(If you would rather watch/listen than read, you can watch the video HERE.)
Since it is Thanksgiving time in the United States, I thought it’d be good a time to talk about gratitude as a survivor. When people think about trauma, they tend to think about everything that’s negative about it. There are obviously negatives to trauma, but it’s not all bad. Like anything else, there’s positives and negatives.
So the same beast that brings us triggers and flashbacks and difficulty connecting with others, does have some benefits as well. We naturally focus on the negatives of trauma, but I think that healing requires that we acknowledge the good also. That good is what I want to talk about today.
In 2016, Psychology Today published an article entitled 7 Ways Survivors Can Grow After Trauma. In it, author and counselor Seth J. Gillihan Ph. D. talks about the things that he saw while he was treating people in his counseling practice. These are the 7 ways that he saw survivors grow:
2. Recognition of Your Strength
3. Enhanced Resilience
4. Greater Compassion for Others
5. A Sense of Purpose
6. A Deeper Connection to the Supportive Others
7. An Appreciation for Life
Let's talk about it!
Few people have a need to be able to forgive the way that people who experienced trauma do. As you learn about forgiveness, you learn that it's not as much about the person that you are forgiving. This is about and for yourself.
The act of forgiveness is letting go of the need to punish somebody, or the right to punish somebody for something that they’ve done. It doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be punished, but that you’re letting go of that right to punish them because if you hold on to that, it will eat you up inside. Like I said, this is not as much about them as it is about you.
I don't remember who said it, but somebody said something along the lines of "If you hold onto bitterness and anger towards somebody, it’s kinda like drinking poison and expecting them to die."
It’s kind of the same thing when you hold on to pain and suffering and this desire/need to punish the other person and get back at them. It’s drinking poison and expecting them to die. That is not how it works. You suffer. In fact, they may not even know that you're affected by whatever they did, while at the same time it's killing you inside. So the top thing that he saw as a benefit was learning forgiveness - letting go of being wronged and releasing the bitterness and resentment that poisons people.
2. RECOGNITION OF YOUR STRENGTH.
When you are a kid, getting a shot is mortifying. It is the worst thing in the world because they have not experienced worse. But after you have given birth to a child, getting a little prick of a shot is nothing. You dealt with worse so you can handle all the rest of it, it’s nothing. Trauma is the same in my opinion. You know when you dealt with something big and survived it and a lot of all the other stuff that people worry about is not a big deal because you know you can survive worse. It’s not a thing. That’s a benefit.
3. ENHANCED RESILIENCE
Simply put, when we see what we have already lived through, then we know that we can make it through again.
4. GREATER COMPASSION FOR OTHERS
Experiencing trauma first hand connects us to countless others who have also experienced trauma. (For example, abuse survivors feel for other abuse survivors because they know how difficult it is.) That connection and compassion provide us with even more strength.
I have told people many times, “Welcome to the club that none of us chose to be part of, but we welcome you anyway!”
There are so many many many people who are part of that club and we gained strength through connecting with each other. It can be really hard when you go through a traumatic experience that the people around you (your friends and family for example) haven’t. It's hard to connect with them because you see the world differently now.
You can feel like, "What can we even talk about if you just can’t understand?" but the truth is there’s a lot of people out there who do understand. And the connections and bonds that you form with those people are way deeper than you might have had before, because pain is the glue that holds us together.
There is so much division in the world. There are so many things that we get caught up with, so many stupid things that we let divide us. Pain is the great unifier. It doesn’t even matter what caused the pain. When you’ve experienced extreme pain or deep loss, you can relate to other people who have experienced extreme pain and/or deep loss, no matter what caused it for either of you.
5. A SENSE OF PURPOSE
A lot of times, survivors, once they have gotten into a better place in their journey (after processing their trauma) want to help other people who are hurting. They either want to be, for others, what they did not have or what they did have that helped them through their trauma. I have found that many, many counselors, nurses, firemen, and police officers have experienced some type of great pain or loss in their personal lives. Through people's desire to help others deal with their trauma, they gain a sense of purpose. It’s important that they help others through the depths that they went through, that they saw happen, or that touched their own heart.
When I think of deeper connections to supportive others, I think about when I talk to my students about their relationship with God. I tell them it is like a relationship with anybody else - you don't really know a true relationship or a true friendship until crap hits the fan. Then you find out whether those friends will stick around or not. That’s when you knew for sure who your "supportive others" are, who your people are. And they are not necessarily what you expect.
When I was in highschool, one of my primary supportive others was our mail lady. When I would go to the post office to check my mail, she would ask me how my day was and she listened. So I would do that everyday. She listened and she cared. Her impact in my life was significant and it wasn’t like she had to go super out of her way. She was there anyway. But we can tell the difference between people who care, who are "supportive others," and people who are just there.
7. APPRECIATION FOR LIFE
Dr. Gillihan also said, “As awful, sad and scary as it can be sometimes, when we survive a life threatening trauma, we tend to value life more.”
I would obviously say that’s true. I was talking about that to my daughter the other day, about how grateful I am for my kids and how much I appreciate moments with them. Moments where everybody’s happy and we are laughing. Moments when they are struggling and I get to be there for them. And everything in between.
I was telling her that, I don’t even know of my parents valued that of me as much as I value my kids. It’s possible, but I know there are many times I could have lost my kids or lost my life. My abusers could have killed my kids and health issues could have taken my kids. I know the value of the moments in a way that only somebody who could have potentially been denied these moments could. I also know the value of life as someone who could easily not be here right now and who has known many people who aren't.
I encourage you to take that a step farther. Don't just value your life. See that you don’t waste it. That is why I am here! That is why I wrote a book. That’s why I continue to create and provide resources and things that can help people - because I survived and a lot of people don’t. Even many people who have survived physically, I witness a lot of them not survive emotionally.
I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I do not have a wicked bent that I feel like I need to hurt other people in order to feel okay myself. All those things are things that can happen with trauma. I don’t have them. I have a large value for life in general, mine as well as other people’s. I have compassion and empathy towards hurting people. I have a strong belief that I'm supposed to work for people that are hurting. That’s my responsibility as a survivor.
I'll end this article with this thought: Professor Anthony Mancini and his colleagues studied people involved in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
They found out that 15% of the 368 female student survivors actually improved their level of anxiety and depression. I speculate that they improved because anxiety is imagined fear (that’s the definition of anxiety, or at least the definition I am familiar with). It’s being afraid of things that might happen. Once you’ve lived through things that did happen and you come out of the other side, a lot of stuff doesn't seem to be that big of a deal.
Yes 15% is a small amount but we are looking for the silver lining... acknowledging the good. Smaller things don’t matter as much or smaller things that used to be big things are now nuances. That’s a good thing! Those women came out stronger! It’s possible for you to come out stronger too!