Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Metaphor of the Shattered Vase

One lesson from trauma to help us live wisely.

Posttraumatic growth involves rebuilding of the shattered assumptive world. This can be illustrated through the metaphor of the shattered vase.

Imagine that one day you accidentally knock a treasured vase off its perch. It smashes into tiny pieces. What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was? Do you collect the pieces and drop them in the rubbish, as the vase is a total loss? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new – such as a colorful mosaic?

When adversity strikes, people often feel that at least some part of them – be it their views of the world, their sense of themselves, their relationships – has been smashed.

Some people try to put their lives back together exactly as they were. But like a vase which is held together by glue and sticky tape they remain fractured and vulnerable. In contrast, those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

The shattered vase is the central metaphor in my new book ‘What doesn’t kill us: the new psychology of posttraumatic growth’. It is a metaphor based on some ideas associated with the famous child psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget described how children learn through process of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is when the child strives to make sense of new experiences through their existing understandings of the world, such as playing with a magnet as if it were a building block placing it on top of the other building blocks. Accommodation is when the child makes new sense of their experiences and modifies their understanding of the world, as when the child begins to play with the magnet as a magnet using it to attract metals.

These same processes operate throughout life and describe the tension that people experience following trauma. Confronted with new information that challenges what we believe about ourselves, the nature of existence or the character of other people, we struggle to resolve the tension between our desire to maintain our pre-existing beliefs and the need to change our beliefs. Successful resolution comes through finding the right balance of assimilation and accommodation.

And this is true of how we navigate life in general. These lessons from trauma survivors apply more widely and can help all of us.

We are confronted regularly with experiences that challenge us and offer us opportunities to learn about ourselves and reconfigure our belief systems to be more realistic such that we become more able to navigate our way through the world.

But often we walk past such opportunities. For example, what about the close friend who offers words of warning to us on our new lover; instead of wondering what truth there may be in what she tells us we turn against her. Then there is the colleague who tells us that the new job we have applied for does not suit us. So eager for the higher salary we race ahead anyway telling ourselves that the colleague speaks only out of jealousy. How much better would it be to stop and ask is there even a grain of truth to what they say?

Assimilating experiences may be more comfortable as it does not require us to change. But if we seek a fully functioning life we must embrace the principle of accommodation and be open to the truth about ourselves no matter how much we don’t like to hear it.

To find out more about my work: