Facebook threw up an ad for a course last week and I died a little inside. I am not going to share it here because I don’t want to draw traffic to it, but the gist of it is that for under $100 you can get a whopping 7 videos, audios, and transcripts to help you guide your clients into Post-Traumatic Growth. Learn the Ten Steps of This and the Four Ways of That and the Two Easy Ways of the Other and the One Essential Protocol of Everything. Roll up roll up! Get it while it’s cheap!
Post Traumatic Growth is a newish concept, but not that new (1990’s). In its most simplistic form, it basically states that people can experience personal growth as a result of adversities. There are plenty of useful resources about PTG, some free and some not. This is the one I got; I can’t recommend it as such because I’ve not compared it to everything else out there, but as it’s currently going for $0.01 plus postage for a used copy, I’d encourage everyone to take a look at it. If nothing else, you’ll be able to turn around and tell me if I’m full of shit.
I have no beef with PTG per se. Frankly, it seems like a bit of a duh; the only surprising thing about it is that the professional world has taken so long to ‘prove’ something that people who’ve managed to get themselves out of the shit see going on day in, day out. Adversity can make people more resilient, more self-confident, more optimistic, more thankful, more aware, more insert-good-stuff-here. I know I have benefited from PTG and so have most of the people I know and love.
I also think that it’s a damn good thing that the concept is gaining popularity, particularly as PTSD is currently pushed as the inevitable result of certain life events. Survivors of certain occurrences, in particular war veterans and rape survivors, way too often look for help only to be told that they’re scarred for life – not merely changed by events, but broken by them. I could go on forever about the agendas that I believe are pushing this point of view, but I doubt that’d do any good.
I’m pro PTG as a concept both in normal life and in therapy. What scares the hell out of me is that it’s now become a buzzword, something that’s getting thrown around by a whole bunch of people who haven’t experienced adversity and a whole bunch of people who haven’t experienced the lack of it. Both poles come at the issue with their own biases and are turning the concept from a useful tool into a rod to beat survivors with, or at least into a pot of gold to mark the end of the recovery process.
I am meeting way too many people who haven’t gone through any major traumatic event and who covet PTG as if it were a special prize you get for gaining RealExperience™; people openly wishing that something awful enough would happen to them so they could unlock their next level, so that PTG could turn them into something more than the person they currently are. I can’t tell them categorically that it wouldn’t work out for them, that a little bit of suffering wouldn’t be good for their character or some suchlike shit, but I know for a fact that pretend suffering doesn’t cut it and real suffering fucking hurts. Seriously, people: don’t throw yourself into a meat grinder just because you think that pain is formative. First and foremost, pain is painful.
I am also meeting way too many people who, fresh with their meme-based knowledge of PTG, turn to survivors and demand to know what superpowers they’ve got. Something awful happened to you, so clearly you must be a better person for that! What did you get? Resilience? Self-confidence? Spidey-sense? Don’t tell me that you got raped or beat up or whatever and you forgot to collect your prize! That’s, like, disappointing, man.
’tis a fact that people – not just survivors – may need to be encouraged to look for the ways in which life has made them better people, because otherwise they might not notice it. However, that doesn’t come even close to putting pressure on them to be better than they were before their trauma, particularly if they’re still working towards overcoming said trauma. Being a survivor can be hard enough work without people expecting you to be able to suddenly overdo your old self because they’ve read all about how good trauma is for you in an article in Cosmo.
This kind of attitude isn’t just the domain of the clueless. I’m seeing more and more survivors who embrace it. This seems to be particularly a thing with survivors of childhood trauma – people who, through no fault of their own, have never actually experienced a trauma-free life – but it isn’t exclusive to them. Some survivors become not only proud of their struggle, but dismissive of people who haven’t overcome some kind of major adversity. They believe that survivors are a better class of people, almost a breed apart from the ‘normies’ who just can’t begin to comprehend the intricacies of the survivor mind. To a certain extent, they’re absolutely right: certain life events can alter your perception of life, the universe, and yourself enough to make it very difficult to communicate with people who haven’t seen what you’ve seen. You may find yourself to respond differently to stimuli, to have a whole new set of personal resources, to function better in certain situations. Thing is, that’s not necessarily a sign that you’re an upgraded form of human overall.
PTG and PTS aren’t mutually exclusive. The same life event can take something from you and give you something else. For instance, you can come out of a violent encounter with a spidey-sense for predators and a bunch of inconvenient triggers. You can grow up in an abusive family and be a god at spotting and interacting with people with personality disorders and completely incapable of maintaining functional relationship with ‘normal’ people.
Perhaps most importantly, if you buy into the PTG promise to the point that you become invested in your identity as a survivor, that’s who you’re going to be. That’s where you’re going to stay. It’s not necessarily a problem if it that’s what you want, if that’s enough for you, but survivorship doesn’t have to be the end of the recovery road. There are things beyond being a survivor, and you might not reach them if you’re wholly wrapped up in the wonder that is your survivor identity because you believe that it’s inherently superior to any other state of being.
Whether you’re ‘better’ or ‘worse’ as a result of your suffering really depends on what matters to you. Did you get closer to the person you want to be? Did you gain attributes that you consider desirable? Did you lose anything of value? Looking only at one side of the equation – post-traumatic losses or post-traumatic gains – doesn’t make much sense to me – but then neither does running my life as some kind of point-scoring exercise. That’s just me, though. If it’s what you want to do for yourself, if that’s what works for you, go do it. However, before you try and force that viewpoint on other people in the belief that it will be good for them too, you might want to have a good think about it. And if you’re doing that solely on the back of a discounted course that didn’t even take up a weekend… just don’t.