Yes, Posttraumatic Growth is a Real Thing

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
—Viktor Frankl

Most people say they don’t like adversity. If you ask, many of us would say that this Covid19 situation, right now, sucks. And the last thing we want to hear is, “You’ll grow from this.” Please. Don’t start with that.

Yet history is littered with stories of triumph and growth through adversity. Van Gogh was tortured with madness. Beethoven went deaf. Roosevelt suffered from polio and paralysis. Victor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, his family murdered by Nazis. More recently I was reminded of Michael J. Fox, who has advanced Parkinson’s Disease, and yet now his foundation has become the largest donor to Parkinson’s research – over $650 million thus far. Frida Kahlo, who suffered through polio, a near death accident, and chronic unrelenting pain, and yet found solace in her art. Our world religions of Hindu, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity all have stories of the transformative power of suffering.

But what’s the path to enlightenment through crisis and trauma? Is it as simple as waking up one day in the middle of a crisis and just creating art and meaning? Well no, it’s not that simple. But there is a path we can follow.

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have done years of research on how people deal with traumatic events and crises in their lives, and how some people successfully grow and thrive, while others merely cope, and some fold under the weight of psychic trauma.

They define “posttraumatic growth” as an increased appreciation for life, more meaningful relationships with family, friends and community, positive shifting of priorities, and a more meaningful spiritual life. They also point out that growth isn’t a binary choice, it’s a journey. And like any journey there are ups and downs.

Common initial reactions to cancer, death, job loss, divorce, or similar seismic events include profound sadness, yearning for the deceased, longing for a life denied, loss of self identity, guilt, anger, irritability and distraction. In a minority of cases, significant trauma and life crisis can trigger serious mental instability.

Spiritual and emotional growth isn’t a de facto result of crisis, of course. It’s the result of intentional choices about how we respond to traumatic events. The way we frame the next sequence of choices and personal narrative matters a great deal in how we can emerge from trauma stronger and more resilient.

Acknowledge your point of departure.
We all have our own starting point prior to a traumatic event, our own personal status quo. When a crisis strikes it disrupts our personal narrative, it challenges our belief system about what is normal, what is fair, what is real and consistent in our world. When crisis strikes it creates own emotional distress, curtails our goals, and interrupts our normal trajectory. It’s important to acknowledge that you won’t go on your vacation to Belize, or see your son’s graduation ceremony from high school. Mourn that loss, but don’t dwell on it.

Examine your self-talk.
In Tedeschi and Calhoun’s model, our next immediate phase is rumination. We muse internally about the event, and the way in which we talk to ourselves matters a great deal. Do we curse the gods, and tell ourselves we deserve it? Or do we chalk it up to random misfortune, and uncaring powers beyond our control. Often we internalize events in the form of keeping a journal, or praying, or meditating. It’s important to avoid blame. Blame simply exacerbates feelings of being a victim.

Be aware of how you share your story to others.
Once we have built our own personal narrative of the event, we try these stories out on others. We test these narratives with our partners, our friends, and family. We lean on our sociocultural muses. We revisit our trusted voices in the news, in social media, to reinforce our emerging storyline. The language you use with others is contagious. If you focus on complaints and what you have lost, you will reinforce the same feelings in others. Focus on the positive.

In these early phases of rumination, self-talk, and then sharing these developing narratives with others, it’s critically important to use words that emphasis self-compassion (“it’s not my fault”), it’s temporal (“this isn’t going to last forever”), and to emphasize what you can do to contribute to the emotional stability of those around you (“I think I’ll help John with his homework tonight”).

Build meaning and purpose through giving.
In study after study, helping others and contributing to your community goes much farther in building purpose and meaning than merely the pursuit of happiness. Even the simple act of expressing gratitude to someone is itself and act of giving because you celebrating someone else and lifting them up.

If you’re interested in tracking your own traumatic growth progress through this strange dystopian moment in time, Tedeschi and Calhoun have created this simple scorecard to help us examine our growth.

Our company Mindscaling is giving away this course we created on Resiliency with Jen Shirkani. We hope you are safe, healthy and sane in this strange time. And we hope this will help.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

Before the pandemic, in a more free world, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. If you need a good escape at the moment, grab a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Keep up the Fight

Remember on March 13, the scenes of Italians singing together from their balconies while on lockdown. Throughout the city graffiti everywhere proclaimed “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be alright). Six weeks earlier, on January 28 throughout Wuhan citizens leaned out of their apartment buildings and chanted together “jiāyóu” (keep up the fight).

Remember 2012 Hurricane Sandy, when New York was under water. On October 30, Mayer Corey Booker tweeted “Police have reported ZERO looting or crimes of opportunity in Newark. And ceaseless reports of acts of kindness abound everywhere. #Gratitude.”

Remember immediately in the wake of 9/11 in New York City, hundreds of people spontaneously formed the “Bucket Brigade” to remove debris in search of remains.

At the time Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast it was the deadliest storm to hit New Orleans since 1900. Although in the wake of the storm there were indeed stories of looting, rioting, hoarding, and even violence, a powerful study conducted in 2008 revealed that acts of prosocial generosity and caring far outweighed the negative behaviors. Conditions were especially dire for the 700,000 displaced survivors because only 26 days later Hurricane Rita hit the same geographic area stalling rescue and relief efforts.

Yet even in that incredibly adverse environment, tales of human camaraderie, altruism, generosity and care are numerous. Read this harrowing personal account: “There is nothing that I had ever witnessed in the United States to which I could compare the scene outside the New Orleans Convention Center.”

Or read this perspective from a medical worker on the front lines: “Our group received an offer of special rescue, which we did not accept until each and every one of our patients had been evacuated.”

It goes on and on. And if you’re reading this and thinking, “Yes that’s heroic and comforting but what about the looting, the hostility, the selfishness, the scarcity thinking…” I say the more good we see in the world, the more good we create in the world. The more love, charity, and kindness you witness in your community, the more you will create it yourself.

Got it? And now a word about blind optimism, and irrational exuberance.

U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale was captured by the Vietnamese, tortured over twenty times, and imprisoned for eight years during the Vietnam War. During that time he observed that those POWs with a deep sense of pessimism and dread would lose hope, succumb to their conditions, and eventually die. But he also observed those who were wildly optimistic eventually became overwhelmed with despair, and false hope.

“You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end… with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
– Admiral James Stockdale

According to Stockdale, “The wildly optimistic were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come go, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Those who persevere in the face of daunting obstacles are those who have a sense of realistic idealism. They have the ability to visualize and identify an ideal outcome, yet also an ability to realistically face challenges, including the unexpected challenges which will surely arise.

Another trait of those who possess realistic optimism is they lift other people up. During the depths of despair during their incarceration, James Stockdale used an alphabetic communication code by tapping on the walls of the prison cells. In this way the prisoners were able to communicate and not feel completely isolated in captivity.

Our world view is not simply a fixed condition of our situation. We have the power to choose our reaction to this current dystopian madness, and also to decide whether or not we have the ability to make a difference.

Things are sideways, yet remember that this pandemic is temporary. It won’t last forever, it’s not someone’s fault and you can make a difference in someone’s life each and every day simply in how you show up with discipline and faith that we will endure and see each other through.

  • Our company Mindscaling created a course on resilience with the fabulous Jen Shirkani. Message me and I’ll send access to the course. No charge of course. I just hope it helps us work through this.
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    Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

    In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.