Sheryl Sandberg, in her Option B narrative, helps Martin Seligman, define the term “Personalization” with the phrase “this is my fault.” As in Sandberg felt that it was her fault that her husband died unexpectedly… (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t her fault. He died of a cardiac arrhythmia caused by coronary artery disease. He just so happened to be on a treadmill running when it happened.)
Personalizing the challenge by thinking of it as something that you could have controlled doesn’t make it easier to process. It forces you to internalize and attempt to control the situation which creates anxiety. By claiming, to yourself, that you brought this into your world you’re creating a downward spiral of thoughts… “I could have prevented this.” “It’s my fault this happened.” “I should have known better.”
For death, sadly one of the most certain things in life, you couldn’t have possibly have known that it was going to happen to that person at that moment! You may have been able to make some educated medical guesses based on symptoms or diagnoses, but in reality there are also an odd number of miracles in the world where people survive.
With my case, a diagnosis of primary lymphedema, I’ve certainly had my fair share of personalization efforts. In fact, when I talk about my condition and tell the “full” story, it’s hard not to personalize my diagnosis: “I overdid it.” “I ran over my limit.” “I pushed myself too much.” Early on, when I was trying to wrap my head around the difference between primary and secondary, I even wracked my brain for the trauma that may have caused a developmental issue… or the bug bite from a far off land.
Here’s the thing: The best thing that I can do for myself as I grapple with the diagnosis, and ultimately hug it out, is accept that this diagnosis is not my fault. I may have overdone it, pushed myself too much, or run out my “number of steps,” but this diagnosis could also have been in my cards all along. The medical world doesn’t know for sure (hello, primary!) and therefore, neither can I.
If I want to build resiliency and become a stronger person through this diagnosis I have to set the blame aside. Personalizing the diagnosis doesn’t help me keep my head up.