Turning trauma into transformation

No matter what we go through, no matter how bad things may seem, it is possible to deal with traumatic events and emerge from them – provided we have the right support.

Whatever our chosen careers, there are always people who have influenced us in the way we have developed and grown. People whose ideas have captured our imaginations and helped shape those careers. For me one such early mentor was Diana Whitmore. At one time married to the so called ‘godfather of coaching’, Sir John Whitmore, she herself could justifiably lay claim to the title ‘the godmother of coaching’ but would have some ripe words for anyone trying to pin that label on her.

She is, in fact, always one for direct speech. One such ripe phrase, which is highly apposite to this article is (and we’ve slightly amended Diana’s exact words here!) ‘the gift in the dung’. It’s an idea which I’ve never forgotten, and no wonder. It’s a bit more pithy than the well-worn cliché about lemons and lemonade, which is why it’s probably stuck in my mind for so long. It’s also an excellent starting point for this second article on ways in which we can turn around even the most traumatic events and emerge from them as better, more complete human beings.

In the last blog we looked at the concept of ‘toxic positivity’; that while we all need to find positives in difficult experiences, how you, and others around you, react to these can be either helpful or dangerous. The classic admonition to ‘pull yourself together’ is one we all know to be unhelpful and something to be avoided. The danger in trying to be positive is that we deny the impact of what are very real and valid human reactions to sometimes impossibly tough situations. Being upbeat in the face of such situations isn’t helpful because it relegates and even denigrates the very real ways we physically and psychologically react to such events. It tries to sweep them away on a tide of well-meaning but ultimately empty words of encouragement.

It’s equally hard to imagine how any traumatic situation could possibly contain within it the seeds of a ‘gift’. Just as we might flinch from the suggestion that we just need to ‘count our blessings’, it’s equally difficult to grasp just how we might be able to come to terms with a deeply upsetting event in our lives, let alone imagine that it might contain within it a ‘gift’ capable of transforming that trauma into something positive. Indeed, seen in this light, the idea of a ‘gift in the dung’ might even be judged to be as trite as ‘pull yourself together’. However, what lifts it above such trite phrases is the fundamental belief that we can, if we approach it in a sensitive and understanding way, open up a route through the darkest times and find a way to process those events in such a way that we genuinely emerge stronger and better.

A ‘gift’ by any other name

Of course, we can now give my mentor’s choice phrase a more scientific name: Post Traumatic Growth. Developed by Professors Richard Tadeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, Post Traumatic Growth is defined, in its simplest terms as: ‘positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances’. It’s not about being positive in the face of hideous events. Instead, it’s about acknowledging just where we are, what people have been through, and then finding ways to both assimilate and genuinely understand where that negative experience has brought us to. Having done that, we then need to find ways to address those feelings in such a way that we emerge from the darkness into lighter place through our own emotional journey.

Not easy? Of course it isn’t. All of us hope we never have to face such challenges, but almost all of us will. We are, as they say, where we are. But if we adopt the route of positivity for its own sake we will fail both to address the real underlying issues and fail the people, who by merely doing their jobs, to the very best of their ability, have been exposed to significant levels of trauma. I talk, of course, about those in our health and social care sectors who have gone through not just one major trauma with the Covid pandemic, but repeated waves of infection. Vaccines and new treatments are all wonderful news, but we still have thousands in hospital needing around the clock care. Added to that, we now have a backlog of patients awaiting treatment for other conditions, from the cancellation of routine operations, to many with potentially life threatening illnesses. We’ve hardly begun to examine the ways in which the welfare of front line staff has been impacted by the first wave of the pandemic, let alone this continued and growing demand on their professional lives.

One thing for sure, they deserve better than a mere pat on the back, a smile, and some empty promises. But it’s equally hard to see where the gift is in this particularly hideous pile of dung.

So just how can we use the concept of Post Traumatic Growth and apply it to our post Covid world? That’s going to be the subject of my next blog.