The Challenge: We all face difficult and even traumatic moments.
The Science: Research shows these moments can lead to growth.
The Solution: If you approach the situation in the right way, a challenge can help you thrive.
Most people have heard of post-traumatic stress. Yet, beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of post-traumatic growth. It may seem paradoxical to even put the words “trauma” and “growth” next to each other in one sentence. And yet, survivors and experts begin to focus increasingly on the possibility that we could use even the most harrowing experiences for a greater good in our own lives and to impact the world.
According to psychologist Richard Tedeschi, post-traumatic growth’s leading researcher, as many as ninety percent of survivors report at least one aspect of post-traumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or a deeper connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily. We need to actively work towards positive change, and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.
Ever since I watched my grandfather succeed as a businessman and father of five despite his crippling injury from polio, I’d wondered: How is it possible that some people emerge from pain fortified? Throughout my decades as a reporter, when I visited tsunami victims and torture survivors, these questions tugged at me: Why do some people fall apart after catastrophes while others not only survive but thrive? What makes the difference?
When I found myself bedridden in my twenties with a virus that sucked the life out of me, this quandary became deeply personal. How could I become whole again?
The everyday definition of resilience entails a sense of bouncing back from a severe crisis, but for me, the idea that we can “bounce back” from a devastating blow and “return to our original shape” falls short. We never forget the ones we’ve lost or the arduous struggles we’ve fought. The lives we lead are markedly different before and after trauma because these losses and struggles transform and profoundly change us. This is posttraumatic growth, or, as Dr. Maya Angelou defines, rising above hardship, “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.”
At first, I had suspected that just a few superhuman outliers, the likes of Maya Angelou, managed to turn trials into triumphs. But by talking to survivors from all walks of life, from soldiers to surfers, I have come to realize that resilience is a muscle that strengthens with exercise.
Because a resilient mindset not only fortifies us in challenging times, but the same qualities and skills help us in our everyday lives as well. In fact, ideally, we cultivate resilience while the proverbial waters are smooth so that we have a buffer and good sailing skills when the going gets rough.
Researching these life stories has a goal: to find out what protects us and those around us from unnecessary suffering, to discover strategies to intervene when life’s trajectory goes ballistic, and to help the healing. And not only to heal but to use the crisis as a launching pad for a new beginning.
Many think of resilience as a kind of Teflon quality, an impenetrable armor that magically wards off pain and suffering. Most likely, this magic potion exists only in Hollywood and hairspray ads.
The mavens of post-traumatic growth tell a different story: that resilience is a matter of small steps of inching forward one breath at a time. Only after they embraced their suffering and after they let it penetrate them to the core did things change. Post-traumatic growth is quite the opposite of Rambo’s grin-and-bear-it bravado. In fact, the lone cowboy who thinks asking for help is a weakness is the one most at risk. Covering up a scar with a smiley face band-aid does not lessen the pain either. Growth arises, quite to the contrary, from acknowledging our wounds and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
Our upbringing plays a role, and so do genetic factors, resources, social skills, and our purpose in life. Some of these factors are beyond our control. We cannot control the tides of life, terrorist attacks, drunk drivers, or the upstairs neighbor cranking up the volume of Metallica, but we have control over the most important ingredient: our mind.
Think of it as a grand experiment: What if we opened up instead of closing down, if we let the pain in rather than warding it off?
Father Thomas Merton says, “Indeed, the truth that many people never understand until it is too late is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.”
Acceptance, openness, flexibility, optimism, patience, mindfulness, empathy, compassion, resourcefulness, determination, courage, and forgiveness are all part of a resilient mindset. These are qualities we can train in.
When suffering strikes, running in the opposite direction as fast as we can seems to make so much sense, doesn’t it? After all, nobody wants suffering in their life. So we avoid it at all costs. We dodge and duck and bargain. But does pushing the pain away cut it?
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says,
“No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear.”
When I once asked Pema how she dealt with her own debilitating chronic fatigue, she said she tried to apply the advice her teacher had given her. “Lean into it. Stay present. Stay curious. Go through it, paying meticulous attention as if you wanted to describe it in great detail to someone who’s never heard of it.”
What would happen if we stayed to pay attention?
This excerpt is from the new book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs by Michaela Haas, Ph.D.