It’s nearly impossible to go through life without experiencing significant setbacks. Sometimes we’re the recipients of bad luck. Other times we’re the victims of others’ wrongdoings. Still other times we’re victims of our own mistakes.
In our book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, we profile 17 people who have faced serious adversity, from illness and financial loss to war and natural disaster. Each survivor not only bounced back, but bounced forward, often accomplishing things they never dreamed possible. Their experiences, as well as decades of research in the field of positive psychology, show that certain myths can keep us stuck in unhappiness longer than we need to be after difficult events in our lives and hold us back from resilience.
By combating these myths, we can help ourselves to bounce forward.
1. Failure is bad.
It’s natural to fear failure. But it turns out that failure may not be so bad after all. In fact, the idea that failure is bad can be a myth that keeps us unhappy.
When people accomplish extraordinary things, the natural human tendency is to assume they’re somehow special. Even before Steve Jobs died in 2011, media pundits began asking, “Can Apple survive without Jobs?” Upon the announcement of his death, Apple stock prices fell even as people flocked to Apple stores across the globe to leave flowers. It’s a phenomenon the BBC News Magazine called “The Cult of Steve Jobs.”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing highly successful people as having a special something endowed to them, something that makes it so they can’t lose. Writing in the Journal of Management, researchers called this “magical thinking:" They write:
“Much as audiences attribute magical power to a magician when they cannot see the mechanical means through which effects are achieved, audiences who observe a manager succeed without seeing any of the mundane causes of success (such as diligent work) are more likely to attribute mystical talents related to vision and charisma.”
They conducted a study in which they asked participants to rate the degree to which they saw Steve Jobs as having certain qualities like being “gifted” and “having a way of making things happen” that lend him a kind of mystique or magical aura. Participants also gave their opinions regarding Jobs’ ability to make forecasts of such notoriously difficult outcomes as interest rates, government spending, and trends in the stock market.
The results were clear: The more people saw Jobs as having mystique, the more they believed he was also able to make these almost godlike business forecasts.
The truth is, Jobs had no magical powers. He was simply human, just like the rest of us. And he failed. A lot.
“It’s a great disservice to everyone, especially young people, that the stories that we often hear about the most accomplished entrepreneurs sound so effortless,” writes Peter Sims for the Harvard Business Review. “Like any creative process, any entrepreneur who wants to invent, innovate, or create must be willing to be imperfect and make mistakes in order to learn what works and what does not.”
Sims goes on to recount Jobs’ biggest mistakes, including (but not limited to) launching numerous product failures; believing that Pixar, in which Jobs was the majority shareholder until its sale in 2006 to Disney, would never make money on animated films; and recruiting John Sculley to be CEO of Apple in 1983 only to have Sculley fire him a few years later.
Though Jobs was a hero to many, heroes confront challenges. The roads to their successes are often paved with failures. It’s important to remember this when we face setbacks in our own lives, especially when they’re the result of our own mistakes.
2. I must always think positively.
When we’re facing setbacks and obstacles in life, our friends may tell us to think positively. Although it’s certainly the case that positive thinking is better than negative thinking, it turns out that telling ourselves “everything will be fine” if it probably won’t may undermine our ability to take action to make some situations better. It’s a myth that may keep us unhappy.
For decades, researchers have been interested in what makes people take steps to head off disasters. According to many studies, a number of factors predict whether someone will take steps to protect himself from possible harm, but two of these factors are perceived susceptibility and perceived severity.
In short, if we think a particular action is likely to protect us from harm, we’ll probably take that action. Likewise, if we believe that a particular action will put us at risk of harm, and that the harm is severe enough, we probably won’t take that action.
But what does this mean for positive thinking? People who pay attention to the positives at the expense of noticing the potential for negatives, who believe that everything is (or will be) fine despite their being at real risk, may not take appropriate action to protect themselves from harm or to make their situations better.
So, though negative thinking isn’t a recipe for success, unrealistic positive thinking isn’t either. Instead, realistic thinking — being bravely honest with ourselves without painting a smiley face over problems — may be the most effective way to address the problems we face in our lives.
3. Some things are unforgivable.
Some setbacks aren’t our fault. Most of us have faced times in our lives when we were wronged — sometimes dramatically wronged — by others. At those moments, emotions like hurt, sadness, and even anger can flood in. If we’re not careful, these emotions can keep us stuck and hold us back from trying to make our situations better.
For this reason, forgiveness can be a powerful way to build better futures for ourselves. Research shows that, in general, practicing forgiveness tends to be associated with greater personal well-being, including lower levels of depression and physical health complaints as well as higher levels of life satisfaction, whereas harboring grudges tends to be associated with higher rates of negative emotions and health difficulties.
But many people are very hesitant to forgive, particularly when the wrongdoing was particularly terrible and the perpetrators aren’t sorry for what they’ve done. The idea that the wrongdoer must show remorse in order for the victim to practice forgiveness is a myth that can keep us unhappy.
That’s because forgiveness may not mean exactly what most people think it does. Some transgressions are unthinkably horrible, and the perpetrator certainly does not “deserve” forgiveness. But it’s important to realize that forgiveness isn’t something we do for the perpetrator at all. It’s absolutely not about giving the gift of pardon to the wrongdoer. In fact, the perpetrator doesn’t even have to know when we’ve practiced forgiveness.
Instead, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. It’s about giving ourselves permission to let go, as much as we can, of the anger, resentment, and pain of the past. It’s about saying, “Yes the past is important, but I can’t change it,” and turning forward to create a better future.
Forgiveness also can be important when we’ve wronged ourselves in some way. Nearly everyone engages in self-sabotage from time to time. It’s impossible to go through life without making a least a few poor decisions., and it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of self-blame.
The late University of Kansas psychologist C.R. Snyder, along with Laura Yamhure Thompson and a team of researchers, helped to develop an important perspective on forgiveness. In a 2005 study in the Journal of Personality, they reported a strong relationship between people’s scores on a test of forgiveness and the degree to which they experienced hope. To Snyder, the link between forgiveness and hope was simple. “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different,” he was fond of saying. Instead, forgiveness helps us to invest our hope in the idea that the future could be better.
Even if the past is filled with setbacks, failures, and adversity, the future always has the potential for hope.
Cowritten by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com