At the time I was being molested, I thought I was the only one. My father controlled everything in our house and he always said that what was happening to me was natural and that I should accommodate him. Even though I have to look back sometimes, I am moving forward. And even though it’s painful for me to face my mother’s complacency, doing so has helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. If I could have read something at the time about sex abuse, if people had talked openly about it, I could have been saved so many years of guilt and shame and secrecy. Each time I talk about my incest, I get rid of some of that shame and guilt. Each person I share with, no matter what their response, takes another piece of the pain away. – Patti Feureisen
Even if we have not endured sexual trauma, we are all familiar with hardship. Some people go through poverty or abuse. Others withstand bullying, breakups, or illness. Suffering is universal, albeit manifested in different ways and to different extents. As we cope with struggles in our own lives and witness other people’s struggles unfold in the news or social media, a common response is to search for an underlying significance that might make our devastation more bearable. This process of making meaning out of misery can be beneficial.
To understand how this process is possible, researchers have studied a fascinating phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience; by actively searching for good in something terrible, a person can use adversity as a catalyst for advancing to a higher level of psychological functioning. Survivors of sexual assault report post-traumatic growth as early as two weeks later, but the timeline and nature of growth varies from person to person.
Five positive changes signal post-traumatic growth and provide a useful framework for how to make the best out of the worst situations.
The first is personal strength. Tragedy exposes our vulnerability in an unpredictable world and therefore may cause us to feel weak or helpless. But, paradoxically, it can also boost our self-confidence and lead us to view ourselves as stronger. People may feel empowered by realizing that overcoming a past challenge means they will be able to overcome future challenges.
The second is relationships. Whether bonding on a deeper level with friends and family or feeling connected to strangers who have gone through similar difficulties, suffering can bring people closer together. Social support is especially important for healing; discussing and processing hardships with other people assists with meaning-making. For instance, women emerging from intimate partner violence undergo more growth if they discuss their abuse with a role model. Suffering may also prompt us to be more compassionate toward others: A recent study out of Yale and MIT showed that survivors of violence felt more empathy for Liberian refugees and therefore acted more altruistically, such as by hosting the refugees in their homes.
The third way to grow from trauma is through greater life appreciation. Tragedy can shift our perception, inspire us to value good things more, and renew our intention to make the most of our lives. One approach to focusing on gratitude is to sit down once a week and write a list of things for which you are grateful from the previous week. Researchers found that this exercise was linked to higher life satisfaction, more optimism, and fewer health complaints. Another strategy is to savor and fully enjoy the things that bring us joy, such as spending time with a loved one, laughter, etc.
The fourth is beliefs, which may change or be reinforced because of trauma. As researchers explain, people may evolve existentially to see themselves and their role in the world differently or to feel a new spiritual connection, which can influence their sense of purpose or their faith, respectively. For instance, religious parents whose child dies in infancy might understand their grief as God’s will, consistent with their previous beliefs. Conversely, they may question whether God exists at all, thereby challenging their previous beliefs. Research suggests that individuals benefit from attempting to reconstruct or reaffirm their sense of meaning in this way.
Finally, the fifth positive change is new possibilities. In the aftermath of trauma or tragedy, people may perceive that new opportunities are available and pursue them. Consider a man who gets fired, feels ashamed and depressed, but soon after starts working on what he is truly passionate about, which wasn’t possible at his former job. One method of identifying new possibilities is to envision your ideal life in the future and strategize about bringing that vision to fruition. A study showed that people felt significantly happier after spending twenty minutes each day for four days writing about their imagined best possible selves or planning their goals. Plus, this activity can increase optimism.
By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development. Several factors can facilitate this process:
- One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma.
- Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the trauma as irreversible and embracing the grief process.
- Another factor is recognizing that we are in control of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.
No one is exempt from suffering, yet we can thrive and flourish despite it – and, in some cases, because of it. Trauma drives change, and that change can be positive. Post-traumatic growth points to ways in which we can use our struggles – as individuals – for greater meaning and transformation.