Personal Transformation

We Are More Than The Sum of Our Experiences

February 16, 2020
Transformed by Trauma: Independently Published by Boulder Crest Foundation

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A kintsugi vessel

Read the Book “Transformed by Trauma”

Kintsugi is the ancient practice of restoring broken pottery into objects that are often times seen as more beautiful and pleasing than the original form. This 15th-century Japanese art consists of joining shards of clay with lacquer mixed with gold and silver dust, as shown on the cover of the book. The metaphorical lesson from this craft is that cracks are not meant to be hidden, but rather held up for all to see the beauty and glory in their strength and resurrection. Kintsugi is more than art. For the Japanese, it is connected to a deep and powerful philosophy that can permeate a person’s life. For example, wabi-sabi is a branch of Japanese aesthetics that considers the unique cultural interactions between beauty, art, and those who create it.

It is a philosophy that supports the notion that one is only content or “centered” when one accepts that nothing is perfect, finished, or permanent. “Flaws” are not hidden but highlighted and embraced. More precisely, there are no flaws. The broken and repaired piece of pottery is simply a piece of pottery in a different form.

Life is not unlike this centuries-old art form. Like a clay pot that falls from a table, at times, our lives are broken apart. As the result of a difficult life experience, how we see ourselves and how we interact with the people and things around us can fundamentally change in an instant. And like that clay pot, our sense of self and how we think the world is supposed to be is shattered.

There are parallels between the philosophy embedded within the practice of Kintsugi and those suffering from psychological distress. The person who is battling with hopelessness and despair is not depressed or anxious. They are evolving into a different version of themselves; potentially a version that is stronger and wiser. Our culture refers to the residue from our traumatic experiences as defects, symptoms, disabilities, or disorders. We are called depressed, anxious, or disturbed. If we seek out the help of a mental health professional, we are labeled with pathological descriptors such as PTSD, panic disorder, or clinical depression.

Assigning a label from this pathologically-oriented nomenclature then allows the professional to provide a psychological or pharmacological intervention that promises to alleviate the suffering. In some cases, it does, but not always. Indeed, at times, life changes us. The loss of a loved one results in tremendous sadness and despair. Being victimized leaves us feeling vulnerable, fearful, and preoccupied with what happened. And we worry. Today’s society hurls accusations at us that we don’t measure up to others because we look different or lack certain material things. But we are no less of a person because life is hard. We are not relegated to an existence that requires us to accept a diminished version of ourselves. It is our belief that we are simply living, dealing with the sometimes harsh realities of life. We are not damaged or broken; we are different now because of our experiences. We have been molded into a different version of ourselves, not a diminished one.

Like the practice of Kintsugi, we believe that our scars are what make us unique, interesting, and beautiful.

Unlike what is often the case within the traditional mental health system, it is not learning to live with an “acceptable” amount of symptoms that lead to a fulfilling and rewarding life. It is appreciating the fact that for many, the hardest times in our life propel us onto a trajectory of growth. We have the capacity and ability to morph into something stronger and better.

We believe that mental health treatment by professionals is important and often needed, but we don’t believe that relying on a one-size-fits-all intervention that promises “relief” from what ails us is the ultimate solution for those struggling in the aftermath of trauma. Instead, we believe that finding ways to manage our distress through reliance on others for support to be critical. Instead of ruminating purposelessly about what happened, we believe that taking control of our thoughts and finding meaning from them facilitates growth.

When our long-held beliefs about how life is “supposed to be” no longer work for us, we create new ones that incorporate the entirety of our experiences. And then, as we grow, we take the lessons we’ve learned and set out to help others. This philosophy and approach to trauma and life is called posttraumatic growth. This is what you will encounter in the chapters that follow later, stories of posttraumatic growth. You will read about Leslie, a loving mother who tragically lost her son to suicide. She shares with us the incredible pain she endured following her son’s death,a pain that is still part of her life today. And, she also opens up about how she has grown from the experience.

You will hear from Joe, a young man who experienced numerous traumatic events during combat to include the death of his friend. Joe’s story highlights how the loss of one relationship can repair an existing relationship or even build new ones. You will also hear from Eric, a seasoned combat veteran whose near-death experience transformed his life.

What is Posttraumatic Growth?

In their years of working with trauma survivors, including bereaved parents, Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun noticed something interesting. Even after suffering some of the most horrific and unthinkable events one can imagine, a large number of these individuals found meaning and purpose in their suffering. Not only were they healing and returning to “normal,” they were experiencing significant levels of psychological, relational, and spiritual growth. They developed a newfound appreciation for life. They were stronger and better able to handle whatever life had to throw at them.

This contradicted the prevailing wisdom at the time, and to a slightly lesser extent, of today. The psychiatric and psychological communities believed that the best we could hope for is that, over time, people would get back to where they were before the traumatic event happened. In many instances, the person was forced to accept the notion that living with a lesser version of one’s self was normal and the most they could expect. However, based on their extensive clinical work, Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun knew that this was not the case. As a result, over the following years, they focused their research on this phenomenon. Consequently, the theory of posttraumatic growth has developed into a distinct and highly researched construct in psychology, philosophy, religion, and many other fields.

The theory of posttraumatic growth posits that people can grow in one or more of five different areas, often referred to as domains of growth. One area is personal strength. This is when someone discovers that they are stronger because of what they went through. They are more courageous and comfortable standing up for themselves. There’s a sense that their past difficult life experiences have prepared them for the inevitable hard-knocks that life provides to us all.

A second domain of growth is relationships with others. These individuals find that their relationships are deeper and more satisfying. They tend to have little patience with or desire for superficial interactions with others. They search out opportunities to interact with people on a deep, emotional level. They have more compassion for both loved ones and others.

A third area is new possibilities. A new world opens up for these individuals. Things that seemed unachievable before the trauma are now possible. There is an awareness that giving up or never trying results in disappointment and despair. These individuals instead find a world in which they can see more clearly what is possible and possess the courage to navigate toward those possibilities.

A fourth domain of growth is appreciation for life. The “small” things in life are now important. Life is seen as a gift and little is taken for granted. It is easier to be grateful for the experiences a person has.

And last, there is spiritual and existential change. Following a traumatic event, some people experience a deep and profound sense of connectedness to something bigger than themselves. For religious people, their faith may become stronger, or it may change in its focus or beliefs to something that feels more genuine. Prayer or other practices may be more meaningful. Others who are less religious, may become more spiritual. They may begin to ask questions such as “why am I here?”; “what is my purpose?”; “by what code, ethics, or morals should I live?”; and the proverbial question: “what is the meaning of life?” It is important to understand that these domains of growth are not mutually exclusive or “one or the other.” Many people experience growth in multiple areas. In fact, research in posttraumatic growth reveals that most people experience positive changes in more than one of these domains.

The essence of posttraumatic growth is that people can experience positive and transformative psychological changes in the aftermath of trauma.

The theory is based on constructivism, which is the branch of psychology that studies how people create their personal realities. Specifically, constructivism is interested in how individuals develop and maintain beliefs about themselves and others, their future, and the world around them. This approach is relevant to posttraumatic growth in that trauma can challenge the previous assumptions a person held about how the world is supposed to work. Like a building during an earthquake, a person’s core beliefs can be shaken and even demolished following a difficult (or series of difficult) life experience(s). And like communities that experience earthquakes and restore and improve their infrastructure, the person rebuilds his or her belief system following a traumatic event.

Posttraumatic growth is also based in part on existentialism, which has strong roots in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Existentialism provides a framework that helps humanity make sense of suffering. Instead of seeing pain, hurt, and horror that surrounds us in life as meaningless, existentialism, at a minimum, causes us to ask the questions“Why?”; “How?”; “Why did this happen to me or my loved one?”; and “How could a power greater than me allow something like this to occur?” Existentialism doesn’t give us any universal answers. Rather, it describes the motivation we have to arrive at the answer most appropriate for us as individuals. It is a philosophy that invites us to find meaning in the most dire of circumstances and helps us move forward.In the words of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, existentialist, and holocaust survivor:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

What is trauma?

How trauma is defined depends on who you ask. If you ask the American Psychiatric Association that publishes and sells the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the “psychiatric bible,” you’ll be told one thing. If you ask the average person on the street, you’ll likely be told something else. The former recites an academically oriented definition that revolves around being directly or indirectly exposed to an event that threatens harm or death. The latter likely generates a simpler and broader description that describes some type of life stress. Both are correct, depending on the context and audience. However, we tend to look at trauma a little differently.

We believe that it’s not so much the event itself that defines trauma, but how it changes one’s core beliefs; those ways of thinking about how we are and how others are supposed to be, and the ideas about how the world should work and what our lives are supposed to look like.

After a difficult life event those things that we “knew” to be “true” are in question. Previously subconscious thoughts like “good things happen to good people” and “the world is a safe and secure place” are at the forefront of our minds. But now their validity is in question. Those beliefs that have kept us comfortably moving through life have shifted and we find ourselves struggling to make sense of our new and developing reality.

In this book, we use the terms trauma, life difficulties and challenges, crisis, and stress interchangeably. Understanding the definition of trauma is less important than understanding the impact of trauma on the person and on those around them. The definition of trauma may change over time. It may be different within different cultures. It may not be a single event, but a series of events over time. In fact, we see this quite often in combat veterans and those who have lived in an abusive home. Combat veterans are often exposed to multiple traumatic events during deployment. And those who grew up in a dysfunctional home (or live in one now), may experience repeated episodes of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Two people may experience the same event. One will suffer deep emotional pain for months or years. The others will struggle in the days and weeks following the event but return to their lives as if nothing ever happened. Just like beauty, trauma is in the eye of the beholder.

What is Growth?

Like trauma, growth can be defined in many ways. For us, growth is transformative and profound. It includes significant changes in how we think, how we feel, and how we behave. It is not simply “I’m feeling better since Chris passed” or “my life is back to normal since Karen left me.”Although you can consider these statements as descriptors of growth, they are more related to healing or moving past the most difficult period following a life crisis.

Posttraumatic growth manifests as a result of our struggle with the emotional, relational, physical, spiritual and existential consequences of life’s “hard-knocks.” Our struggle leads us to new insights about basic concepts and practices such as fairness, safety, intimacy, and the time we spend with loved ones. It also causes us to rethink our views about broader and more complex topics like God, purpose, service to others, and the meaning of life. True growth does not happen overnight. It unfolds over time, maybe months, years, or even decades.

By no means is the growth we know to be anything remotely similar to the Pollyannaish notion that when “life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” This proverbial phrase is best suited for screensavers, t-shirts, and book titles in the self-help section of your local bookstore. The reality is that true growth that follows trauma is deeply felt, sustained change that greatly alters one’s life. Growth is incorporated into a person’s belief system and provides the framework of how one understands life and how the person lives each day. As we mentioned earlier, growth is transformative and profound.

Final Thoughts

Posttraumatic growth is a real phenomenon. It is both a process and an outcome. Posttraumatic growth occurs in children and in those who are in the twilight of their lives. Research tells us that most people experience some degree of growth following a traumatic event. But it is not without struggle. In fact, as we stated earlier, it is the struggle in the aftermath of trauma that leads one to growth. People who survive trauma are more than just a collection of symptoms. They are not a diminished version of their former selves. They are more than the sum of their past experiences.

About the Authors