It is hopeful and motivating to think that adversity will make us more resilient. That we will emerge stronger from this crisis. That these exceptional circumstances will bring to light our best version. That we will test our emotional strength and develop new psychological tools designed to enrich our backpack for life.
There is no doubt that this will be the case for many people. There are those who respond very well under pressure. Many people will be able to expand their limits. Get to know each other better. Discover new qualities or an unsuspected force. However, there are also people who don’t perform well under pressure. Those who borderline situations crush them. People extremely vulnerable to stress. Whom crises leave defeated. Those people are not worth less. They simply react differently.
Adversity does not make us grow, we grow through it, sometimes
In the mid-1990s psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun discovered that some people, after experiencing a traumatic situation, develop a new understanding of themselves and the world, appreciate life more, strengthen emotional ties with their circle of trust and feel stronger, spiritual and inspired. They called it “post-traumatic growth.”
Post-traumatic growth, therefore, does not only imply surviving adversity but experiencing positive change from it that leads us to be a better, stronger and/or wiser person.
Their findings are positive and encouraging. No doubt. They help us give meaning to our life. In fact, we tend to redeem, to consider the narrative of our lives in terms of the challenges we have faced and the setbacks we have overcome. It is comforting to think that good things can come from bad things. That the most terrible events will take a positive turn or that, in some way, they can change us for the better.
And sometimes it is so.
But not always.
Because the adversity and the suffering that it causes are not a revelation in themselves. They do not contain learning or lead to personal growth per se. Unless we strive to find that supersense.
Other studies have found that in some cases that self-perceived growth may be a smokescreen. Psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found that the post-traumatic growth many people recognized after a breakup was not actually reflected in their behaviors and attitudes.
Therefore, we are likely to sometimes say that we have grown up just to comfort ourselves, when in reality we are still dealing with the emotional consequences of trauma in a culture that gives us very little time to mourn the tragedy and where everyone is expected to recover in a relatively short time. In a culture where the command is: Get over it and keep going!
Of course, ideally, the wounds of adversity should heal quickly. We should strengthen ourselves. And get a lesson.
However, we do not live in an ideal world and our psychological functioning is far from linear, so that pressure to turn the page, see the positive side and grow with the experience can make some people feel compelled to put on the mask of a false resilience behind which they hide feelings of anguish, pain and sadness that find no validation in those around them.
In the long run, such attempts to pressure people into post-traumatic growth can become a boomerang as it may prevent them from seeking the help they need and acknowledging their vulnerability, encouraging them to embrace maladaptive coping strategies that may end up weighing down their sense of self-efficacy.
Freeing yourself from the tyranny of post-traumatic growth
Generally speaking, it is often difficult to accept the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity. That would mean that in the long term, suffering is good and that people who have gone through difficult situations are stronger. But that is only half the story.
Going through a tragedy is not easy. Sometimes the pain from certain trauma does not go away completely. In fact, it is not even just about pain but about the psychological cataclysm that adversity can provoke in our world. These tragedies can erase our securities at once and take away our emotional pillars. From such tragedies, it is difficult to recover. And it takes time.
So it is important to assume that everyone will not grow in the same way, much less at the same speed. That while some are able to lock themselves in a kind of protective sphere that mitigates the blows, others are struck completely by tragedies, without protection.
Those people will continue to need help and support long after this tragedy passes. For them, that longed-for normality will not come when the doors are opened and we can return to the streets. It is precisely that help and support they receive – not adversity – that can help them overcome trauma.
Nor is it necessary to consider growth as a goal for everyone. For many people, getting back to where they were before the trauma can be a goal ambitious enough. Post-traumatic growth is a result, not a goal.
There is no doubt that the stories of growth stemming from trauma are powerful and motivating. They can inspire us and give us something to hold on to when our whole world falls apart, but we must also be aware that if we can’t get stronger, nothing happens. If we cannot see “the positive” of this situation, nothing happens either. Sometimes just hanging out is already a great achievement. And that’s what we should focus on when we lack strength.
We all have self-healing resources, but they are different. They activate in different situations and grow at a different rate. It is important not to force our rhythm, but to “digest” what we are experiencing without putting too much pressure on ourselves. We can’t fix the pressure by adding more pressure.
Therefore, if we experience post-traumatic growth with everything we are experiencing, great. If not, nothing happens.
Owenz, M. & Fowers, B. J. (2019) Perceived post-traumatic growth may not reflect actual positive change: A short-term prospective study of relationship dissolution. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships; 36(10): 3098-3116.
Jayawickreme, E. & Blackie, L. (2014) Post‐traumatic Growth as Positive Personality Change: Evidence, Controversies and Future Directions. European Personality Reviews; 28(4): 312-331.
Engelhard, I. M. et. Al. (2014) Changing for Better or Worse? Posttraumatic Growth Reported by Soldiers Deployed to Iraq. Clinical Psychological Science; 1: 1-8.
Frazier, P. et. Al. (2009) Does Self-Reported Posttraumatic Growth Reflect Genuine Positive Change? Psychological Science; 20(7): 912-919.
Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1996) The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress; 9: 455–470.