The old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a comforting sentiment. Unfortunately, it’s not always true. On the other side of hardships, some people can get mired in swirling mix of negative emotions – blame, self-pity, bitterness, distrust, despair. Their mental and emotional wellbeing never recovers.
Yet adversity – whether from a one-off traumatic event or a prolonged period of struggle (such as one might have in a pandemic!) is not an exclusively negative experience for all people. In fact, it can be a powerful catalyst for deeply positive personal transformation.
Enter ‘posttraumatic growth.’
The term posttraumatic growth (PTG) was first coined by psychologists in the 1990s to describe the phenomena whereby people emerge stronger in the aftermath of adversity. Considered both a process and an outcome, PTG is not the opposite of posttraumatic stress but can be experienced alongside it. To quote a common coaching maxim, breakdowns precede breakthroughs. The larger the breakdown, the more transformative the potential breakthrough.
In the realm of post traumatic growth, the benefits of potential breakthroughs include a whole new experience of life. Not just returning back to ‘normal’ but bouncing forward to a whole new level of wellbeing that surpasses any old ‘normal.’
This includes stronger self-esteem, more meaningful and authentic relationships and a greater appreciation of ‘the little things’ and of life itself. It also includes an expanded confidence for rising above future challenges…. “If I handled that, I can handle anything.” As my freshman college son, who graduated high school in our living room recently said, “It takes a lot more to stress me out now.”
Of course it’s impossible to predict what PTG each of us will have the other side of this pandemic. Yet there’s reason to be confident that many, like all my kids, will. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, 60% of Hong Kong residents reported stronger family relationships and a third felt better equipped to share their feelings with family and friends.
Here’s six ways to facilitate your own post traumatic growth, helping you not just ‘bounce back’ to your former self, but to ‘bounce forward’ from this pandemic in ways that leave you feeling stronger in who you are and able to thrive in whole new ways than you ever would have otherwise.
Embrace your hardships… you can’t thrive without them
Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art of fixing cracked pottery. Rather than hide the cracks, the broken pieces are rejoined with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. When restored, the pottery holds a new unique beauty, one that embraces its past ‘breakdown’ for the beauty it holds.
To move forward from this challenging time, we must embrace our own breakdowns for the gifts they hold for us – individually and collectively as a society. This includes our often-underestimated capacity for resiliency and growth.
Celebrate sharpened strengths
Adversity has a way of introducing us to ourselves on whole new levels; acquainting us with strengths we might never have discovered. Chances are that over the last 12 months you’ve discovered new strengths or honed existing ones. Indeed the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a masterclass in many new skills… from mastering Zoom to home schooling. Taking time to acknowledge the talents you’ve uncovered and mastery you’ve gained that will serve you long into the future helps combat the negativity bias which works against PTG.
Rewrite your ‘Assumptive world’
You might not know this, but you live in what psychologists call as ‘Assumptive world.’ It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Trauma has a way of knocking our ‘assumptive world’ off its axis, as our beliefs about how the world (and our lives) ‘should be’ butt head with reality. Comments like ‘I never thought this would happen to me’ tend to follow such collisions.
Reconstructing a shattered ‘assumptive world’ requires rewriting the story you have about how life works in ways that incorporate your new reality without leaving you lingering in emotions of self-pity, blame or powerlessness in your ability to create a future worth living.
After being in an armed robbery and losing miscarrying my first pregnancy in second trimester within 10 days of each other, I had to do just this. Sure I knew these things happened to other people, but I somehow assumed they would never happen to me. My new story expanded my optimistic ‘life is good’ outlook in ways that incorporated my expanded awareness that ‘bad things can (and do) happen to good people including me. It’s how we respond to our hardships and heartaches that define us, not the events themselves.
Look for ways to use your suffering for service
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote that “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Of course we each gain meaning in different ways, but one of the most powerful is finding ways to channel our struggles and sorrows in service of a cause greater than ourselves. Having a spiritual belief system – whether through religion or outside of it – therefore helps to facilitate PTG as it facilitates the process of meaning-making. As I found after my brothers’ suicide, leaning on my faith helped me process my grief in ways that deepened my commitment to living my own life more fully and purposefully.
While the cascading crises of this pandemic has brought many of us to our knees, it’s also showed us that we rise stronger when we lift those around us. How can you be of greater service to others today? Your own wellbeing will benefit.
Reach out, foster connection
We forge more meaningful relationships through our struggles and vulnerability than our successes and victories. Unsurprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of post traumatic growth is a robust support network. So while you may feel tempted to wear a mask or withdraw entirely, make a point of staying in touch with a few people with whom you can reveal the truth of your life.
Double down on self-care (and be kinder to yourself!)
When life feels out of control, double down on what lays within it….starting with doing more of what nurtures you – body, mind and spirit. This includes being extra compassionate with yourself, particularly in your not-so-finest moments. We all have them and beating up on yourself for being fallible doesn’t make you less so.
Create a morning ritual that starts your day strong. My own includes exercise, reading wisdom literature and a short mindfulness meditation. These simple things set me up to handle everything else better, turning my breakdowns into breakthroughs faster!
Calm waters won’t make great sailors. Likewise just because life is hard doesn’t make it bad. Growing into our potential will always require weathering a few stormy times. You may not enjoy the tough times that chip at the ideal image you had of yourself and life. But accepting that life will hold them will help you rise above them faster and emerge from them more whole, not less.
Often the experiences you’ve thought were ruining your life are really opening a window to take it to a whole new level. Look for the open windows that are opening, not those which closed.
Margie Warrell is an international speaker, host of the Live Brave Podcast, and bestselling author of You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself.