If you are a survivor of undue influence, coercive control, cult abuse, or political or spiritual brainwashing, you have been subjected to emotional trauma. The trauma can be devastating, and the recovery process is full of challenges, stress and pain. And yet it is not uncommon to hear people who survive and recover from such traumatic situations say things like:
- “In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
- “So many opportunities, never previously imagined, resulted from the traumatic situation and its aftermath!”
- “I have learned and matured so much from surviving that crisis!”
If you are caught up right now in the midst of the worst of the stress and suffering after experiencing the trauma of deception, manipulation, control or abuse, you may understandably scoff at such seemingly pollyanna-esque pronouncements. However, testimonies from victims of a variety of life crises, and recent psychological research in the field of trauma and recovery reveal that this is the case for many. It can be the case for you too.
Neurologist, psychiatrist, and existential thinker Victor Frankl suggested this years ago in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning”, when he explained that once we can identify underlying significance in a crisis situation, when we can make meaning out of life’s miseries, it lessens the distress, makes the entire experience more bearable, and makes it less psychologically stressful or damaging. Frankl experienced the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, so was knowledgeable about traumatic stress. [ed. Frankl’s The Doctor and the Soul is an excellent text for therapists, too]
In the mid-nineties, psychologists and researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun named the phenomenon of finding meaning in misery, “post-traumatic growth”. Tedeschi and Calhoun were not simply talking about developing resilience in the face of suffering, but about an awareness on the part of the victim of growth, renewal and good in the midst of their recovery. They studied victims who, post-trauma, felt the struggle with abuse, and the feeling of being shattered by it became a springboard for positive change and exciting transformation.
Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research went on to identify five areas where post-traumatic growth is possible. These areas are:
- Personal strength – feeling more empowered, confident and able to deal with how life unfolds
- Interpersonal relationships – allowing empathy and compassion, emerging from the experience of trauma, to enhance relationships
- Increased Life Appreciation – developing the intention to make the most of the life we have, while we have it
- Recognition of New Possibilities in Life – breaking open to see options and opportunities we were unable to see before
- Spiritual or Existential Maturation – developing self-worth, maturity, integrity and dignity as a result of the entire experience of trauma and recovery
Kasley Killam, referencing the work of Tedeschi and Calhoun in the article “How to Find Meaning in Suffering” adds:
“By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development. In particular, several factors can facilitate this process. One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma. Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the tragedy as irreversible and embracing the grief process. A final factor is recognizing that we are in charge of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.” (emphasis mine)
Imagine! The above five areas of personal growth can emerge as a result of the trauma and suffering you are experiencing now. Or perhaps your traumatic experience is now behind you, but you have never stopped to consider how you may have actually benefited and matured from the pain and suffering. Take a moment and take stock of how much you have learned, changed and grown due to your experience of undue influence or coercive control and your efforts to survive and recover.
It is encouraging to know that there is not just post-trauma stress after crises, but that there can be positive effects and a positive legacy that can result from traumatic experiences – post-trauma growth.
While post-traumatic growth cannot be forced, and while grief and healing must run their uniquely individual course, once on the road to recovery we can consciously turn our focus to:
- recognizing and owning our intrinsic strength and resilience
- fully appreciating life with all its mystery, beauty and rewards
- recognizing that while trauma and loss close many doors, others may open
- using our increased empathy and compassion due to the suffering to build interpersonal connections
- consciously navigating existential crises which help us re-consider values, make changes to imposed or inherited beliefs that never really fit, and develop a whole new purpose for our life.
If you were deceived, exploited and abused due to coercive controls, and are now in the middle of the suffering that ensues with liberation, please find hope and solace in the fact that there is a body of research, and a wealth of anecdotal reports, demonstrating that this very trauma and suffering can initiate possibilities and personal transformation that you might never have thought attainable.
The traumas that break us open make space for new understanding and opportunities, and as they say, what doesn’t kill us can makes us stronger. Ernest Hemingway articulated it best when he said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Take time to take stock of your entire traumatic experience. We have to own the victimization. We have to own the losses. We have to own the pain. We must not forget to claim and own the growth that is possible post-trauma.
Further Reading on Post-Traumatic Growth:
“The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient”, Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., Bret A. Moore, 2016
“What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth”, Stephen Joseph, 2013
“Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth”, Jim Rendon, 2016
“Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice”, Lawrence G. Calhoun, Richard G. Tedeschi, 2012
 Scientific American, December 15, 2015
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Bonnie’s book, “Challenge to Heal”? Do you have a story about [subject] that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!