There’s an interesting new field of study called, “Post Traumatic Growth.” Researchers are trying to find out why traumatic experiences can sometimes lead to growth, rather than suffering. For decades, therapists have assumed that trauma always leads to misery, sometimes even producing irrevocable damage. And yet, researchers are discovering that sometimes a difficult situation can lead to growth.
Whether we experience growth or suffering may be due to the particulars of the situation. I like to use this example with clients: suppose that you have a friend whose arm is badly burned in a fire. Would that be awful for him? Most of us would quickly say, “Yes.”
But what about if he ran into a burning building and saved a child? And he received such public accolades that he was awarded a medal from the Mayor, and was even able to get a job, being out of work for several months. In this situation, he may not have suffered trauma, but instead growth.
In addition, we might grow if we’ve been able to carve out some personal meaning from the event. For instance, the woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving experienced the death of a loved one at the hands of a drunk driver. From her sorrow, she helped engineer a whole movement that has prevented many more deaths.
I find the concept of Post Traumatic Growth to be helpful, with one caveat. If a person has indeed been traumatized by a terrible experience, it would be unfair to assume he/she should have grown, rather than suffered. One problem I see with the idea of Post Traumatic Growth is that a person could feel guilty for not “growing” from the experience.
The reality is that some experiences in life will lead to growth, and others to suffering. Trying to force ourselves to be appreciative can only saddle us with guilt and shame, along with the original trauma. However, we should not always assume that something difficult will produce lifelong trauma. And sometimes by changing our thinking about the experience, and trying to find meaning in it, we may be able to alleviate some of the trauma.