“All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.” –Helen Keller
Linda: Researchers have studied people facing all kinds of adversity: loss of children, spouses and parents, loss of health due to cancer, heart disease, paralysis, HIV, rape, assault, mental illness, war zones, plane crashes, divorce, infertility, domestic violence, betrayal, imprisonment, torture, natural disasters (earth quakes, fire, flood, tornado, tsunami), and parents having children with deafness, blindness, dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, and autism just to name a few.
After a period of such extreme adversity, it is common to experience intense depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, numbness, and nightmares. But the acute period can be followed by arriving at an even higher level of psychological and emotional functioning than before the adversity.
Those of us who struggle with trauma, find that rising to the challenge reveals our hidden abilities that were formerly untapped. Recognizing and strengthening these abilities builds our self-esteem and broadens our self-concept. We are likely to find that we are stronger than we thought. When we can keep going after being dealt such a difficult life blow, we may no longer fear such future blows. We know we will survive and that we are up to coping with what life hands us.
One of the biggest benefits of adversity is that it strengthens relationships. Adversity can make us more humble, accepting, tolerant, patient, compassionate, considerate, and grateful for what we have. Trauma can change our priorities so that we can live more fully and open heartedly. Consider the situation of Libby and Aaron.
Libby had suffered with panic attacks on and off over the years and had been in individual therapy for her anxiety disorder. Libby’s method of handling these episodes, which frequently occurred in the middle of the night, was to pace, or use as much self-talk as she could, not waking her husband Aaron from sleep.
The anxiety attacks were becoming more frequent and with greater intensity, frightening Libby that she was losing her mind. When challenged about her hyper-independent style of coping, she cried about how desperately she craved to be cared for, and her doubts about Aaron’s willingness to be there for her. Libby had been so identified with her capable, successful, hard-driving professional woman, that she had her needy vulnerable child in the shadow.
When she risked asking for help from Aaron, he joined the treatment with an intention of finding out how to best support Libby through the intense feelings. He rose to the occasion to find a part of himself that was hidden in his shadow, the “good father”. Aaron offered to say soothing words, to hold her, and to play soft music to assist her to move through the dark, scary night. Libby promised Aaron that she would wake him up and receive his assistance.
Over time, Aaron began to take pride in his ability to nurture and reassure Libby in her periods of greatest stress. A new balance of power was brought into the relationship, as Libby was no longer defined in the role of the strong, capable mother figure. They began to take turns with care giving and receiving, and to practice a more authentic interdependence.
Libby told me when I last saw her. That terrifying time when I thought I was turning into a crazy person has turned out to be a bonus. I no longer have panic attacks, and I am so much more comfortable with who I am; I’m not such a control freak like I used to be. I trust Aaron to be there for me; I don’t fear my dependency upon him the way I used to. I don’t think I could have gotten to this level of well-being in my life if it hadn’t been for that disabling anxiety. So in a funny way I am grateful. And Aaron mentions frequently how much easier I am to live with. I can really understand what he means since I find it a lot easier to live with myself these days.”
Libby was not losing her mind. Her terror of going crazy was triggered when she was not able to stop the intensity of her anxiety or to stop the frightening thoughts. Her healing from panic attacks led to Post Traumatic Growth. Like Libby, people often have a clear turning point when they have a crisis. They are forced to learn new ways of being, and find that they spend more time with the people they enjoy, playing and giving and receiving love.
People who experience trauma often describe their life as “going to pieces” or “being shattered.” It is in the picking up of the broken pieces to reassemble them in a new way that healing, personal growth, and transformation occurs. When old beliefs are examined and at times disguarded, replaced by ones that fit our newly chosen life style, we make meaning of our suffering.
Don’t take my word for it. If you look into your own history, you may see from your own personal experience, not just concepts, that being able to endure in the face of adversity has built your character. And that knowledge about your great strength gives you confidence, self-esteem, and pride. Why no take a look and see what you discover.
Linda and Charlie Bloom are excited to announce the release of their third book, Happily Ever After . . . and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams.
“Love experts Linda and Charlie shine a bright light, busting the most common myths about relationships. Using real-life examples, they skillfully, provide effective strategies and tools to create and grow a deeply loving and fulfilling long-term connection.” – Arielle Ford, author of Turn You Mate into Your Soulmate