The Stockdale Paradox

Since my diagnosis with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) in 2017, I’ve struggled with those relentlessly positive people in and around cancer. You know the ones, they are always “up,” always talking about how a cure is right around the corner, always proclaiming how cancer made their lives better, always jumping on the bandwagon of the new amazing supplements or options to cure cancer and never ever negative. Some might describe this as a Pollyanna view of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating silver linings when possible and cultivating an attitude of gratitude is often key to quality of life. And I’m fully aware that we all do this cancer/MBC thing differently. Often vastly differently.

But I struggle with this MBC thing. I have dark days. When dear friends die or progression is looming for me or others, I have an often visceral reaction to those with sparkly messages of hope and cures. And don’t get me started on the effort to label MBC chronic. When messages of hope and optimism conflict directly with my own struggles, it just feels dismissive or that I’m doing something incorrectly.

More than one doctor I’ve talked to has asked me why I don’t embrace the optimistic narratives, why I insist on precision in language and take them to task on using labels that don’t resonate. I often do try very hard to not always react when the language they use is at odds with my own experiences but I usually can’t help it. And I have wondered at times why not sugar coating the stark realities of living with terminal cancer is so important to me. The effort to fix or address when these narratives don’t fit my experience can often be exhausting.

And then my dear friend Lesley Glenn asked those of us on the Project Life leadership team to read the amazing Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. About 25% or so into the book, I came across this gem about the Stockdale Paradox. Here’s how she describes it …

Stockdale Paradox was named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times during his imprisonment from 1965 to 1973. In addition to fighting to stay alive, he worked every day to help the other prisoners survive the physical and emotional torment.

When he interviewed Stockdale, Collins asked him, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

Stockdale explained that the optimists would believe they’d be out by Christmas, and Christmas would come and go. Then they would believe they’d be out by Easter, and that date would come and go. And the years would tick by like that.

He explained to Collins, “They died of a broken heart.” Stockdale told Collins, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

From Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, quoting the Jim Collins book Good to Great. Emphasis mine.

While I typically stay away from the war metaphors to describe this living with cancer thing, comparing MBC to living in a POW camp and being tortured is an analogy that doesn’t break down in the same way as so many others. And FINALLY, I can glimpse a little of why I just can’t jump on the same narrative of hope and sparkly moments.

Brene Brown describes the application of this paradox as living both with gritty faith and gritty facts. It’s about looking fearlessly at the truth, acknowledging it, examining it, sitting in it while also never losing faith in the overall outcome.

I don’t know that I’ve truly understood or consciously embraced this paradox until those words hit me deep this past week. Having a framework and some amount of justification for why I’ve instinctively shied away from those people or organizations or health care workers or whatever I’ve encountered that focuses only on optimism without facing the actual reality has given me some unexpected comfort.

As each person with MBC faces their own reality, it is important to remember the importance of hope. Real hope. I’ve experienced and seen far too much false hope peddled in groups and online since my diagnosis in 2017. And that tendency and desperation to embrace those things that won’t pan out terrifies me. I watch and I see the crash when that thing, that optimism fails others. And I grieve for them, that they must face the gritty reality of MBC all over again.

Please don’t think that I’m suggesting this balance of hope and reality is easy. It’s quite literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I don’t do it well all the time. At the end of the day, as I march towards reaching my sixth (6th) cancerversary in 2023, the only thing I know with confidence is that it’s worth it.

24 thoughts on “The Stockdale Paradox

  1. Hi Abigail,
    Your words resonate with me so deeply. You’ve said so well here things I’ve been trying to express for years. I used to think there was something wrong with how I viewed my cancer experience; therefore, there was something wrong with me. Sometimes, I still do. But a few years ago, I came to accept that I need to respect my perspective too – and though I do not have MBC – that view happens to be quite similar to yours. Thank you for another stellar read. x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi,
    This is spot on! I do wish that I could have accepted my daughter’s
    MBC diagnosis and loved and hugged her more often than praying that she was going to have a miracle.
    She had expressed to her siblings that her mother was going to have a hard time. Yes, I do have a hard time, but now I know I lost precious time by refusing to accept that some day she would not be here. I don’t want to say that prayer is wasted time, but the reality balance is so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We only know what we know at the time and hindsight is always 20/20. You did the best you could at the time. Please don’t “should” on yourself and look backwards. Your daughter knew you love her and wanted the best for her. Sending love and gentle hugs.


  3. Great post Abigail. We as a society love to tell others how they should feel, how they should grieve, how they should act. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to hear doctors saying you should be more positive. That’s crazy! I get what you’re saying about balancing hope and realism, but the end of the day, you should feel the way you feel. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual, perfectly written. The metaphor makes perfect sense to me. I don’t understand either. It’s one thing to make the best of what’s going on, but it’s another thing to pretend it’s not. All my love to you! ❤️


  5. there is a phrase I read in some book way back(cant recall the book ) but went something like “…. the failure of hope has a name… it is called suffering.”
    I found it quite haunting, I think it somewhat reflects on some of what you mention…


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this Abigail,as you know, I have not got MBC but other issues and this resonates with me. Do I have your permission to link to this in my blog?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You read my mind with this post. I’m a no-nonsense-tell-it-like-it-is breast cancer survivor and find unending optimism in the context of struggles that, I believe, need to be articulated and addressed head-on quite tiresome. Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

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