To be honest, I feel overwhelmed. My partner is about to have a pretty serious knee surgery, and the thought of painkillers, mystery health insurance bills, and months of physical therapy is a lot to think about. And honestly, I haven’t been thinking about it in the healthiest of ways – to the detriment of my own wellbeing. So I decided to make a change.
The change has been to whole-heartedly commit, for my sake and my partner’s, to facing this surgery with optimism and emotional intelligence. That, of course, is easier said than done in times of adversity. But I went through this series of questions, outlined below, that are specifically for exercising optimism in difficult situations. And it has transformed how I feel about this upcoming challenge, and according to recent research on optimism, may even increase my partner’s chances of a successful recovery. Definitely worth every bit of emotional labor, right?
Facing a Major Surgery with Optimism and Emotional Intelligence
Have You Heard of the 3 Ps?
Martin Seligman is widely considered to be the founding father of positive psychology, and it was Seligman and his colleagues who first proposed that our ability to deal with setbacks is largely determined by what is known as the 3 Ps: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.
When faced with adversity, we often operate with underlying assumptions about how (bad) things are going to be, how long they will last, or how much we can control. But those expectations, which are mixed up with fear, may not be particularly accurate. Examining your situation through the lens of the 3 Ps can help break through some of these unconscious assumptions, and replace them with healthier, more realistic expectations. In the context of my partner’s surgery, I realized that, while I pride myself on my day to day optimism, I was struggling to think about her surgery with optimism. I was thinking of it as permanent and pervasive, and myself as an innocent bystander. But as I asked myself these questions, I felt like a load had been lifted from my shoulders. The first lifeline was remembering that this won’t last forever.
In times of adversity, pessimistic assumptions can simmer below the surface. Seligman’s 3 Ps can help you break throughClick to tweet
Permanence refers to how long a situation will last. My pessimistic baseline about this surgery was to sort of see it as a black hole. We’ll do this and that, and then… the surgery. This goes hand in hand with feeling generally overwhelmed, and being unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not like I am actually thinking that it will last forever, but until I really thought about life after surgery, it felt like my life stopped there.
It helped me to time travel a little bit, and ask myself, how will I feel about this a year from now? Well, my partner will probably be nearly fully recovered, stronger than she has been since she got hurt, with two good knees. She will be walking, working in the garden, and maybe even running. The process will not be easy or painless, but this too, will pass.
Just remembering that there is light at the end of the tunnel makes it all seem more manageable.
Pervasiveness refers to what all will be affected by the situation. My pessimistic baseline basically wants to yell, EVERYTHING! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Full leg casts, crutches, months of physical therapy? We love hiking, gardening, and going to yoga, and she won’t be able to walk!
But then I take a deep breath and remember that we also love to do many things that we will actually have more time for post-surgery. Like reading good books, listening to podcasts, and simply relaxing in each other’s company. Even on the farm we can help out. Sorting seeds is tedious and time consuming, but needs to be done. And once I thought about all these things that we could still do after the surgery, an amazing thing happened: I started thinking about ways that this adversity could even help us grow.
My partner loves to cook, and because of that, I mostly defer to her and don’t cook very much. But this is an opportunity for me to hone my skills and show my love by cooking her amazing, healthy meals, as she so often does for me. My mom has already offered to come out to California and help us post-surgery, and that will be a sweet time of bonding for all of us. We will be forced to slow down, work less, and listen to the rain. There are plenty of things that will be affected, but it is not as pervasive as I was assuming. In many ways, facing this surgery with optimism helped me see that there are actually opportunities for growth, learning, and becoming closer than ever before.
Personalization is about blame and control. A common thought for many people is, This is all my fault. I know my partner has struggled with that. We love to travel and had travel plans for the winter, and now we are hunkering down for surgery? I can see how it’s easy for her to think that it’s her fault, that she’s holding us back, that she never should have gone to that new workout class where she got hurt. And thinking about this reminds me that I need to help her not fall into that trap. She needs to feel 100% supported and guilt-free.
As Sheryl Sandberg said as she went through this process after her husband’s death: “This (personalization) is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.” It’s not her fault; it simply is.
It’s no one’s fault; it simply is. It won’t last forever, and even while it lasts, it won’t impact everything.
Is it just me, or did a little sunshine just peek out from behind the clouds?
Seligman's 3 Ps
Permanence: Will this last forever?
Pervasiveness: Will this impact everything?
Personalization: Am I giving – or taking – too much power?
And the benefits of going through this process, of exercising optimism in the face of adversity, go beyond our mental and emotional wellbeing. Optimism has been linked to better physical outcomes after surgery.
Who’s Being Readmitted After Surgery?
Going through the process of the 3 Ps helped me feel more prepared, mentally and emotionally, for this surgery. But according to recent research, the real benefits could be much more tangible.
According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, optimists were half as likely to require rehospitalization after surgery. In the study, 309 participants were having coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Optimistic persons were significantly less likely to be hospitalized in the 6 months after surgery for a broad range of problems. These findings indicate that fostering positive expectations promotes better recovery.
Other studies have replicated these findings. In a recent review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers reviewed 16 studies spanning 30 years that looked at patients’ attitudes after surgery, and their outcomes: “In each case the better a patient’s expectations about how they would do after surgery or some health procedure, the better they did,” said author Donald Cole, of the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.
Considering that, it’s never too early to start thinking of this surgery with optimism.
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