life and that's absolutely true for her. It is written with a voice of empathy and acknowledgment for the "others" struggling in poverty or facing systemic oppression. It remains tragic that this level of loss and trauma happens every day, especially to children. There are many in our communities not privy to the many resources, (even this book!) to help get them through their suffering.
  2. While written by both Sheryl and Adam, it reads strangely from just her perspective. This confuses the clarification between her own experience and Adam's contribution. She writes about asking Adam for advice and includes his direct quotes, which begs the question, are these really his words because he said them in the moment or typed them during an edit? This set-up begins to get cloyingly privileged: is he acting as her therapist, a generator for book material, or just a truly informed friend? This matters only in understanding the genuineness of the authors' intent for the book. The message of resilience gets delivered regardless.
  3. There are so many insights from both her personal experience and from the research, which leaves us asking, "who is the real audience for this book?" Sometimes it is directed for people going through grief and loss right now. Sometimes it's a straight memoir as she shares her personal life. And other times it's written for friend and family members to help navigate what to say and do to support those going through loss. As individuals, we may be in both of these roles at any given time in our lives so it could be argued this book is for all of us. However, it's hard to imagine somebody actually going through loss and reading this with the ability to separate these many voices.

I was aware of these questions as I read the book and set them aside in an effort to listen for the authors' intent of being helpful. It's as if Adam said, "Hey Sheryl, I've been taking notes on all that we've been chatting about this last year and you've done great getting through this. How about we share it in a book to help others?" I'm so glad they did as we get insight into the experiences of one person and how she got through it with the direct application of research and theory. It is a kindness she does in sharing her privilege. If any of us had a well-known psychologist friend who is a leader in research on resilience and the human spirit, we would probably reach out to them as well!