I had an interesting conversation with an old friend the other day. I hadn’t spoken to him since about 2003, when we worked together at the International Scientology Base in Hemet. Unlike me, he entered the Sea Organization at a young age as his mother is a Scientologist and Sea Org member. We both got out, however, and it was a delight (yes, really) to swap stories about our time in the trenches and how much our lives have changed since leaving.
He now has a successful career teaching military pilots how to fly CH-47F “Chinooks,” after spending many years piloting them himself. He has a loving wife and three beautiful children, and is so happy and grateful for the life he now has.
He explained to me that he chose to go into the Army after leaving the Sea Org for various reasons, including that he really didn’t have a lot of choices due to his cult years. Being a smart guy and a fast learner, he quickly rose to the top of his field.
One thing he said to me was particularly interesting: “Basic training was a walk in the park after being in the Sea Org.” We talked about how we lived every single day with a level of life-and-death stress that you can’t explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. That type of stress, daily, for decades, can do one of two things: make you give up or make you a hell of a lot stronger.
We talked a little bit about that, and about the concept of “Post-Traumatic Growth,” which his therapist had discussed with him after he survived his chopper being shot down in Afghanistan. I’d never heard of Post-Traumatic Growth before he mentioned it, so I decided to dig into it a bit more—OK, a LOT more. What a fascinating subject.
Is Post-Traumatic Growth Real?
That’s the question I asked when I first looked into Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), since I had no real understanding of it. It’s a theory developed by two psychologists, Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s.
The basic concept is this: When someone goes through a traumatic experience and struggles afterwards psychologically, they can often experience positive growth as a result of that struggle. It’s not the trauma itself that results in post-traumatic growth—it’s what happens after the trauma and how a person deals with it.
The pain and the memory of the trauma don’t go away—far from it. When something’s broken or shattered, you can’t just turn around and all of a sudden, it’s better. There are plenty of negative emotions to deal with. But it’s when you can experience those emotions and actually look at them, that you can come out of it with a new, vastly improved life.
Something happens after trauma: It can shake your core belief systems, the things you just naturally think are true about yourself and life. It certainly did for me. When those core beliefs are shattered and you have to actually discover what you truly believe, it can produce an incredible amount of growth.
Some people may think of this as gaining wisdom, which makes sense. Some of the wisest people I know have come through trauma and rebuilt their lives from scratch, with a completely new level of appreciation.
In fact, Tedeschi and Calhoun developed their theory of Post-Traumatic Growth when they were attempting to study wisdom, and what made a person become wiser.
How Long Does it Take to Achieve Post-Traumatic Growth?
Post-Traumatic Growth happens over time—you can’t rush it. You have to have the time to process the trauma and move through it. While it’s different for each person, there seem to be three phases:
1. Survival. You’re just trying to get through each day without crawling into a hole somewhere. I think I spent about ten years in this mode.
2. Reflection. Here’s where you start actually looking at the trauma and the emotions associated with it, reflecting on what occurred and how it’s impacted your life. For me, this didn’t really start until about two or three years ago. But it’s been quite the journey since then.
3. Growth. Here’s where you start growing from your realizations, to a higher, better state of being. I’m feeling like I’m mostly in this phase now, but I still spend time going back to phase 2. There’s a lot to process, after all. I’m also finding that the longer I’m in this phase, the gentler I am with myself: “Go ahead, go back into that emotional morass, you’ll get through it.”
One of the key points here is that you actually have to deal with the emotions that come up in the aftermath of trauma, and that’s not easy. But if you can do it, and focus on the lessons you’ve learned, you can move into a whole new level of happiness in your life. I sure have.
What’s been really helpful to me, and as I discovered, is an important early step in PTG, is finding people in your life who can support you and help guide you through all of it. It begins with my family, who were there for me when I escaped and will always be there for me.
Soon after leaving, I met my husband, Tom. He’s my person. He’s been here through the nightmares, the mood swings, the self-medicating with food and alcohol. He’s my rock.
I’ve also developed a strong group of friends who are the most loving, most supportive people I’ve ever met. I appreciate them all, so much.
Are PTG and Resilience the Same Thing?
No, in fact they’re completely different. Resilient people are relatively unaffected by traumatic events. They move through them and bounce back quickly from adversity. They don’t need to process the trauma because they’re already strong enough emotionally to deal with it rapidly.
Post-Traumatic Growth, on the other hand, happens after the trauma has had a major effect on someone—so much so that it challenges their core belief system. People who can manage this emotional upheaval well enough to be able to think through it, can then start growing from it.
In a way, PTG can be a path to greater resilience in the future, since you’re becoming increasingly stronger from this process.
How Do You Know If You’re Experiencing Post-traumatic Growth?
Through their research on trauma survivors, Tedeschi and Calhoun developed five domains of Post-Traumatic Growth. A person can experience one or more of these—in my case, all of them. Each person is different and will experience this growth in their own way.
1. PERSONAL STRENGTH. This is when you can look back at the traumatic situation, realize you’ve come out of it, and see that you’re way stronger than you thought you were. It also helps you cope much easier with any future trauma. For me, it’s sort of a “Well, if I can survive that, I can survive anything.”
2. CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS. Here, you seek out a new level of connection with others, and support. Old relationships, often toxic, fall away and new, supportive, loving ones are formed. I mentioned this a bit earlier, and it’s certainly been helpful to me. Also, you become more compassionate and less judgmental, since you understand how people can go through hard things in life.
3. GREATER APPRECIATION FOR LIFE. I really feel this one, every day. It’s like you have a second chance at life and don’t take things for granted anymore. There’s a lot of deep contemplation that goes with this one: You’re looking at life from a whole new perspective after your earlier life was shattered.
4. NEW POSSIBILITIES. Things you considered important before, no longer are. This is when you look at life with new eyes, and see that your purpose may be entirely different than you thought it was, but infinitely better and more rewarding.
5. SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT. In the chart below, there’s a quote: “Out of spiritual doubt there can emerge a deeper faith.” Absolutely true. It’s taken a while for me to get there on this one (you know, the cult thing). But it’s so worth it to do the work here, because the faith is REAL.
I’ve included one of Tedeschi and Calhoun’s charts below for your reading pleasure. It’s been enlightening for me.
Who’s Most Likely to Experience PTG?
Not everyone experiences PTG. Some people can’t deal with the intense emotions that happen after trauma. Those who can, tend to have the following personality traits:
1. Openness to new experiences. If you’re familiar with the “Big 5” personality traits, you know this one. In a nutshell, it’s when a person is open to emotion, intellectually curious, and willing to try new things. This trait makes it much more likely that you’ll look at new ways to deal with your emotional pain after trauma, and then be able to move through it.
2. Extroversion. The more extroverted a person is, the more likely they’ll actively seek support from others, which is vital in the healing process. They also tend to be more active in general, so will be actively looking for ways to come out of the emotional pain after the trauma, rather than avoiding it.
I can say for sure that I possess these two traits, so it makes sense that I’m experiencing Post-Traumatic Growth, and will continue to do so. But what about if you don’t possess those traits? Can you still experience growth? Well, I certainly think so.
I don’t wish trauma on anyone, but here’s the truth: We all experience trauma or adversity in life. That’s just how life is. In fact, we’re all going through a lot of trauma right now, with a global pandemic and a divided world.
However, I firmly believe that we can come out of this stronger, more resilient, and with a new appreciation for life. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Let go of the idea that you don’t want to experience negative emotions. Let them come, so you can work through them. Instead of looking at the divisiveness and anger that’s everywhere these days, try looking within. It’s tough at first, but it gets easier.
2. Find a person, or a few people, who can be there for you, to support you through the ups and downs that will surely come as you deal with these emotions. And don’t forget to be there for others around you as well. We’re all going through this together.
I truly believe that we can come through this collective trauma in a better state. We just have to take a bit of time to examine our lives and emotions. Imagine if we all were stronger, more appreciative of life, with supportive relationships, a greater purpose, and a higher level of spirituality.
What a beautiful world we could create.