Growth After Trauma
by Teresia Smith
Ever hear someone repeat the quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Ever wondered what they are trying to convey by that? I think they are talking about post-traumatic growth. What exactly is that? Well, first let’s deal with what it is not.
Post-traumatic growth is not suppression of your fear, stress, anger, or sadness after experiencing a traumatic situation. It doesn’t mean you assume responsibility for someone else’s actions. It does not mean that you deny how traumatic something was for you or that you will fully understand all the dynamics from the trauma for a long, long time. It doesn’t mean you don’t need to seek out counseling to work through your feelings.
Rather, post-traumatic growth is the process of accepting the trauma as something that will shape you. It is realizing that positive growth can come from your suffering. It is accepting that trauma can and often does change people and you will never be able to put the pieces back and be the same person you were before the trauma. Here’s a good example from Susanna Newsonen: “You’re rushing around your house and you accidentally knock a precious vase to the floor. It smashes into pieces immediately. What do you do next? Do you see the vase as garbage now and throw it in the bin? Do you collect the pieces and try to put them together exactly as it was? Or do you pick up your favorite pieces from the pile and use them to create something new, like a colorful mosaic?”
Even though that precious vase is now gone and will never be the same, a beautiful mosaic can utilize those broken pieces into a gorgeous work of art that can be appreciated. You can’t become consumed in trying to recreate the vase no more than you can erase memories and feelings to go back to who you were before your trauma. Instead, you realize that your view of yourself, your world, and your relationships have changed.
Some survivors of trauma list the following as ways they perceived positive post-traumatic growth in their lives.
First, their perspective changed. Survivors reported changing priorities about what is really important in life. They stopped worrying about the details and started looking at the big picture, living life mindfully and working to be connected to what truly matters. You may hear some people refer to this as “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Survivors feel a greater appreciation for the value of their life and know they can do great things. After trauma, they frequently claim a stronger faith and often find great satisfaction in helping others.
Secondly, they report their self-perception changed. They realize they are stronger than they ever thought possible. This knowledge leads them to do things they used to be afraid to try because they feel more confident. They report learning to love themselves for who they are, and appreciating their best qualities while accepting their limitations, allows them to better handle life’s difficulties because of newfound confidence..
Thirdly, survivors of trauma report that relationships improve. They start to feel more gratitude towards the people who are positive and supporting in their life. Survivors report feeling compassion for hurting people they know. Tired of surface friendships, they desire deeper relationships that can be counted on. If you’ve shared a trauma with someone, this could strengthen the connection you have between each other.
It is important to remember that before post-traumatic growth can occur, you must have time and distance from the traumatic event and allow yourself to grieve and work through your feelings. Once you are past the most extreme emotions from the trauma, you can then begin to explore the positive changes in your own time. Jim Rendon explains it like this, “Growth begins with healing from trauma—it is not a free pass to avoid suffering. But, as researchers now know, people have the capacity to do far more than just heal. Given the right environment and mindset, they can change, using the trauma, the suffering and struggle that ensues, as an opportunity to reflect, to search for meaning in their lives, to ultimately become better versions of themselves.”
If you have experienced trauma from sexual assault or domestic violence, Crisis Services of North Alabama offers free and confidential services. You may reach our Jackson County office at 256.574.5826 or our 24/7 HELPline at 256.716.1000. You are not alone.