Post-Traumatic Growth – Introduction
When a water pipe burst in the SoHo loft of an accomplished botanical artist named Margot, most of her paintings, sketches, books, tools, and possessions were completely destroyed. This was particularly traumatic for her since she worked primarily with watercolors. Understandably, the artist was devastated. But something extraordinary happened. After a period of intense grieving, she realized that the experience actually created a sense of spaciousness, an incredible lightness, freedom, and mobility.
Margot went on to conceive a whole new body of work in response to the loss, surpassing what she had previously produced. Her current exhibitions in regional and national museums are a brilliant celebration of her ability to convert personal tragedy into creative expression that both transcends and includes her history.
In the face of unrecoverable losses, her vision has expanded from botanical illustration into unexplored areas of nature art in her ongoing development as a watercolorist. Her commissioned work has vastly increased in the process. The artist might have never recovered from such a traumatic loss. Instead, she evolved.
This is a book about evolving, not as a species but as a person. It’s about post-traumatic growth, about thriving, really flourishing throughout one’s life, no matter what. It’s about coming up against the worst of it—loss, endings, injury, illness, betrayal, anguish, despair, shattering defeat, paralyzing fear—and transforming these excruciating and traumatic realities into experiences of profound growth.
We all share this amazing capacity to emerge from our darkest hour to a better place, more open, loving, whole, freer, and wiser than we were before. It seems extraordinary, and it is. But while change is unstoppable and trauma is unavoidable, transformation remains optional. No guarantees. Only humans can either thwart or catalyze their own human potential and evolutionary development.
Even the grimmest adversity can serve as a pathway to becoming stronger, happier, and more fulfilled. Yet that same adversity can sink you like a stone. Some of us will become immobilized, stuck at an impasse indefinitely, lost in patterns of blame and self-sabotage, distracted with meaningless substitutes, and either stagnate or slowly self-destruct. And tragically, we may never discover what new purpose our life might serve and who we could still become. Statistically, that is the majority of us. But why only some and not others? Why do some of us keep evolving and some of us never change? Conversely, why do some of us remain entrenched in disorders, while others break through and flourish?
The most underexplored, compelling area in human development is, arguably, post-traumatic growth, a phenomenon whose time has come. I should make clear here that, as in all psychological disorders, post-traumatic stress exists on a spectrum from moderate to incapacitating. Severe PTSD must be diagnosed and treated by a licensed mental health professional, for which this book is not, in any way, intended as a substitute.
As a psychologist and seminar leader, I have tracked patterns among individuals in whom moderate trauma preceded profound growth and have witnessed what can and does make a difference, time and time again. From these observations, an empirical model has emerged for turning crisis into expansion, healing, and growth. This model is based directly on commonalities shared by those individuals who actually have succeeded in evolving in the face of adversity. It’s a GPS of the soul that has since been applied effectively with countless individuals. While details of our stories are uniquely ours, this practical map offers a way to guide and facilitate the process of inner development, shedding light on how transformational change can happen in one’s life.
Each of the seven stages in this blueprint for transformational change has unique challenges, insights, shifts, and turning points: immobilization, unraveling, surrendering, awakening, birthing, integrating, and flourishing. Each stage offers an opportunity to either grow in the process of skillfully managing trauma and change or to become stuck and remain further entrenched. Proceeding to the next level tends to involve mastering certain developmental tasks at each stage and opening to life in previously unconsidered ways. In the process, we continue to become more aware and more adept as we give birth to new dimensions of ourselves. While this capacity for inner expansion often occurs in response to facing intense adversity, it can potentially be experienced throughout our entire lives.
As we all well know, bad things can and do happen to good people. While no one ever sets out to lead a senseless existence—immobilized by fear, diminished by loss, disempowered by defeats, wasting energy on the wrong plan while neglecting the right plan, feeling cramped inside the box—many of us end up doing just that. What is missing when this happens to us? It’s not what gets us down but what keeps us down that is at issue here. What is keeping you down, despite your best intentions and efforts to bring about change and growth? Many self-help books offer great ideas. But without a realistic blueprint for guidance, we tend to flounder in the dark for way too long, sometimes indefinitely, not really knowing the way forward or out.
Without experience-based input to prepare us for the emotional upheaval that often occurs during each phase, steps to navigate through it, insights to inspire us, and practical skills to persevere, many of us will feel overwhelmed and defeated before we’re halfway there. It is precisely when our vulnerability is greatest that we most need a reliable map. This book provides a framework for transformation. It can serve as our inner GPS and private life-coach throughout the process. It provides support and guidance as we forge through high seas of change and loss, consciously evolving, becoming more and more whole.
To the extent that we are consciously working toward becoming more aware and developing our full human potential, we can be regarded as actively participating in our own evolution, co-creating our future, a distinctly human possibility. This is what it means to be whole, fully alive, thriving, and flourishing. In hopes of shedding light on the inner experience of post-traumatic growth and consciously evolving, I have interviewed hundreds of individuals who have successfully recovered from some of the most painful ordeals imaginable: cancer diagnosis, financial ruin, death of a loved one, painful divorce, debilitating injury, life-threatening illness, profound loneliness, recurring addiction, chronic anxiety and depression, and others.
Each of the seemingly ordinary individuals included in this book has emerged through times of unspeakable despair with a sense of triumph and even gratitude for what they learned, how they’ve grown, and who they became in the process. Against all odds, they have become men and women of remarkable wholeness, love, depth, spirit, and joy. Yet they once thought their life, the life they’d planned and dreamed of, was basically over. And it certainly was. But there was something very different and quite beautiful waiting for them.
As their stories unfold through each phase of their transformative experience, this book offers powerful guiding metaphors for one’s own journey. This direct glimpse into the phenomenology of developmental change reveals important insights about how the inner process of profound growth actually occurs. Although each person’s challenges are vastly different, a roughly comparable sequence of dynamics and turning points can be seen running through their experience.
In bearing witness, we can only be reassured and inspired by the dramatic changes that can and do take place. It is a messy and often harrowing process. There is within us something dying and something being born. But despite our perceptions to the contrary, we are never totally alone. We do have each other. We are all in this together. We are each other’s teachers, “each other’s miracle,” as poet Marge Piercy has said.
Maybe the first step is to realize that we will somehow be held and nourished, often when we least expect it, by a friend or by a perfect stranger—it doesn’t matter—or by a moonrise on a river, an evocative poetic metaphor, a stirring cello concerto, stillness in meditation, a great night’s sleep, morning sun through our kitchen window, the scent of a ripe plum, by sudden laughter, a field of wildflowers, by one good book that speaks directly to us. Anything can heal us. So first we open to that. We exhale. And then we look for practical inspiration.
Even without a major crisis, many of us will eventually find ourselves asking, “Is this it?” and begin seeking new ways to expand our world. Here the process of self-actualization or personal evolution is actually self-initiated, generated from a place inside us that is tugging at us to grow. It says, “Enough!” Perhaps the life plan that seemed complete has begun to feel narrow and confining. We have a persistent longing to be more alive, more connected, more fulfilled, an impulse to learn, to take on new challenges and experiences. By becoming more informed about the territory of change and more adept at navigating it, we will be honing the skills and developing the traits we need to continue thriving and flourishing throughout our life no matter what.
As a point of clarification, this model of stages and phases has been drawn from two sources: first, from my field research with individuals who have personally succeeded in converting moderate trauma into transformative growth, and second, from the observations of experienced psychologists and psychiatrists who have assisted in this process with private clients. Their professional perspective on the key components involved in profound change sheds further light on both the catalysts and the impediments to post-traumatic growth and transformation.
As with the stages of grieving, loosely defined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in Death and Dying, there is naturally lots of overlapping, back-tracking, and advancing between phases. This is not a tidy, precise process. However, in my experience working with hundreds of individuals and road-testing this model as a developmental guide, we have found it to be easily as valuable for transcending trauma as the Kubler Ross model has been for grieving, as well as enormously validating and helpful. May it guide and support you on your way.