How trauma and difficulties can become the springboard to personal transformation: from posttraumatic stress to posttraumatic growth
I will spare you an opening quote on the virtues of suffering, I’m not inclined to think that adversities are a blessing. No. Yet, given that challenging and overwhelming experiences are real in aid, I want to explore an approach to trauma that can hopefully be of some help.
Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art which is about turning broken pottery into beautiful objects. In kintsugi the cracks of a broken cup are not tentatively disguised by gluing back the pieces in an attempt to restore the pottery to its original state. Instead they are literally illuminated and filled with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The cracks are what makes the object unique, beautiful. Turning broken pottery into kintsugi requires care, attention and love, the same ingredients needed when we experience trauma and we become the broken pottery.
Now after this little “zen introduction”, let’s fast forward to aid work, before returning to kintsugi.
For those who haven’t been around aid work for long let me state the obvious: humanitarian work is full of pitfalls and frustrations; it does not necessarily provide much stability (forget work-life balance), yet it can offer unique and meaningful experiences that are not granted by more conventional careers. For good or bad aid work will change you: it can make you more cynical or more compassionate, numb your spirit or make you more sensitive to the suffering of others, it can add confusion or clarity to your life.
Aid work is highly emotional work and this is something that probably nobody tells newcomers: it will challenge your ideals, ask you to compromise your values, confront you with sorrow, poverty and death, show you that helping can be a manipulative form of power, place you face to face with the gratitude and scorn of those you are meant to serve. Aid work is heaven and hell, and you probably cannot have one without the other.
And while engaged in aid work there’s the rest of your life going on: family, relationships, children, friends, work stuff that distract you from what you think your “real work” should be. So for me the question “how do we allow ourselves to be touched and not crashed by the difficulties of aid work?” is relevant to make it through this profession and come out the other end “better”, rather than “bitter”.
From posttraumatic stress to posttraumatic growth
The concept of posttraumatic growth can help to turn upside down both the experience of trauma, and the label of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) that often follows it:
Posttraumatic growth refers to how adversity can often be a springboard to a new and more meaningful life in which people re-evaluate their priorities, deepen their relationships, and find new understandings of who they are. Posttraumatic growth is not simply about coping; it refers to changes that cut to the very core of our way of being in the world. Posttraumatic growth has to do with the way we greet the day as we wake in the morning. The way we brush our teeth and put on our shoes — it reflects our attitude about life itself and our place in the world (Stephen Joseph, What doesn’t kill)
The heart of the matter is that traumatic events can open the way to re-evaluate priorities, deepen relationships, and find new understandings of who we are. This has little to do with positive thinking or with erasing the memory of what occurred. In fact, posttraumatic growth does not deny the severity of the experience, rather it brings what tend to be labelled as “psychological disorders or conditions” back into the natural cycle of life, and challenges the medicalisation of any unwanted experience:
This alternative view of trauma not only resists the tendency to medicalise human experience, but also, and more importantly, places responsibility for the recovery back in the hands of those who have experienced the trauma themselves (Stephen Joseph).
There are three existential themes at the core of posttraumatic growth:
- Life’s uncertainty
- Personal agency
Posttraumatic growth recognises that life is uncertain and that things change. This amounts to a tolerance of uncertainty that, in turn, reflects the ability to embrace it as a fundamental tenet of human experience.
Another theme at the centre of posttraumatic growth is psychological mindfulness which reflects self-awareness and an understanding of how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are related to each other, as well as a flexible attitude towards personal change.
Finally posttraumatic growth requires personal agency, which entails a sense of responsibility for the choices one makes in life and an awareness that choices have consequences.
Pottery will get broken on the journey through aid work. Sometimes small occurrences can shatter a world that seemed well-together. The research on posttraumatic growth suggests that the way out of trauma is both an act of creativity and resilience:
“Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living”.
I personally find great support in a concept that does not make me the victim, nor naively ask me to “think positive thoughts”, but rather helps me to build meaning around my pain. This video by aid worker Alanna Shaikh shows how life’s difficulties require people to confront a crossroads in their life. This has profound implications and it’s often a process of “transformation in action”, an act of making kintsugi out of a broken cup.
This post is inspired by Stephen Joseph‘s book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The new psychology of posttraumatic growth. The author grew up in Belfast during the “Troubles” and speaks from a place of personal experience, as well as academic research. His book is an informative and accessible read for anyone who wants to understand how to shift perspective from posttraumatic stress (PTSD) to posttraumatic growth (PTG).