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Post-Traumatic Growth

We all want to recover from the trauma and hardship we’ve experienced in life, and there are many theories on how to do that. While we’d all like to grow in the wake of our harmful experiences, it can be hard to find “resilience” in the aftermath. As it turns out, resilience and post-traumatic growth are not the same thing, and a misunderstanding of the difference can lead to more shame and hurt.

I’ll start with a story. Many years ago at a women’s event, a friend of mine presented what ended up being a very meaningful craft. My friend stood up with broken pieces of glass and compassionately painted this picture for us:

“Imagine a beautiful vase displayed in your home for its sentiment and value. You love this vase. You value the deep meaning it has in your family, caring for it carefully. Then one day, your child — your beloved child — throws a toy across the room. BAM! The vase tips and tilts back and forth. The moment moves in slow motion as you run across the room, also in slow motion, to catch the vase. Just as you reach your hand out to save it, it crashes to the floor, leaving nothing but shattered pieces. You are filled with anger, sadness, shock. The vase will never be the same again. After several moments of collecting the pieces and collecting yourself, you are left with a decision: to keep the pieces or not? You have a decision to make. You can see only the loss of the vase, or you can choose to make something of it.

Many of us have been through life situations that seem unfair and have been hard, to say the least. We are sometimes left feeling broken and even shattered. We have a choice, though. As we look at the pieces, we can choose to look at the broken mess or we can choose to see the pieces as an opportunity to make something beautiful. We can take these broken pieces and make a mosaic from it, a beautiful piece of art.

It is easy to get caught up in the anger, sadness, and shock from adverse experiences. In fact, these emotions are not a bad thing. But they also do not have to define us. What will we do? Will we let the broken pieces define us? Or, will we make something beautiful from them?”

The message was clear and stuck with me: we can become something beautiful after hardship. But how do we do that?

The Problem with “Resilience”

Resilience is often held up as a key trait for how one can recover from adverse experiences. So how does one practice resilience? A quick Google search of resilience will provide the definition “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” or “…to spring back into shape.” The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility…”

When talking through the impact of trauma, there are some challenges with this perspective on resilience:

  1. Some Hardships are Not Immediate, Intense Events
    Rather, some are chronic and pervasive so recovery cannot be quick. Other times, a protective response can take time
    to work through and may not happen immediately, but over days and weeks.
  2. Traumatic Events Change People
    People often do not bounce back to their old selves but find themselves with a different viewpoint of life after an adverse event. The idea that one must “spring back” to reflect resilience can result in shame.
  3. After a Traumatic Event, People will Adapt
    After hardship, people can get caught in a flight, escape, freeze, or collapse response. This is a successful, yet undesirable, biological adaption. With an expectation that one must have a “positive” adaption, people can feel confused or shameful.

A Better Perspective

Post-traumatic growth, on that other hand, is the ability to make meaning after experiencing hardship or trauma while recognizing the self-protective responses as immediately helpful. There is no time frame for how this happens and no expectation of how one will respond in self-protective ways.

In post-traumatic growth, “People develop a new understanding of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” says Richard Tedeschi, one of the people who coined the term. This requires an internal change, though. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” written after his imprisonment during the Holocaust, Victor Frankl beautifully provides this insight: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” So, as we are left with what feels like the brokenness of hardship or trauma, we have a choice. We can count it all as a loss, or we can make new meaning from the pieces.

Can we see a new way to appreciate life?
Can we appreciate relationships in a new light?
Do we feel a sense of compassion that was not there before?
Did we find traits within ourselves that we did not see beforehand?
Do we see a new purpose or meaning to life?

When we can make these internal shifts, we move closer to post-traumatic growth. At Dawn, we desire to help people move toward these internal shifts. Join us for upcoming trainings in understanding self-protective responses and making meaning from hardship, or contact us today to set up services.