I often run into the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I hadn’t heard of its flipside, Post Traumatic Growth, until I stumbled into experiencing it myself!
The Adversity of Breaking Up
A close colleague recently met with me to sever our relationship.
It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after a flurry of emotionally charged emails that I did my best (unsuccessfully) to answer.
I accepted their decision without any animosity. Although the reasons were legitimate, we’d known each other for a few years, and we’d been friends, so the separation still stung.
I’m used to letting people go. Co-workers I’ve befriended leave for other jobs, neighbors move to other cities, people join and leave groups I belong to. I’ve left jobs, neighborhoods, and groups, too.
A few hours after our parting, I was with my partner enjoying a screening of The Haunting, a favorite slow-burn supernatural thriller that I’ve loved since childhood. I was mostly absorbed in the movie. But, that enjoyment was occasionally hijacked by distress signals my body demanded I address.
Apparently, I hadn’t fully processed the event. It had lodged in my body as a wound. A fancy Greek word for wound is trauma.
The Lessons of Trauma
Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how, if we’re not careful, what we learn from trauma can negatively impact all aspects of our life.
When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends. A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.
Post Traumatic Growth
Fortunately, the same book introduced me to the term Post Traumatic Growth, a phenomenon that Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues at UNC Charlotte have been studying for a couple of decades. What kind of growth comes from a brush with adversity?
Mr. Achor writes:
Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.
ABCDs of Growth
To help us stack the deck for growth, Mr. Achor discusses the ABCD approach. It stands for:
The acronym might have been new to me, but the wisdom behind it, is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The adversity part in this model is an event that we cannot change.
My colleague’s decision to discontinue our relationship would be an example.
There’s a certain subjectivity even to labeling an event as adverse, so it might be useful to think of it as an event that we experience as a wound.
According to Mr. Achor:
Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. Is it a problem that is only temporary and local in nature or do we think it is permanent and pervasive? Are there ready solutions, or do we think it is unsolvable?
While I had to accept my colleague’s decision, I had the presence of mind to ask for their reasons. This allowed me to evaluate a specific set of opinions instead of imagining everything that I might have said or done wrong. The latter would have been more likely to send me on a downward spiral.
Because of the explanation, and the legitimate differences of opinion it revealed, I didn’t believe the problem was permanent or pervasive.
I apologized for the emotional pain I had contributed to, but because it hadn’t been intentional I wasn’t wracked with extreme guilt or self loathing.
I found myself in the weird position of cognitive and emotional self-acceptance accompanied by a bodily experience of a major depressive episode!
Because I hadn’t learned helplessness, I knew enough to add additional social events to my calendar to replace the ones I would be giving up. That was the logical thing to do. But, I also had to heal my wounded body.
Mr. Achor writes:
Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.
In a training session I’d done with a professional cuddler, we had discussed how the naturally calming effects of oxytocin might make a cuddle session the ideal setting for processing a traumatic experience.
How we remember events is malleable. So, taking a troubling memory out for an airing in an environment of calm, acceptance, and trust (all side effects of oxytocin) might significantly change the future feeling tone associated with that memory.
Scheduling conflicts prevented me from booking a session with that cuddler before I had the opportunity to attend a group cuddle session (where my body’s panicky “beliefs” could be calmed). I immediately followed that by conversing with someone familiar with the relationship dynamics between me and my colleague.
My body calmed, and reassurance by a third party that I had made mistakes, but not out of maliciousness, helped calm my mind.
In retrospect, it’s surprising how my experience aligns with the kind of growth that Shawn Achor described in his book.
The trauma strengthened my confidence in my mindfulness practice, which some people consider spiritual. I had greater compassion for my colleague, recognizing that it must have been hard on them, too. I took the opportunity to be more open than I usually am, which helped me move a couple acquaintanceships toward friendships. I added social events to my calendar to replace the ones that I would no longer be attending, and began building relationships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.
In terms of lessons learned, I recognized that because writing and editing sharpens my critical sense, it’s sometimes challenging to turn off my fault-finding habit in areas where it doesn’t serve me. My being less critical may prevent others from deciding to sever relations in the future.
Ten Minute Exercise
Though we can’t heal wounds in ten minutes, we can practice disputing beliefs that can lead to learned helplessness.
1. Set a timer for two minutes. Write down beliefs about an adverse event in your life that have not led to personal growth.
2. Set a timer for six minutes. Write a disputation of one belief.
Ask questions like:
- What is the evidence for this belief?
- Does the evidence support only one conclusion?
- How might a skilled defense attorney argue for another interpretation of events more favorable to their client?
- Would we let a close friend or loved one get away with this reasoning?
3. Set a timer for two minutes. Check to see whether a disputed belief might lead to:
- Increases in spirituality
- Compassion for others.
- Enhanced personal strength.
- Improved social relationships.
Additional options. Though it takes more than ten minutes, The Work of Byron Katie discussed in “One Belief at a Time” offers a very helpful framework for disputation. The One-Belief-at-a-Time and Judge Your Neighbor worksheets are available here under downloads.