Growing through pain
Have you ever experienced pain, deep pain? I’m not referring to the physical type where you may have broken a limb or torn a muscle. I’m talking about intense emotional pain; the type of pain and suffering where you feel like your heart may actually be physically breaking; where you find yourself relentlessly sobbing on the bathroom floor and don’t know how you will ever pick yourself up again, and where life feels drained of all colour, hope, and joy. Whether triggered by death, divorce, abuse, or betrayal, this is the type of pain that lodges deep into the soul; where people find themselves screaming at God in anger in one moment, only to cling to Him in grave desperation the next. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
As a Clinical Psychologist, I am confronted daily with the brutality of emotional pain. I listen as parents recall in agony the death of their child, the wife recounts the moment she learnt of her husband’s betrayal, and a teenager shares the shame of her abuse. It is a great honour to be invited into the hearts and minds of my clients as they allow me to guide them in their journey through pain, and I am constantly amazed at their courage as they emerge from the darkest of valleys with strength and grace.
Personal growth through the experience of suffering inspires me. In fact, those who have faced great adversity and emerged better for it, attain hero status in my mind. One of the greatest phenomena I have observed in my work as a Psychologist is the resilience of the human soul and its ability to cultivate strength through suffering. The distressing and confusing aftermath of trauma can be fertile ground for posttraumatic growth – the experience of positive psychological growth that arises as a result of the struggle with challenging life experiences.
In his memoir No Such Thing as a Bad Day, Hamilton Jordan described some of the transformations he experienced following his battle with cancer:
“After my first cancer, even the smallest joys in life took on a special meaning – watching a beautiful sunset, a hug from my child, a laugh with Dorothy. That feeling has not diminished with time. After my second and third cancers, the simple joys of life are everywhere and boundless, as I cherish my family and friends and contemplate the rest of my life, a life I certainly do not take for granted.”
No doubt you have heard similar stories of people who have experienced severe adversity and later described personal transformations learnt through their trial. Have these people just put a rose-coloured filter on their retrospective lenses, or is it true that growth can be nurtured through pain? Posttraumatic growth involves the development of oneself beyond what was present before the crises occurred. It is not simply a return to baseline functioning, but an experience of personal improvement that surpasses the previous status quo.
Traumatic events are profoundly disturbing and often provoke psychological distress. I am in no way suggesting that a traumatic experience is ever positive; however, the ancient philosophy that great good can come from great suffering is now supported in scientific literature through research on posttraumatic growth.
So exactly what are some of the benefits that can arise from trauma? Research in posttraumatic growth suggests five categories of growth following adversity:
1. Greater appreciation of life and changed sense of priorities
Individuals experiencing posttraumatic growth typically report a major shift in how they approach and experience their daily lives. Increased gratitude for things previously taken for granted is often accompanied by a change of priorities in life.
2. Warmer, more intimate relationships with others
The experience of suffering can promote greater empathy towards others facing pain and grief. Those who experience posttraumatic growth tend to speak of finding out who true friends are and further nurture these relationships.
3. A greater sense of personal strength
After enduring trauma, an individual is often able to recognise his or her own personal strength. The idea is common that ‘If I can handle that, then I can handle just about anything’, changing a person’s self-concept and providing a confidence to face new challenges.
4. Identifying new possibilities or paths for one’s life
The experience of trauma frequently prompts people to re-evaluate life and reconsider new and different paths; for example, changing to a more purposeful career.
5. Spiritual development
Spirituality has been found to be related to posttraumatic growth, with forgiveness also preceding posttraumatic growth.
A number of additional characteristics have been shown to foster posttraumatic growth: the trauma occurring more than two years ago; personal qualities such as extraversion, and openness to experiences; optimism, and social support.
As anyone who has grown through their trauma would testify, posttraumatic growth does not necessarily indicate the end of pain or distress, nor is it accompanied by the perception that trauma and loss are desirable. The paradoxical element, however, is that out of loss can come gain and that strength can stem from our greatest moments of vulnerability. The beauty of posttraumatic growth is in its element of surprise. Rarely is it a conscious goal, but rather, the outcome of persisting through pain.
If you have experienced great trauma in the past, take a moment to reflect on the areas of personal growth you can now see. If, however, you are in the midst of your suffering right now, don’t abandon hope. May you be encouraged by the possibility of posttraumatic growth – from your pain there may one day come renewed appreciation for life, closer relationships, personal strength, the forging of new paths and greater spiritual development.