I’ve always dug songs about people who triumphed after facing hard times. Like disco hit “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and “Fancy” by Reba McEntire. But one of my all-time favorites is Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).”
Its uplifting lyrics about choosing yourself over a bad relationship are more than just catchy; there’s a lot of truth to its message of how after experiencing adversity, some people can see positive growth afterwards. In fact, there’s an official name for it — Post-traumatic Growth.
Two psychology professors at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D. and Lawrence G. Calhoun, Ph.D., first introduced the concept in the 1990’s as the experience of positive transformation after trauma.
In this sense, trauma was very broadly defined as anything from a death in the family to divorce, physical trauma or a work-related loss. Bottom-line, their research and resulting publications indicated that negative experiences can spur a deeper understanding of oneself and a greater appreciation for life.
“The key idea is that some people may develop a greater personal strength or even have spiritual changes just seeing new possibilities, themselves and relationships in a different light,” said Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, Professor and Director of Research, Graduate Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.
Praslova shared the experience of her grandmother, who lived right on the path of the Nazi “Drive to the East” during World War Two. In pressing toward Moscow, “The Nazis would basically take entire villages, put them around columns and use them as living shields, and my grandmother was in one with her five children. She always said that after surviving that and saving her children, she could do anything.”
Getting off Autopilot
That was the case for double-suicide survivor Melissa Smith. She and her two siblings were raised by a single dad, a Vietnam War veteran whose PTSD and Bi-Polar disorders weren’t diagnosed until middle age. When her father committed suicide in 2003, Smith was shocked and heartbroken. Then nearly a decade later, her husband killed himself in 2012. The loss was devastating.
“My husband and my dad were super tough men who just did it all,” said Smith. “What they both lacked was the ability to ask for help and be vulnerable. Suicide literally took their lives, but it also took them out of the game of life. And if we just stay in those moments and don’t press on, there were other good moments to be had.”
The losses impacted Smith in different ways. “It is the natural circle of life to have your parents go before you. While my husband wasn’t diagnosed with any disorders, he displayed some erratic behaviors that felt normal to me because of the way I was raised,” she continued. “After becoming a widow, I realized that the two men in my life who were never supposed to leave were in serious pain, and they left me.”
During the mourning process for her husband, Smith vowed not to live life in vain. She reached out to others, sought professional help, and engaged in honest, supportive dialogue with her then 15-year-old and 19-year-old children. For her, the first step in embracing a meaningful life was getting off of autopilot.
Smith remembered hearing that if something traumatic happens like the death of a spouse, people shouldn’t make any big decisions for a year. She took that advice to heart. After a year, Smith moved back to California to be near family and had a job she loved while immersing herself in networking groups to learn about startups in Silicon Valley.
But her daughter felt a deep need to return to Georgia for senior year of high school, so she made plans to move back. Reluctant to lose Smith, her employer said she could work remotely. It opened up a whole new way of life. Relishing the freedom and flexibility of remote work, Smith decided to start her own virtual assistant business.
“I became more deliberate about living, taking chances and doing things that I didn’t previously think were possible,” said Smith. “Even though I was afraid, sad and lonely, I kept taking more calculated risks. Rather than focus on how I might fail, I concentrated on what is on the other side, which was more exciting.”
Previously, her bubble was pretty self-contained. She had panic attacks for 15 years and was scared of triggering one in public. But then Smith, with help, methodically overcame her anxiety.
One of her lifelong fears was flying in an airplane. When clients wanted to fly her out for events though, Smith had to bite the bullet and go. She used to take a sedative to calm her nerves but cut back to smaller doses when flights got shorter. One day she forgot to take it and then consciously decided to forgo it for an upcoming cross-country flight.
After doing that successfully, Smith got her passport and started traveling around the world. In four years, the woman who formerly stressed out over being too far from home visited 30 countries and loved it.
The post-traumatic growth Smith actively sought has allowed her to thrive. Her business is successful, and she started a high-profile trade association for other virtual assistants. Smith has done everything on her “bucket list” of desired experiences because she realizes how fleeting life can be.
“I don’t want for there to be anything positively left unsaid,” she explained. “And I don’t want there to be a moment where I have all these regrets.”
One Size Does Not Fit All
Incidents of personal trauma have significantly increased over the past few years. In October 2020, the American Medical Association reported that symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other disorders more than tripled since 2019.
Each person experiences trauma differently. One individual’s traumatic experience can be devastating to them but register as less so for someone with a completely different perspective. It depends on the starting point, their history and the complexity of the situation.
“You could be really frustrated trying to learn how to use new technology in working from home or still mourning the loss of your previous interactions or routine, but you can’t compare that to front line workers who don’t have enough protective equipment, someone who became homeless or lost their formerly healthy parents to COVID-19,” noted Praslova.
With increased challenges and hard times, the instances of post-traumatic growth have risen as well. A growing number of individuals have exceeded their personal expectations, granted themselves permission to conquer obstacles or seek a more fulfilling life.
“A lot of people are improving their relationships, finding spirituality, and developing new skills. We definitely will see much good coming out of it,” said Praslova. “I just want to be realistic that we don’t overstate it. The media presents unrealistic expectations, and we don’t need to make people feel bad that they didn’t master learning two languages or doing something else during quarantine because they were trying to survive. Putting too much pressure on oneself doesn’t help our mental state.”
Thinking about deliberately trying to pursue post-traumatic growth after going through this kind of experience? Praslova says you need to be careful about when and how. It is essential to be realistic.
Choosing delusional goals is just going to hold you back. Especially in our “one-up” society where we see dramatic stories of people doing things like running a marathon or launching a multi-million-dollar business just a few months after being hit with a major trauma.
Praslova shares the example of experiencing a death in your family and thinking that you are going to work through the stages of grief and start growing within a week or so. “That’s denial, not growth. You’re setting yourself for failure,” she explained. “We need to be realistic and understand that grief is going to hit you at random times, whether it is over losing a person, a job or something else.”
“You’re just retraumatizing yourself by those unrealistic expectations,” continued Praslova. “So don’t try to fake it. You have to go through the journey and your journey might end up being a little bit longer than someone else’s.”
Post-traumatic growth isn’t just for individuals. That transformation is possible for any group emerging from a traumatic event. I’m talking about your friend network, a business, a religious congregation and more. Being willing to introspect, ask for support, stay realistic and open to possibilities can help us grow after adversity.
Have you ever experienced personal growth after adversity?