042. Coming Back from Tragedy As a Victor, Not Victim with Sandra Younger

Sandra Younger lost her home, 12 neighbors and nearly her own life in a catastrophic California wildfire. Her best-selling book about the disaster, The Fire Outside My Window, is praised by Amazon reviewers and studied by top-level emergency professionals.

After the fire, Sandra discovered that personal resilience is both a natural strength and a skill set we can build like a muscle. Combining her own recovery experience with leading academic research, she developed The ComeBACK Formula™—a five-step system of powerful, commonsense practices proven to transform disaster into opportunity and loss into legacy. She teaches the approach in The ComeBACK Formula Guidebook.

Sandra now shares her resilience-boosting message as an international speaker, workshop leader and media guest. She’s appeared on NBC’s Dateline, ABC, CBS, PBS, CBC, Fox, the CW and more than 20 podcasts.

Key Points from the Episode with Sandra Younger:

  • Sandra Younger and her husband moved into their dream home outside of San Diego in 2003. Then one night, they woke up in the middle of what was the biggest wild fire in California history at that point (and for 14 more years).
  • The fire was set unintentionally by a hiker who was lost and set a signal fire to help himself get rescued.
  • She and her husband grabbed all they could, including their large Newfoundland dogs and their bird, and jumped in their car. As they backed out of their driveway, they saw that their home was about to be engulfed in flames.
  • They drove down the mountain they were on unable to see anything due to the smoke, with a bobcat suddenly appearing in front of their headlights, which acted as their guide down the mountain as it, too, tried to escape the blaze.
  • Interestingly, she made a point of steering toward the darkness, since the road was the only thing not burning. It was very significant that she was steering into the dark.
  • While she and her husband survived, their 12 neighbors did not. That got them the label of survivor, which she has actually never taken to as it labels you a victim and feels disempowering. Victim, to Sandra, is about not being overpowered rather than overcoming and triumphing. Instead, you can be a Survivor, who turn into Victors over time.
  • She ended up writing a book about the experience and being triumphant over it, which is called The Fire Outside My Window.
  • What she learned through writing it is that some people embraced the label “victim” and some did not. Those who did seemed to be looking for justice while those who did not use the label were trying to live their lives by moving forward.
  • What was more interesting to her is that the ones who used the labels were not the ones who lost the most. Those who lost family, friends – including some who lost their children – who refused to use the label felt that the fire had already taken enough, and they would not let it take any more from their life. The one who held onto the label “victim” the most lost a detached garage and its content, but nothing else. That is so interesting to Sandra and what it says about our ability to see a path forward and the choice involved in that path.
  • While we do not get to choose what happens to us, we get to choose our response, which Sandra calls, “Our story.”
  • Sandra’s book is really about resilience, which she discovered through the research she did in writing her book. What she found is that we can build resilience like we do a physical muscle through purposeful practices.
  • She boiled all the research down into five practices to change disaster into opportunity. She calls this The Come BACK Formula.
    • It starts with the word “Come”, which means, “Come from a place of gratitude.” This seemed to be a difference between victims and survivors – the former focused on what they lost while the latter focused on what they have.
    • B – be patient with the pain. No matter what the experience, there is a process to coming back, so you need to be patient through that.
    • A – accept help when it’s offered, and be tough enough to ask for it when you need it.
    • C – choose your story, your response. Man Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is incredibly helpful in building this strength.
    • K – keep moving forward. It isn’t about just persistence but also detaching from this past that is no longer happening so you are free to embrace the possibilities and opportunities of a new future. That includes forgiveness of anyone who you think has a hand in the tough experience, including yourself.
  • She shared an example of someone who is a victor. Her friend Rena lost her son at a very young age. She decided to transform her disaster into an opportunity that has created a free screening program for other parents to check for the kind of abnormalities that took Rena’s son to try to help save lives going forward.
  • You can choose not to be a victim but to be a survivor and victor no matter what the situation is, whether it’s something as serious as losing a child or as (seemingly) small as being offended by someone. We have that power no matter what.


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