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.
- Relying on other people
- Making the choice to be optimistic
- Focusing on things I could be grateful for
- Choosing to be mindful
- Exercising resilience
- Finding pathways to hope
- Being compassionate toward myself
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.
Assad, A. L. (2015). How shifting my focus to gratitude helped my family heal. Phoenix Society Burn Support Magazine, Issue 2, 2015.
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.