We are in a time of massive, monumental changes. We can call it a crisis or an upheaval. But truly, it is an Awakening, a collective paradigm shift of monumental proportions. An initiation into an entirely new future that we have the power to create – for all of humanity and our planet. All around us, things are shifting. These shifts are paving the way for accelerated awakenings and advances in consciousness. The last several months have been intense for many. The isolation, sorrow, and fear have been overwhelming at times as we collectively navigate waves of emotion.
Emotions fuel our lives, and our choices, whether we realise it or not. We often make choices based on what we think will make us feel good, even if just for a moment. Meanwhile, we do our best to avoid pain as much as possible, especially emotional pain. If you’re not touched in some way by unemployment, death of a loved one, anxiety, depression, financial wounds, or losing your mind in quarantine – congratulations! You just surfed through a hurricane without even getting your hair wet. For the rest of us, there is a lot to process. And when we do that, it will be a glorious thing because that word – process – is the one thing that makes all the difference between PTSD and its noble cousin, Post-Traumatic Growth.
“Every challenge you encounter in life is a fork in the road. You have the choice to choose which way to go – backward, forward, breakdown or breakthrough.”
Breakdowns Precede Breakthroughs
Adversity, whether in the form of a one-off traumatic event or a prolonged period of struggle (such as a global pandemic) is not an exclusively negative experience for all people. In fact, it can be a powerful catalyst for deeply positive personal transformation. The term post-traumatic growth (PTG) was first coined by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi in the 1990s to describe the phenomena whereby people emerge stronger in the aftermath of trauma. Considered to be both a process and an outcome, PTG is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress because it can actually be experienced alongside it. The larger the breakdown, the more transformative the potential breakthrough.
Navigating the new normal isn’t just about looking out; it’s about looking in. Humanity is describing their struggles with adversity, how they have been forced to dig deep and mine their inner reserves. People everywhere are facing threats and coming out stronger on the other side in both their personal and professional lives. As the transformation on our planet deepens, and we see all the work that is yet to be done, this may bring up feelings of overwhelm. It takes courage to live in the present moment, accept what is, and allow the unfolding of our life without the need to control or judge. It is now time to move forward to create a future without fear. In the realm of post-traumatic growth, the benefits of potential breakthroughs include a whole new experience of life. Not just getting ‘back to normal’ but bouncing forward to an enhanced level of wellbeing – surpassing any previous ‘normal.’
This includes stronger self-worth, more authentic relationships, a greater appreciation of ‘the little things’ and of the gift of life itself. It also includes expanded confidence for rising above future challenges. If you handled this, then you can handle anything. It probably takes a lot more to stress you out now than it did, say, in 2019.
“Sometimes the process of growth looks a lot like destruction and pain. But you’ll realise with time that you’re not breaking; you’re healing.”
4 Positive Pandemic Outcomes
A new study – the first of its kind – examined the positive effects of the coronavirus and its potential for post-traumatic growth. The research surveyed 385 people in Portugal and the United Kingdom during the first wave of COVID-19. Although the respondents reported considerable adversity, 88.6% also cited four areas of PTG during the pandemic and lock down.
- 48% described the development of closer, more meaningful family relationships.
- 22% cited a greater appreciation of life, adoption of a healthier and slower lifestyle with less stress and more present-moment awareness.
- 16% noted spiritual growth, a greater appreciation for others and a stronger sense of community as people helped one another.
- 11% said they embraced new opportunities and possibilities including better work/family balance, positive changes in remote working, plus an opportunity to learn new skills.
In a world that is moving and changing faster and faster, we must remember: we are human creatures and change is emotional. Seeking short-cuts around these emotions – yours and those of others on your team – will not make a life-altering event a simple, swift transaction. Human change is a journey. It’s meant to be challenging, unrelenting and heartfelt. For those leaders who take the “long view” and acknowledge grief as part of any traumatic transformation process, they are the ones who have a real shot at change not only working, but lasting.
“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace.
Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal.”
3 Categories of Emotional Pain
When a stimulus is unrelenting, as the pandemic has been, the repetitive activation of emotion creates a mood. The dominant mood during the pandemic seems to reflect a persistent fear and emotional pain. Although emotional pain is influenced by our perception of an experience, it’s not the only factor. Our history also plays a big part, especially when it comes to trauma. Everyone has experienced trauma to some degree in this life -everyone. During childhood, we develop defensive strategies for dealing with difficult emotions, like fear or shame. They help us avoid the pain of rejection and abandonment, which to a child, is equal to death. According to Karen Horney’s Mature Theory, our defensive strategies fall into 3 main categories:
Moving Against Others (Projection)
Energy is projected outward, against others, in an aggressive or expansive way. To deal with fear, insecurity, or pain, those who project tend to lash out. They despise weakness and will often view emotional pain the same way. As a result, they deflect and project their pain on to others, thus disowning it. Further, to avoid rejection and abandonment, they focus on building mastery, success, achievement, and perfectionism.
Moving Away From Others (Avoidance)
In this strategy, energy is withdrawn from others through detachment and isolation. Those who avoid handle difficult emotions by shutting down and shutting others out. In a sense, they give up in resignation and they are typically adverse to change. As a result, they avoid dealing with emotional pain all together, accepting it as simply their fate, which actually keeps them stuck in it.
Moving Toward Others (Repression)
This is the overly compliant, overly accommodating, people-pleaser strategy. People using this strategy seek to overcome their emotional pain by focusing on others. They sacrifice themselves for those they love, or what they deem to be the “greater good”. They may seem unselfish, loving, and humble, or appear to be content with little in life (a way to avoid disappointment). However, underneath it all, they repress emotional pain to their own detriment.
These strategies were adopted in childhood, as a way to create safety and escape emotional pain. Yet, none of them actually allow for the processing or healing of that pain. The truth is, if we don’t process difficult emotions, we become stuck in them. Resistance through projection, avoidance, and repression doesn’t get rid of the emotional pain – it strengthens it!
“Crisis is what suppressed pain looks like; it always comes to the surface.
It shakes you into reflection and healing.”
Creating Space for Integration
Psychological growth is similar in many ways to muscle growth. To build a muscle, you have to put stress on it. When the stress is great enough, it breaks down the muscle. After such a workout, we must eat and rest so that our bodies can rebuild the broken parts of that muscle. Then the body builds more muscle so that we can withstand that kind of stress better next time. When we’re bombarded with cognitive and emotional stress, we also slowly break down. However, we tend to only do the bare minimum to rebuild. We escape while we can, and then we return to work, into possibly the same stressful situation. What’s often missing is the rebuilding-so-we-can-handle-more-next-time part.
Corporate athletes are extending into 60+ hours every week, only compounded by the pandemic. You don’t need to be a genius to realise that this is not sustainable. Currently, we don’t really place any value on a warm-up or a cool-down in the corporate world. We need to change this in order to shift into post-traumatic growth. Call it a weekly post-mortem. A daily journal entry. A ritual where you think while you’re on a morning jog or coffee break. As leaders, let’s create space for deliberate processing for the people we care about. Let’s share our stories of what we’re learning through these hard times and encourage others to reflect on what they’re learning, too.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
5 Elements of Post-Traumatic Growth
Although post-traumatic growth often happens naturally, without formal intervention, it can be facilitated in five ways: through education, emotional regulation, disclosure, narrative development, and service. You can, and should, emerge from this time a stronger you.
To move through trauma into growth, we must become educated about what the former is: a disruption of our core belief systems. For example, before the pandemic, many of us thought we were safe from the types of diseases that endangered people in the past; that bad things happened in other parts of the world but not ours; and that our social and economic systems were resilient enough to weather all storms. None of that was true. So now we need to figure out what to believe instead. When our assumptions are challenged, it is confusing and frightening and tends to produce anxious, repetitive thinking: Why is this happening? Why is this happening? What do I do now? What do I do now? We are being forced to rethink who we are, what kind of people surround us, what kind of world we live in, and what kind of future we will have. While this can be extremely painful for some, research shows it can usher in change that will be of momentous value. We must begin by learning and understanding that truth.
To be able to learn, we must be in the right frame of mind. This begins with managing negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and anger. Because emotions come from thought, we must shift the kind of thinking that leads to these emotions. Instead of focusing on losses, failures, uncertainties, and worst-case scenarios, try to recall successes, consider best-case possibilities, reflect on your own or your organisation’s resources and preparation, and think reasonably about what you can do personally and as a group.
You can regulate emotions directly by observing them as they are experienced. Physical exercise and meditative practices such as breathing also help. Acknowledge that circumstances continue to be both challenging and unnerving; then demonstrate poise under pressure. Encourage more frequent communication so that people feel less isolated and are able to see their collective emotional strength more clearly.
Disclosure is the part of the process in which you talk about what has happened and is happening: its effects – both large and small, short and long-term, personal and professional, individual and organisational – and anything you are struggling with in its wake. Articulating these things helps us to make sense of the trauma and turn debilitating thoughts into more productive reflections. It is important for you as a colleague and leader to understand the varying impacts the pandemic and the ensuing market volatility, layoffs, and recession have had (and continue to have) on the lives of those around you. Start by speaking openly about your own struggles and how you are managing the uncertainty. You can then invite others to tell their stories. Listen attentively as they locate their difficulties and come to terms with how their challenges and losses compare with those of others.
Create an authentic narrative about the trauma (and our lives afterward) so that we can accept the chapters already written and imagine crafting the next ones in a meaningful way. Your story (and the stories of people you are helping and leading) can and should be about a traumatic past that leads to a better future. When you’re ready, start to shape the narrative of the pandemic trauma for yourself and your organisation. How has it caused you to recalibrate your priorities? What new paths or opportunities have emerged from it? Look to famous stories of leaders and organisations that have emerged from the crisis stronger.
People do better in the aftermath of trauma if they find work that benefits others. Focusing on how you can help provide relief in some way, such as producing content, stocking shelves, retraining teammates, supporting small businesses or agreeing to a temporary pay cut – can lead to accelerated growth. Simply expressing gratitude and showing compassion and empathy to others will also do the same. How you and your organisation turn to service will determine whether you see the pandemic and its fallout as an unmitigated tragedy or as an opportunity to find new and better ways to live and operate. Look for personal and shared missions that energise you and help you find meaning.
“You learn something valuable from all of the significant events and people, but you never touch your true potential until you challenge yourself to go beyond imposed limitations.”
Adapting, Shaping and Selecting
The concept of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) may not apply to everyone right now, but it does apply to many. We can activate PTG in various ways including through the story we tell ourselves about our experience and channelling the learning we’ve gained in a meaningful way. The goal here is to extract optimal learning and growth from the global pandemic and apply that learning to create a better future. When we go through hard times, we are able to stretch and develop. When we grow from trauma it results in three primary benefits:
- We deepen connections – learning who is most supportive of us and to whom we are most committed.
- We clarify our priorities – developing our understanding of what really matters to us and what doesn’t.
- We validate our own capabilities – understanding how much we can endure and how resilient we are in the face of adversity.
Likewise, when we cope, we have three choices. First, we can adapt, making changes to ourselves to deal with circumstances. Perhaps you’ve had to brush up on your parenting, teaching or maths skills to facilitate learning for your children. Second, we can shape the conditions themselves. You may have dressed up in bright colours for a daily photo and created #lockdownlooks to spread socially-distanced cheer to your IG followers and Facebook friends. Finally, we can select out of a situation. You may have moved to obtain a new job or ended a relationship that wasn’t serving you. These three options – adapting, shaping or selecting – are important because they reinforce the choices we have and the ways we can express our autonomy, even in the face of long odds or significant challenges.
“The future depends on what you do today.”
8 Ways to a Brighter Future
It’s impossible to predict what PTG each of us might experience once this period of disruption and turmoil is squarely behind us. Yet there is reason to be confident that many will experience some. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, 60% of Hong Kong residents reported enjoying stronger family relationships and a third felt better able to express their feelings with family and friends. To facilitate your own ‘post-pandemic growth’ – so you don’t just ‘bounce back’ but ‘bounce forward’ to thrive on a whole new level – here are a few strategies you can practice. As you do, keep in mind, our lives are not defined by our challenges but by how we respond to them.
1. Embrace your hardships, you can’t thrive without them.
Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art of precious scars. Rather than hide the cracks, broken pieces of pottery are reconnected with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. By repairing broken ceramics it’s possible to give a new lease of life to pottery that becomes even more refined thanks to its “scars”. The Japanese art of kintsugi teaches that broken objects are not something to hide but to display with pride. The kintsugi technique suggests many things. When an object breaks, it doesn’t mean that we should discard it because it is no longer useful. It is in the repairing that the object may become even more valuable. This is the essence of resilience. To move forward from this challenging time, we must embrace our own breakdowns for the gifts they hold for us – individually, and collectively in our families, communities, organisations and all of humanity. This includes our often-underestimated capacity for agility, resilience, ingenuity, and growth.
2. Celebrate sharpened capabilities.
Adversity has a way of introducing us to ourselves on a whole new level. Often we discover strengths and talents we never even knew we had. Chances are that over the past 12 months, you discovered new skills and capabilities or honed existing ones. The pandemic provided the world with a masterclass in many new skills… from mastering virtual meetings to maximising small spaces. Take time to acknowledge the talents you uncovered and the mastery you achieved.
3. Clear outdated beliefs.
We’ve all met people who have been hurt or seriously wronged and, in the process, have become cynical, jaded and convinced that the world is out to get them. That is not a growth mindset, and it’s also not true. Are you clinging to an old belief that has already been proven false and no longer serves you? That shattered belief could be, “I’ll never be happy if I get divorced,” or “A relationship must last for my entire life or I’m a failure,” or “If I do a great job at work I’ll never be fired,” or, “I know I’m desirable because my boyfriend loves me,” or, “If I’m smart, I’ll never fail,” or, “Only losers are single,” or, “Only losers start businesses that tank.” People who grow from trauma and loss do not cling to false stories.
4. Manage your own career.
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we are all entrepreneurs now, even when we work for someone else. Your employer gives you a paycheck, but they won’t manage your career for you. If they don’t need your services at some point, they will not say “We don’t need this person anymore, but look at what a great employee they are – let’s keep them around just out of gratitude!” It doesn’t matter how great an employee you’ve been or how long you’ve worked for the company. When the axe falls, you will be on your own again. This means we all have to manage our careers in the same way any business owner manages their business. You are a business owner, and your business is your career!
5. Update your operating system of beliefs.
We often have stories or fairy tales wrapped around our core beliefs. Growing from loss means incorporating them into a new, more mature worldview. You might really believe in the possibility of true love, even recognising that it doesn’t always last forever. You might really value hard work, and taking risks, but now admit that a risk might not pan out. You might want a partner who really values you, and see that one who doesn’t is not the right person for you. It’s been a tough twelve months. If your career dipped or plateaued, if your sales plummeted or if your emotions were in the dumps, you know circumstances had a lot to do with these conditions. You now have the opportunity to pull yourself up, focus on the future, maintain hope for all that will come next and begin again.
6. Create positive moments.
Some things in life can actually just suck. Sometimes whole periods in your life can be pretty bleak. This is true, but it’s still not the whole story. Happiness as not just the absence of negative events, it is also the presence of positive ones. When going through an incredibly difficult time, we may have to shove in positive moments intentionally, even on a schedule. They don’t have to be huge, life-changing, “I just met the person of my dreams!” moments. They can small things, like appreciating a sunset, or enjoying dinner with a good friend, or walking barefoot on the grass. Psychology professor Barb Fredrickson, talks about a “three-to-one” positivity to negativity ratio. This isn’t an exact formula, but the idea is important. Negative moments are much more potent and gripping, so you may need about three great sunsets to make up for one rude customer having a go at you.
A great way to create positive moments is to schedule them in. If you like dancing, you might sign up for a series of weekly dancing lessons. Each week you can count on a few hours of getting your groove on – no matter how much time you spent with a divorce lawyer, or on the phone with the bank reorganising your debt, or crying over a lost love. Positive emotions help us to be more creative and resourceful, they help us connect with others and cooperate. All of these mental states are conducive to growth.
7. Reach out and foster connection.
We forge more meaningful relationships through our struggles and vulnerability than our successes and victories. Unsurprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of post-traumatic growth is a robust support network. So, while you may feel tempted to wear an emotional mask or withdraw entirely, make a point of staying in touch with a few people with whom you can honestly reveal the truth of your life.
8. Up your self-care.
When life feels out of control, double down on what lays within it. Do more of what nurtures you – body, mind and spirit. This includes being extra compassionate with yourself, particularly in your not-so-finest moments. We all have them and beating up on yourself for being fallible doesn’t make you less so. Calm waters won’t make great sailors. Likewise, just because life is hard doesn’t make it bad. Growing into our potential requires weathering stormy times. You may not enjoy those rough waters that shatter the idealised image you had of yourself and your life. However, accepting what is will help you rise above your challenges faster and emerge from them more of who you truly are.
Often the experiences you thought were ruining your life actually open a doorway to take it to a whole new level. As with all things, how we feel now and what we are facing in this moment is temporary. Eventually, healing, acceptance, and greater love will follow. Every hardship faced guides us to unlock a new fragment of who we truly are. It gives us access to a new part of our self, our purpose, and what we have been put on this planet to do. All we need to do is look back to the history of our own lives or the history of the world to see that we have always made it through. We have always found the solution.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
The Great Awakening
Whenever we are exposed to vulnerable, soul-bearing emotions, it opens the doorway to awakening. For many, this is the first time they have had time to pause and sit with their emotions. For many, this is the first time they have had to think about death, question the life they were living, or recognise the importance of human connection. This is a huge awakening moment, and anyone who has been through an awakening knows that it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. It’s painful because it forces you to pull back the layers and discover a new truth. Once this new truth is discovered it means that change has to follow, a different way is the only way forward. There is no going back to sleep.
Use this time to process your own emotions in whatever way they show up for you. Use it to get to know yourself intimately and deeply. Use it to realign your life with your values. Use it to reflect on what you have lost and also what you stand to gain. Recognise that life is never going to be the same, and that also means it can be better than it was before. Hold the vision of a better world for everyone. A world that is more beautiful, more connected, more prosperous, and more balanced than before. We don’t have to wait for a cosmic slap to develop an appreciation and deeper meaning in our professional or personal lives.
“What you feed your mind, will lead your life.”
A Growth Mindset
Cultivating a growth mindset empowers us to cope with hardships. This winning frame of mind positions you in such a way that career and personal curve balls happen for you, rather than to you. A growth mindset means you welcome obstacles, setbacks and disappointments as opportunities to grow and learn – no matter how painful or frustrating. Failure is our personal trainer as we ask ourselves, “What can I learn about myself from this letdown that will help me grow?” or “What can I manage or overcome in this situation?” or “How can I turn this disappointment around to move my career forward?”
Choose to be as willing to embrace failure as you are success. View them as a package deal (like a hand and glove, milk and cookies, two sides of the same coin). Understand that avoidance of failure morphs into avoidance of success. Realise that, in order to attain what you want, you must be willing to accept what you don’t want. Once you start to accept failure as an essential stepping-stone to success, you give yourself permission to stick your neck out and make the mistakes necessary to get to where you want to go. You get up, one more time than you fall, take the towel you want to throw in, wipe the sweat from your brow and bounce back higher than you fell.
“Everyone has the fire, but the champions know when to ignite the spark.”
Each of us has the power to choose how we respond to adversity. Instead of letting the situation dictate our state of mind, we can decide our perspective of the ups-and-downs, keep ourselves grounded over the long haul and stay connected to the essence of who we truly are. Adversity’s gift might just be the renewal of personal reflection, contemplation, meditation and prayer – all of which can help us rediscover what really matters and help us stay calm in heart and mind when everything around us seems to be falling apart.
Finally, gratitude has the power to remind us of the big picture to take us out of the claustrophobia of the current crisis. Times of crisis tend to narrow our attention to immediate threats—a natural part of our hard-wired stress response. Gratitude can relieve us of this tunnel vision. Yes, we are thankful for the blessings and comforts of this moment. And we are also grateful for past memories and experiences. We can look forward to a post-pandemic future and savour the freedoms and connections we will once more be able to enjoy. In the end, gratitude connects us to our life story and to the meaning at the centre of that story. It connects and grounds us in what truly matters.
“The gift of willingness is the only thing that stands between the quiet desperation of a disingenuous life and the actualisation of unexpressed potential.”
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