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Growing through Adversity

By on August 3, 2015 – 10:57 am  11 Comments

Alicia Assad, MAPP '08, Health Counselor is a writer and mother of four. Having survived postpartum anxiety, multiple pregnancy losses, and her son's burn injury, she contemplates ways that concepts such as optimism and gratitude can lead to growth in the aftermath of adversity. She is a former Miss New Jersey and Radio City Rockette. Follow her writing on Facebook, @AliciaAssadWrites, and visit her website, Alicia Assad: Recovering Perfectionist. MOM. Happiness Aficianado. Storyteller. Alicia's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.



Author’s note: A companion article to this one, How Shifting My Focus to Gratitude Helped My Family Heal, appears in the Phoenix Society’s Burn Support Magazine, a publication devoted to helping burn survivors and their families.

Two years ago, my two-year-old son suffered a severe scald burn covering 16 percent of his body. This happened the very moment I was heading out the door to a doctor’s appointment to decide whether it was time to induce the birth of my unborn baby who had a birth defect needing attention. In the year-and-a-half that followed, I saw my boys through four surgeries. I went through two surgeries myself after suffering a complicated second trimester pregnancy loss.

My initial hope was that my family would reach a time free from adversity. When I kept getting disappointed by yet another traumatic event, I experienced a disruption of my core beliefs. I had to make a choice between losing hope and redefining what hope meant to me.

According to Snyder’s Hope Theory, hope is supported by having a realistic goal, multiple pathways to reach it, and a sense of agency, that is, a belief that I can follow the pathways. So I redefined hope by first selecting a more realistic goal: “I hope that tomorrow I find the strength to endure whatever I have to face.” Then I clearly defined multiple pathways to reach my new goal: “If something bad happens again, I will lean on my friends and family for strength. I can also rely on the concepts of positive psychology because I have seen the way they helped me through earlier crises…” My sense of agency came from remembering what I had already managed to endure.

For me, redefining hope was only one step in my process of healing. I also had to accept what happened to my family and develop a more productive explanation. For example, I could look at my son as a burn victim who is badly scarred and negatively affected by his injury, or I could see him as a survivor who had exemplified more strength and courage than I knew a small boy was capable of. When I see him as a survivor, every scar is symbolic of his bravery. Indeed, when I choose to see the beauty in my son’s physical scars as well as my own emotional scars, I can see what transpired as beautiful. This shift in perspective was inspired by Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability and self-compassion. Believing that my family and I are stronger because of what we have endured inspires thoughts of new possibilities for all of us.

Reaching this point was when my growth occurred. Suddenly my dormant knowledge of positive psychology came flooding back, and I found the time and energy even while caring for three young children to fulfill my long held goal of writing and publishing my work. I found the courage I needed to speak openly about the ways that the application of positive psychology helped me survive a crisis. I have completed a draft of a memoir of our experiences, which gives me hope that my future is full of new possibilities. On my new website, I’ve written short descriptions of the positive psychology tools that most helped me during the worst moments. I see this as a way to help others in times of need. In particular, the tools I drew on are listed below. Each entry in the list is a link to the explanation on my website.

Recently I stumbled upon Roepke and Seligman’s 2015 publication exploring the growth that sometimes occurs in the wake of loss. They point to earlier research summarized by Linley and Joseph suggesting that positive changes can follow adverse experiences, a phenomenon often called posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth, benefit finding, or adversarial growth. Roepke and Seligman sought to understand why positive change occurs. In their study of 276 individuals who experienced both traumatic and non-traumatic stress, they found that engagement with new future possibilities was a strong predictor of growth following adversity. They characterize this as seeing “doors opening.”

I feel that my own experience matches this explanation. I believe that I am stronger and more courageous because I looked forward in a realistic way, both accepting what occurred and learning to see doors opening for my family. I also experienced growth in the other four domains listed in the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory by Tedeschi and Calhoun. I also have

  • A deeper sense of spirituality. In search of greater religious practice, I converted to Catholicism.
  • A greater appreciation for life. I kiss my children more and embrace the messy moments because I came so close to grieving the loss of my child.
  • A sense of new possibilities. I have found my calling within the field of positive psychology.
  • Improved relationships. I am not only closer to the friends who supported me, but most notably with my husband who survived the crises along with me.

Roepke and Seligman ask an important question in the discussion section of the paper:

“One key question is this: could most people actively adopt this strategy (engaging with new possibilities) as a way to cope with adversity and grow? Alternatively, is engagement just an epiphenomenon that occurs when adversity befalls people who already possess particular characteristics (e.g. optimism, openness to experience, secure attachment, and low neuroticism)?”

Generally, I characterize myself as an optimist, and I’ve also practiced deliberate optimism as a coping strategy. Others who are not blessed in the optimism department might have a harder time adopting the doors opening mindset.

Indeed, greater core belief disruption is, as Roepke and Seligman point out, a “double edged sword” that can also lead to negative consequences. The greater the core belief disruption, the greater the negative consequences, but also the greater the potential for growth. They conclude that pursuing new possibilities in life is what predicts the positive outcome.

To this point, I would suggest that due to the scope of the trauma I experienced and the significant disruption of core belief I faced, had I not applied concepts such as Snyder’s Hope theory, self-compassion, and a belief in the possibility of post-traumatic growth, I would have become a victim of depression or PTSD.

From my experience, I can speak to the idea that to experience growth, we need adversity in the past and the ability to picture new possibilities in the future. I believe that this study sheds new light on adversity. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing if only we choose to see adversity for all the ways it can allow us to grow. Of course, I am not a proponent of actively seeking adversity, but at some point most of us have struggles to endure. When that happens, perhaps it is best to embrace our challenges for all the ways they force us to grow.

At the very least, this research puts an empirical underpinning on my hope that my future can be bright not in spite of the adversity I’ve faced, but because of it.



 


 
References

Assad, A. L. (2015). How shifting my focus to gratitude helped my family heal. Phoenix Society Burn Support Magazine, Issue 2, 2015.

Assad, A. L. (2015). The Beauty of Scars, Determination vs Gratitude, and Shirtless and Courageous. Beautiful Crisis Blog.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic
Stress, 17
, 11–21. Abstract.

Roepke, A. M. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2015). Doors opening: A mechanism for growth after adversity. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10:2, 107-115, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.913669. Abstract.

Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). A clinical approach to posttraumatic growth. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 405-419). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 455-471.

All images are used with permission from the author.

11 Comments »

  • An excellent and practical article, thank you Alicia. I’ll be sharing some of your stories and tools with my own clients.

  • Alicia Assad says:

    Thank you, Kirsten, for your kind words. I am glad you find it useful and hope it helps!

  • Elaine O'Brien says:

    Dear Alicia, thanks for sharing your story with grace, wisdom and heart, and with “bloody good writing,” to quote Dr Denise Quinlan, in clearly describing yours. Sending you deep appreciation, love and care, beautiful friend.

  • Senia says:

    Alicia,

    There is one main thought that goes through my head as I read this: YOU ARE SO STRONG. You and E are so strong. Thank you for making this real and sharing what got you through it. I can only imagine that this will be so helpful to so many others.

    Warm warm thoughts your family’s way,

    Senia

  • Alicia Assad says:

    Elaine, How kind and touching your words are. I am humbled by the support the MAPP community has shown me.

    Senia, I am certain that you too would be strong, because you were among the staff of individuals who taught me about the power of concepts such as gratitide and how positive psychology can help us not only to flourish but to cope. Thank you for creating this space through which I can share my story. The hope that being open and honest about my experience might help someone else is what has pulled me through many difficult moments.

  • Louis Alloro says:

    Alicia,

    Thank you for teaching us the what and how of resilience, what Chris Peterson described as “struggling well.” I am honored to know you. And your kids – well, I hope to know them someday, but they sure did pick the right mom!

    Louis Alloro

  • Alicia Assad says:

    Louis,

    Wasn’t it you who once told me the quote, “Per Aspera Ad astra”…”Through the thorns, to the stars”…

    I haven’t forgotten it. So thank you for your wisdom, inspiration and the incredible success you have shown me is possible following MAPP. When they meet you, my children will adore you.

    Alicia

  • Beloved Defender says:

    Thanks for this article. It is inspiring and insightful. I completely agree with the conclusions and embody another example of their truth.
    My m other abandoned me when I was born. My father died when I was 10 after a long illness. I became a ward of the state court…as orphaned as one can be.
    Yet, I am today a happily married member of the 1%. I won a scholarship to a great Ivy League school; finished first in my law school class; became a law firm partner; a TV commentator; a keynote speaker and now a successful business executive. Because I had so little and experienced such trauma, today I savor with much more vigor than most my education, my circumstances, my triumphs. It is not where you are or who you know; it is how far you have come!! Practicing forgiveness and gratitude with a sense of service to others will usually stand as in good stead. While all you academics find the citations for these concepts, others of us are privileged to live them in our own small ways.

  • Cassandra says:

    Thank you so much for sharing something so personal, Alicia. Your strength through these times of adversity is truly inspiring.

  • Kavisha Patel says:

    Alicia,

    Your resilience is inspiring in the situation you were handed. It is so important to remain optimistic when dealt the worst cards in life. By accepting what had happened and holding on to hope is the key to overcoming adversity. I really like the way you approached your difficulties, “I hope that tomorrow I find the strength to endure whatever I have to face.” This is truly inspirational and will always keep those words in my head when faced with difficulties. Thank you for sharing your story and words!

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