By Sarah Jeanne Browne—
If you’ve ever experienced trauma, you’ll find being called resilient a little bit off putting or insensitive. It seems to suggest your willpower and ability as an overcomer is why you survived dismissing the struggle it took to get there. It’s a pat on the back after climbing yourself out of a giant hole. It’s telling you “good job” when you would give anything to not have fallen in to begin with. People may tell you, “You’ve found your voice” when you’re finally on the other side of it. However, it is not about how long or how hard you hold on. Sometimes you have no choice but to be strong. You may feel like giving up even though you are able to carry your burdens on your back without tripping. You may feel like giving up even though you are still standing. And you may feel like giving up even though you’ve carried it all without falter. True resilience isn’t the lack of wanting to give up. It’s knowing that what is happening isn’t final, the end of you. You’re still here.
We want people to sit with our pain, not fix or judge it. We want to be heard as we are and not made into a hero for surviving (though we might be one). We want validated in our pain and how hard our journey has been rather than congratulated for making it. Aundi Kolber says, “It’s never okay to call someone else’s trauma a blessing. Full stop.”
Resilience is coming home to yourself after trauma creates some level of disassociation from yourself. Resilience is meeting your own needs. Resilience is taking time to do one thing like making your bed when everything else has fallen apart; that one simple act of self care is defiance against defeat. Resilience is using what happened for good, but also sharing that you would have preferred it didn’t happen this way. Resilience is taking control of the narrative so you tell your story your way. Resilience doesn’t just happen, it’s a constant climb towards who you are becoming all the while honoring your grief. Resilience is wanting to rewind or to take a different path but still showing up each day.
Resilience is also not enough. We need tools. We need support. We need coping skills. We need help. Zandashé L’orelia Brown says, “I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I’m exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.”
A lot of things happen that are out of your control. Bereavement, job loss, divorce, abuse, natural disaster, big life change or anything that shakes your world can create trauma. Trauma is really anything that overwhelms your nervous system and ability to cope with day to day life. It’s when you go outside your window of tolerance (ability to tolerate difficult emotions and situations) leading to emotional dysregulation. It can look different for everyone, and it’s important not to compare traumas. When traumatized or distressed, our flight, fight, freeze or fawn response gets triggered. We go into survival mode and may white-knuckle through our lives. Sometimes, even after the negative event has passed, we still experience these trauma responses. It’s important to note when you are triggered and to have a crisis plan and to have self-compassion. Trauma can lead to mental health crises like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder if left untreated. Ask for help when you need it.
It’s human to grieve and go through trauma and have adverse reactions to it. It’s human to feel. Give yourself time and care to process the trauma. Healing looks differently for everyone. The truth is you’re never completely over a traumatic experience. Healing is an ongoing process not a destination. You’re constantly learning how to live again and focused on making it. Trauma shifts your entire being so that you come undone, and picking up the pieces again is no easy feat. Trauma may threaten to swallow you whole, but if you use it to transform yourself, you can develop resilience.
Resilience doesn’t mean that everything is rainbows and butterflies. We have to accept that things are hard. We have to stop saying “at least” in the midst of grappling with what happened to us. As important as it is to mine for lessons, be with the pain. Megan Devine says, “We’ve got a cultural narrative that says bad things happen in order to help you grow, and no matter how bleak it seems, the end result is always worth the struggle. You’ll get there, if only you believe. That happy ending is going to be glorious. Grieving people are met with impatience precisely because they are failing the cultural storyline of overcoming adversity. If you don’t transform, if you don’t find something beautiful inside this, you’ve failed. And if you don’t do it quickly, following that narrative arc from incident to transformation within our collective attention span, you’re not living the right story. There’s a gag order on telling the truth, in real life and in our fictional accounts. As a culture, we don’t want to hear that there are things that can’t be fixed. As a culture, we don’t want to hear that there is some pain that never gets redeemed.”
Have you heard of trauma-related growth? It’s when you develop during difficulties and beat the odds.
Trauma-related growth is known by some as “post-traumatic growth.” Post-traumatic growth is a phenomenon when you bounce back from adversity with a positive transformation. That type of resilience is unique. Sonja Lyubormirsky said she knew someone who knew two holocaust survivors. One of them said “It’s indecent and insane to ever be happy again.” The other said, “It’s indecent and insane to never be happy again.” She says most have the positive perspective. Many try to make meaning out of their experiences and think happiness and meaning aren’t the same thing. She thinks happiness and meaning go together and that people can achieve both. Not only does one become better in post-traumatic growth but they can become more mature and cognitively complex.
Post-traumatic growth was coined by Dr. Richard Tedeschi in the 1980s who says, “Post-traumatic growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.” He is an expert in resilience and recovery through post-traumatic growth. He has led many worldwide studies in 2 dozen languages and 10 different countries.
In a presentation for Reimagine’s series Phoenix Rising that explores opportunities to emerge from the ashes and transform from the source of our loss, Dr. Richard Tedeschi says trauma is any event that challenges our belief systems, “What they believe in: core beliefs, identity, future plans for your life.” We see post-traumatic growth all through time and various cultures, otherwise he notes, we’d be extinct. The stress of trauma is the catalyst of growth. He focuses on “How to live life well and give to others, how to move in positive direction after devastation…how people become wise.”
It’s important that trauma survivors have the following in order to process this post-traumatic growth:
- Education in post-traumatic growth so you have incentive towards it
- Emotional regulation strategies
- Openness about your experiences so you can share them
- Find ways to provide service to others
While there are cases that people value their trauma due to what lessons they have learned or how they have transformed, Dr. Richard Tedeschi says a common misconception is that post-traumatic growth means the trauma is good. The trauma is always bad. No trauma is good. It’s about the aftermath of trauma that he focuses on.
His studies reveal the same 5 elements of growth people experience in post-traumatic growth. They are as follows:
1) Deeper interpersonal relationships
When you go through any difficult time, you learn who you can lean on. Practicing vulnerability and openness about your experiences leads to deeper conversations and better companionship. However, it may also mean that you walk away from certain people who do not show up for you. The goals of developing deeper interpersonal relationships are to find common humanity, authenticity, empathy, support and understanding.
Ask yourself, “When was the last time I really talked to someone about how I was feeling? Who are my support systems? Where are my safe spaces?” A therapist may be helpful, but it’s good to also find expert companions.
Expert companions are anyone you can talk to about your traumas and issues without feeling judged. It’s about quality not quantity. If you can only identify one expert companion, that is enough. These are relationships with depth and meaning that you can fall back on.
Some exercises you may complete are the following:
- What do you need from an expert companion?
- List your expert companions and write why they are expert companions.
- What situation in your life right now would benefit from an expert companion?
- From your list of expert companions, who is the most suitable to help you with this current situation?
- What characteristics does this expert companion have in helping you with your struggles?
- How can you devote more time and energy to nurture this relationship?
Once you’ve identified your expert companions, your needs and how expert companions might be used in your current situation, you can develop these relationships and share your struggles. It’s important to address what you are specifically looking for. Is it just safety? Acceptance? Advice? A shoulder to lean on? Help with gaining clarity? A different perspective? Communicating your needs is the way that an expert companion can best assist you.
If you are an expert companion, know that listening and holding space for someone is more valuable than simply trying to solve their problems. Emotions and pain don’t need to be fixed. They need to be given space to exist. You don’t have to be a life coach; you just need to be a good listener.
Here is a good video on how to simply be with someone who is going through something difficult to model hope.
2) Greater sense of personal strength
What you carry doesn’t define you. It’s how you carry it. Don’t you know how strong you are? You are a force to be reckoned with. You’ve come through hardships that would threaten to take anyone down. You’ve weathered countless storms. You’ve made it this far. That says something about you. You are a survivor.
When you look back at your wins and what you have overcome, you start to see how you’ve grown. Your abilities, skills, talents and resourcefulness come out when you go through significant trauma. You foster a sense of self-reliance, self-compassion and self-love.
When you love yourself, anything is possible. The world opens up to you in a different way. You’ve gotten yourself this far. Give yourself some grace and self-forgiveness for having struggled.
Strength might simply be choosing to be kind despite being hurt in life. It doesn’t have to be the level of difficulty you managed to surpass. Strength is not about how much you handle; it’s about your character and the person you are.
Your gifts and insights are strengthened through any trial. Some self-sabotage by blaming themselves for trauma and with negative self-talk. Trauma is not your fault. So start simply by positively reframing your situation and asking yourself, “How did I grow from this? What ways did I surprise myself? Was there any gift or lesson I can take with me?”
You start to see your capabilities and character when you think about all the ways you have grown. However there’s a difference between inspiration porn and valuing someone’s strength through hardship. For example, say someone has a disability and lacks accommodations but finds a way to overcompensate through innovation. To an extent, congratulations are in order, but it’s better to fix the system from which they had to maneuver around. Rather than just celebrating their resourcefulness and resilience, ask them what they would like to change. Give them a voice and platform for social change rather than saying, “If they can do it, so can you.” Believing in someone and yourself is well intentioned, but if there are legitimate obstacles, acknowledge and validate the struggle otherwise you get into toxic positivity and bypassing emotions.
Strength may be inspiring but more often than not it’s a call to action to make change. Survival leads us to not turn away from injustice. The truth is no one should be forced to face certain things. No amount of strength can compensate for that. But we can be a guiding light for each other. True strength is in service, dignity and righteousness for those in need.
3) New possibilities
Perhaps you’ve learned new skills or created opportunities out of obstacles. Use what you have and rebuild your life. Starting over can have its benefits. It leads you to find new answers and ways of living. Take time for yourself to recover and regroup.
What will you do with the time given to you?
The possibilities are endless. Self-discovery is the next task.
You take what happened and mold it to being something you can use. Do things that you couldn’t do when you were struggling.
- Go on that road trip
- Take that new class
- Learn that language
- Meet new people
- Try that skill or hobby
- Change careers
- Go back to school
- Start that business
- Invest in that idea
Live life for you. Take back the life that is yours.
You may find a way to do something differently. A unique angle or perspective. You might innovate with your experiences. You might uncover something new. Doors may open that were once closed. People may come into your life that weren’t there before. Experiences may happen that you would have otherwise missed. You may if anything just learn more about yourself. You may find who you really are. Your breakthrough may come from the breakdown. You’ll find a way to connect the dots. As Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech at Stanford, we can’t connect the dots while going through something. We can only connect them while looking back, seeing how things served a purpose in our lives.
4) Appreciation of life
It’s never good to force gratitude, however, there are benefits to seeing the world that way. But if you can’t find gratitude in this moment, that is perfectly fine.
With gratitude, start simple. What is one thing you can be thankful for after surviving these traumatic experiences? Some might say that it wasn’t worse than it was. If that’s all you can muster, then allow that thought to flood some light into the dark.
When you come through trauma and experience gratitude for being alive itself, it changes your perspective. Priorities shift. You remember what really matters. Life is a gift, and if you can’t control the current, you can choose your attitude and go with the flow.
When’s the last time you truly said “Thank you” to yourself for getting through this? You deserve appreciation too. Thank those who helped you along the way. Thank the lessons, thank the struggles, thank the tears because they all transformed you through the trauma.
5) Spiritual and existential change
Here are some ways you can develop a greater sense of self:
- Find purpose through your problems
- Become a leader
- Live for something greater than yourself
- Rediscover or strengthen your faith
- Give to a cause that you care about
- Become mindful
- Surrender to the beautiful mystery of life
- Ask big questions
- Make meaning
- Use your struggles for something good
- Help others
- Share your story
- Shed light on issues and solve problems
- Become more authentic
But don’t feel that you have to do something with an issue in order to justify it all. Trauma is not the answer to every problem. Trauma happens and we learn to live with it. Sometimes, all you need to do is be with your pain and know that you have persevered and let that be enough.
Becoming resilient is about reverence for life itself because your struggles might lead you to help the greater good. But it’s okay if you don’t know how yet. You don’t have to know where you are going or what you will do next in order to love life. You don’t have to wait until hardships are over to be happy. You just have to start with this moment and decide who you will become.