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Hattiesburg psychologist dives into adversity in new book

As a psychologist over the past 25 years, Dr. Beverly Smallwood has walked through the emotional chaos of, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to me,” with literally hundreds of people. Now she has written a book by that title that offers hope to people who have — often for no fault of their own — terrible things happen to them.

“I’ve shared their lives as they’ve felt powerless and overwhelmed, wondered if they were going crazy, wrestled with bitterness and guilt, and believed their lives were over,” Smallwood said. “In fact, in my own life, I’ve been there. I’ve experienced personal trauma several times. I was compelled to write ‘This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me’ to provide a roadmap that simplifies the emotional journey after the unexpected, unthinkable hits. I wanted to give people hope by restoring to them the power of choice. I wanted them to rediscover purpose. I wanted them to know that, though they often can’t control what happens to them, they do have the power to choose what happens in them — and those choices determine the course of their future.”

The types of disaster can range from being a victim of crime, dealing with illness or disability, the break-up of a marriage, the loss of a home or business due to natural disaster or debt problems and negative fallout from addictions.

Personal experience

Smallwood has had personal experienced with major adversity. When she was only nine years old, her 38-year-old father, a dedicated minister, died of cancer.

“Further, because we lived in the home furnished by the church for the pastor, my mother and I were essentially left homeless,” Smallwood said. “I had questions. Big questions. I was reeling from a crisis of faith. ‘Why did this happen?’ I kept wondering. It just didn’t seem fair. I thought God was supposed to protect us from pain like this. This was the first, but definitely not the last time I would ask deep, searching questions after my dreams, hopes and plans had been sabotaged by personal trauma. I know firsthand what it’s like to be a teenaged mother, trying desperately to finish college, struggling to make it in a marriage where alcoholism made life predictably unpredictable. I know what it’s like to go through the special death called divorce, questioning and berating myself for not being able to fix it. At another time in my life, I lost my best friend to cancer. I’ve had my life threatened at the business end of a gun. I’ve walked with someone dear through the anguish, the legal consequences and, thank God, the recovery process of drug addiction. I lived through seven years of being the sole caretaker for my mother, losing her moment by moment, day by day, to Alzheimer’s disease, the thief of memory and self.

“So, while this book is based on scientifically-validated principles and spiritual wisdom, it also comes straight from my heart and from hard-bought personal experience.”

What happens inside

While you can’t choose the things that happen to you, you do have the power to choose what happens in you.

“There are two sides to adversity,” she said. “Troubles can defeat and destroy you, or they can stimulate a rate and depth of personal growth that isn’t possible in calmer times. Every significant crisis in your life is a turning point. You can choose to allow bitterness to corrupt your spirit and rob you of your future. You can stay wounded because you refuse to acknowledge you have a problem. You can carry the burden of hurt all by yourself and not take advantage of the support of others. You can remain trapped in tossing endless questions at fate or at God. You can hold onto the ‘Why me?’ victim mentality or the chronic blame game.

“Or, you can choose the attitudes and behaviors that enable you to recover emotional health, rediscover meaning in your life and reformulate a plan for your future. By choosing to face the facts, concentrate on what you can control, forgive others and yourself, connect with supportive others, do the necessary grief work, have the courage to face your fears and use what has happened to you to make a difference to others, you can reclaim a life worth living.”

It’s hard to know what to do when tragic events overwhelm you, change the plans you had for your future, wreak havoc with your emotions and challenge your whole notion of meaning and fairness. But Smallwood emphasizes that no matter how helpless people feel when they are reeling from pain and confusion after being hit by the “unexpected and unthinkable,” they retain one very important kind of power: the power of choice.

“In fact, when tragedy strikes, people find themselves with 10 major choices, each supported over time by hundreds of tiny daily decisions,” Smallwood said. “The choices they make either move them along the destructive road toward more emotional pain, spiritual unrest, and physical illness. Or take them on the journey to greater strength, resilience, health, and peace.”

10 choices

Smallwood’s book “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me: 10 Make-Or-Break Choices When Life Steals Your Dreams and Rocks Your World,” published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, includes a roadmap for implementing the 10 choices people have after having something difficult or even devastating occur.

Through the power of choice, Smallwood recommends moving through the following common reactions to personal or professional adversity:

1. From denial to reality.

2. From victimhood to responsibility.

3. From why to how.

4. From doubt to faith.

5. From bitterness to forgiveness.

6. From guilt to self-forgiveness.

7. From isolation to connection.

8. From depression to grief.

9. From avoidance to courage.

10. From powerlessness to purpose.

In her book, Smallwood explains the consequences of each of these choices and examines the thought processes that go into them. She also offers practical, psychologically-sound action steps.

“People need to know how to put the 10 choices to work in order to show resilience and bounce back from the setback,” Smallwood said.

On the job

Smallwood gives some examples of workplace-related uses for the 10 choices. Employees in the workplace with personal problems can rob the organization in terms of reliable attendance, concentration and clear thinking, costly mistakes, teamwork disruption because of anger and even tragic violence. Company denial of the impact of personal problems is asking for disruption of work processes and customer service, and it exacts a heavy financial toll.

There can be a huge impact on team members from tragic events in the lives of co-workers.

“When people have worked together and care for each other, the entire staff is affected when personal disaster strikes,” Smallwood said. “Major organizational transitions like a change in leadership, mergers, reorganizations and rapid growth call for employees and leaders alike to manage their own emotions and not get stuck in denial, anxiety, anger or depression. Putting the 10 choices to work enables more rapid buy-in and quicker adjustment to the changes.”

Workplace violence is another issue that must be addressed as it affects every person in the organization, whether or not (but especially if) they were directly involved in the incident. Pervasive fear, paranoia and even full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can impact the organization’s success for years to come.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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