When we are in trauma, we are grappling with alienation and fear on a daily basis, and it is hard to see how anything good could come of something so bad. So when I first read the phrase “post-traumatic growth,” my response was not just disbelief, but rage. For me, rage starts as an eruption of fire in my chest. If I inhale deeply, the oxygen fuels the fire, and the rage grows. But if I exhale sharply, the fire goes out almost too quickly, and I suddenly feel sad, alone, and misunderstood.
In that first encounter with PTG, I exhaled sharply. With the feeling that I was being crushed with loneliness, I closed the book I had been reading, bristling at the author’s insensitivity.
PTG gets a fair amount of attention but it is still often misunderstood, in the same way that I did upon that first encounter. For example, many people use it interchangeably with the term resilience. However, PTG is not the same as resilience.
Resilient quite literally means “able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.” Resilient is often used to be synonymous with “strong,” but it does not mean strong. It is a form of strength in that to be resilient is to be supple. If someone who is resilient experiences trauma, they return to their baseline—how they feel on an average day—with ease. And while some events may be more disruptive than others, more resilient folks do return to their daily lives without much trouble.
PTG may ultimately lead to greater resilience but it is not the same as resilience. According to the American Psychological Association, the theory of PTG only applies to people who do not bounce back after a trauma. Instead they endure “psychological struggles.” This often takes the shape of a trauma disorder. They are unable to “recover quickly from difficult conditions.” In spite of these struggles, people who experience PTG are people who continually roll up their sleeves and work through their trauma. This is a different form of strength than resilience. This is perseverance.
This is not to imply that people who do not bounce back are weak or inherently not resilient, but at the moment of trauma they were not resilient. I think of myself as an incredibly resilient person but there have been times in my own life where the conditions were so challenging I could not bounce back. I am human after all. I am guessing you are, too.
Although I now know I have experienced PTG, it wasn’t until very recently that I was able to find ease with the expression. When I saw or heard those words, unease raked through me and I braced, wary of the words that would come next. Would I be chastised again for my inability to bounce back to the way things used to be; this time by trauma experts, as opposed to well-intentioned but misguided loved ones? I was stuck in the sticky sludge of trauma, flailing about trying to get through it, but feeling like I was not getting anywhere. My therapist, an expert, would remind me that it was ok “to just show up” and “to take it one day at a time.” But the perceived pressure I faced outside of her office to “just get over it already” from family, friends, and coaches, made it hard to put one foot in front of the other. I panicked: what if trauma experts were talking about post-traumatic growth it made it hard for me to feel ok with being in the sticky sludge, and not bouncing back.
In an attempt to find peace with the term, I put my explosive emotions to the side and turned to logic. My feelings were big, and confusing, and exhausting. It was a welcomed break. I thought if I could see what PTG was on paper, almost like a diagnosis, rather than just that feeling in my chest, I would finally accept the whole theory. To identify PTG, clinicians look for positive responses in these five areas:
Appreciation of life
Relationships with others
New possibilities in life
Spiritual change (This category has been revised to reflect themes that would apply cross-culturally as well as for those who live secular lives.)
Recognizing myself as having PTG was easy: Not only do I self-report changes in these five areas, my therapist, friends, and family have observed these changes and reflected them back to me too. I feel fortunate that I was able to do my own work and cultivate a life that is so much more full now than it ever was. And it is nice to have it recognized.
But my unease with the words “post-traumatic growth” lingered in spite of my attempt to use logic to quiet my explosive emotions. This discomfort continued even though I had also learned that the theory of post-traumatic growth has fewer expectations than I did for myself. It does not state that individuals who experience growth do not suffer—it acknowledges that we can both suffer and grow. Nor does it maintain post-traumatic growth is universal. Finally, it does not intend to imply that traumatic events are good. Why, then, couldn’t I accept my PTG?
This nagging guilt lingered until I read what psychologist and educator Dr. Kelly McGonigal had to say about PTG. She writes in her book The Upside of Stress:
The science of post-traumatic growth doesn’t say that there is anything inherently good about suffering. Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you -- your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma. (Emphasis added).
When I had started the chapter on PTG, I was holding my breath, waiting to feel judged or feel like I should find the silver lining of my trauma. By the time I finished, the breath returned to my body. Unease and suspicion were replaced with ease and acceptance.
It was not until I read those words did I understand the core of my unease with the term PTG. In my mind, and many people’s minds, the theory of PTG creates an inextricable connection between our personal growth and a terrible thing. McGonigal says otherwise. The growth I have experienced in the last five years is mine. It comes from me. It does not come from my trauma.
I could embrace my post-traumatic growth wholeheartedly because, as it turns out, it was mine all along. My growth did not belong to the trauma. It did not belong to the people and events that had caused me great pain in my life. It belonged to me and me alone.
Post-traumatic growth is a possible response to trauma but does not come from the trauma itself. It is from deep inside of us. We harness our resources and strengths, put in the work of self-reflection, and make changes even when the odds appear to be stacked against us. And that burn inside of me - the rage - it was also a part of my own growth. It was some of the fuel I used to persevere when I was less resilient. We can burn inside. It won’t consume us. After all, fire is also a light and you are going to need some sort of light to see yourself out of suffering alone in the dark.