Because I so often focus on the variety and depth of trauma, I'd like to shift gears in this article and talk about the suffering that can also be an impetus for personal growth.
It is possible to recover and grow from trauma
This is not to say that we in the psychology field are proponents of trauma, or that we would ever wish a traumatic experience on anyone. The saying "what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger" is an oversimplified and glorified belief. What doesn't kill us can sometimes eat away at us for years and decades of our lives, ultimately affecting us on a deep psychological level. Sometimes people also say, "That experience made me a better person." However, the truth is that adults who were abused as children don't know who they would have become without their negative experience. Only the ones who experienced trauma later in life really have the opportunity to compare themselves to how they were before and after the trauma.
But as stories and literature often reveal, it is possible not only to recover from trauma, but to actually grow from it and flourish. Suffering has long been romanticized in literature, art, and folklore as transformative and empowering. There is an element of truth to this concept. But it needs to be looked at more closely. Simply experiencing suffering and trauma does not guarantee that you will become a better, stronger person for it. This attitude is a trite and irresponsible one that men for centuries have used as an excuse to abuse their children in the name of "toughening them up."
As doctors Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D. stated in their 2004 paper "Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology" in Psychiatric Times, "the widespread assumption that trauma will often result in disorder should not be replaced with expectations that growth is an inevitable result. Instead, continuing personal distress and growth often coexist."
Their paper is devoted to the study of growth after trauma, and the researchers did find that, in their words, "Reports of growth experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events far outnumber reports of psychiatric disorders." They listed "improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development" as some of the ways that traumatic experiences could actually enhance the psychological qualities of life of the survivor.
Adam Jackson's book Flipside gathered multiple stories of people who turned their trauma from tragic accidents, cancer, and even rape and abuse into trauma growth. Additionally, many celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Cheryl Burke, and Ashley Judd have revealed that they turned their lives around after a childhood of abuse, perhaps showing us that there is hope.
Trauma does not always have to continue to linger as a negative impact. Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and noted Austrian psychotherapist, said; "Life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones." Personally, I have seen many people in my practice who have excelled despite their past experiences. And knowing that it is possible to find the flipside in life can perhaps bring hope to those who are in the midst of their pain, and also to those who help them.
So what factors allow a trauma victim to be eligible for personal growth as a result of — and not despite — their experiences? Here are the keys:
Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. of The Positive Psychology Center, explains that we have to overcome learned helplessness, otherwise we might not find the flipside in life. In other words, one needs to keep trying even when times are difficult. And Viktor Frankl points out that we need a reason to look forward to our future, such as health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, or position in society.
Adam Jackson writes that our attitude far exceeds our outcome and found that optimism is one of the ingredients necessary to turn traumatic experiences around. Optimism is not always easy to come by, but people expecting a positive outcome are nevertheless more likely to experience a better outcome. For example, the placebo effect works on 60-90 percent of all diseases, according to Harvard University, where they found that people who have the expectation of a good outcome often do. To find optimism and turn our lives around, we may need to learn new perspectives and behaviors.
This all sounds so obvious and easy. But how do you actually overcome helplessness, find meaning in life, gain optimism, and learn new perspectives? I cannot write in one article how to do this, nor can I tell you one exercise that works for everyone, but here are a few suggestions that are worth trying.
- Write a list of all the things that you like and enjoy doing. This helps create the awareness of what is already present in your life that works and is good. It is important to recognize what you value in your life and make sure (if appropriate) to incorporate it as often as possible. Bessel van der Kolk mentioned in one of his lectures that trauma creates helplessness, and since the opposite of helplessness is action, he suggests to do the things that simply make you feel good.
- Once you have completed the first list, next write down all the things you would like to achieve, have, or be. Creating this list can be overwhelming or difficult, but see if you can take one or two things at a time, or explore them with a friend or therapist. This list might help give you a goal, and the combined lists together might reorient you toward a meaning in your life. Victor Frankl writes about "the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being."
- Finally, write down the steps that are necessary to get to your goals, including what perceptions of people, yourself, and the world you will need to change. Then, do one mini step at a time, just as the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer describes. The smaller the steps moving forward, the more likely you will be successful.
There are many avenues to self-growth - spiritual, academic, psychological - but finding an experienced and attuned therapist is a wise step to address your trauma, learn new perspectives, and gain optimism. In truth, recovery and growth from trauma may take hard work, deep resources, and/or a bit of good fortune. The promise of growth in the face of adversity must be balanced with a realistic, patient approach to therapy and a dedication to positive change.
Pieces of this article were based on the article "Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology" By Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D. Psychiatric Times. Vol. 21 No. 4 April 1, 2004
Positive Change Following Trauma and Adversity: A Review By P. Alex Linley and Stephen Joseph, Journal of Traumatic Stress, Volume 17, Number 1, 11-21, DOI: 10.1023/B:JOTS.0000014671.27856.7e
Books mentioned and referenced:
- Flipside by Adam J Jackson
- Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer
Please visit my website for quick links to purchase these books through Amazon.