This theory tries to understand the process whereby an individual is changed in a positive manner after experiencing trauma or deeply painful experiences. This transformation involves changed perceptions and attitudes, with the understanding that new unimagined possibilities exist in life, resulting in improved relationships, personal strength, along with growth in other areas in their lives.
This is an area of research that has been gaining attention since the late 1990’s. Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) is the term coined by Rich Tedeschi, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA. After carrying out studies of individuals who had undergone terrifying events such as combat, serious illnesses or been victims of serious crimes, he found that although initially shattered and dazed, that in the end many were not only able to recover, but in addition reconstructed their lives into fuller, more richly rewarding ones. He was interested that those apparently less ‘resilient’ individuals, those most likely to have their inner world and sense of reality shattered, where the very ones who able to benefit from PTG. In other words after a crisis or event which deeply undermined their understanding of their world, they were able to build a revised ‘construct’, to help come to terms with their new reality. If this is combined with the conscious effort to grow and learn from the traumatic experience, as a result they discovered new freedoms never imagined before, the antithesis of being destroyed by their suffering.
As summarized by Tedeschi "People don't say that what they went through was wonderful," .... "They weren't meaning to grow from it. They were just trying to survive. But in retrospect, what they gained was more than they ever anticipated."
So despite experiencing traumatic shocks, people can experience transformed lives, being freed from old unhelpful ways. It is as though the trauma has shaken up the previous status quo, forcing them to rethink previously held assumptions, enabling them to re-orientate themselves in new positive life affirming ways. Tedeschi found that this transformative change was experienced by at least half of those who underwent traumatic events, if not more and this was made possible via a process of self-examination, which facilitated the discarding of self-perceptions and behaviours that were harmful or out of date. This is encapsulated by the old saying ‘What doesn't kill you can actually make you stronger’. Numerous religions emphasise the positive impact that suffering can have for the individual, as epitomised by the Bible’s numerous references about the character building aspects of suffering, one such example being:
…” because we know that suffering produces perseverance;
perseverance, character; and character, hope”.
Currently there is much talk and media coverage of PTSD with the resulting long term harm done, but the research in PTG helps readdresses the balance, showing that for a good number of people they don’t just merely survive after trauma, but actually grow in strength and thrive. Tedeschi himself believes that about two-thirds of people benefit from adversity, whilst admitting that understanding or predicting who will grow and prosper is complex, dependant on the nature of the trauma, the circumstances, personality and beliefs of the individual.
It’s about the capacity to embrace the fact that life is complex, while simultaneously holding onto both the loss and growth, the pain and the joy…understanding that past events and current memories can be bittersweet and that this is alright. That life didn’t turn out the way you wanted, but with acceptance you can be placed in a better position to embrace future possibilities as they arise. It’s the ability to adjust to the unexpected painful turn life has taken, along with the losses, yet being able to take on any opportunities that life is offering and being prepared to commit to the new life, which in the end may even be better than anticipated. Psychologist Bauer’s research indicated that 6 months after being bereaved, those who had about 5 positive comments in ratio to each negative one, were much more likely to adjust to their loss, despite still feeling their pain yet not being overwhelmed. This is in contrast to those who tended only to have negative comments whose recovery was problematic.
Bauer termed this as "a growth-oriented attitude," which allows “you to take into consideration life's difficulties, while keeping in mind the rosier big picture”. With his colleague Mcadams , they concluded from the research and literature in this area “that happy and mature people tend to highlight scenes of personal growth and redemption in their life stories”, emphasising the importance of ‘The Narrative Identity’s’ role in enabling people to rise from the ashes of their lives.
“A transformative self is a subjectively constructed self-identity-a mental model of oneself-that is organized around the idea of growth”. (Bauer, The Transformative Self, 2021)
In summary it seems from research and also common sense, that encountering a traumatic event acts to shake things up in your life, and this can be the opportunity while it is in a state of flux; to discard the beliefs and behaviours that undermine your growth. It is an opportunity, although an unwelcome one, to change your life for the better. Questioning your core beliefs at this time is more possible because you are in turmoil and in a state of mind to question most things in your life. You are re-examining the basic assumptions that have so far underpinned your life which is a momentous task, requiring much effort and going through the painful process of rethinking who you are, and what parts of your life no longer exist. It is accepting that you and your life have changed, that you are vulnerable, and letting go of what you had hoped for previously, that these now belong to the past and don’t apply any longer. It has been noted that those who are able to change for the better are not necessarily stronger or more rational people. In fact they tend to be rather ordinary. It is the willingness is to take on and assimilate the painful events into their internal narrative of the kind of person they are… ” A transformative self is an enduring, subjective, largely narrative self-identity that the person uses routinely to interpret and plan one’s life in the direction of personal growth.”