Post Pandemic Growth: Bounce Forward Strong, Braver, Better
The old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a nice sentiment. Yet it’s been often proven false. Some people don’t rise stronger from adversity. Many are left stuck in blame or self-pity, unable to move on they live under a cloud of fear, hurt, self-pity or a low-level, lingering malaise with life. Their mental and emotional wellbeing never recovers.
Yet adversity – whether in the form of a one-off traumatic event or a prolonged period of struggle (such as one might experience in a protracted pandemic!) is not an exclusively negative experience for all people. In fact, it can be a powerful catalyst for deeply positive personal transformation.
Enter ‘posttraumatic growth.’
The term posttraumatic 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 stress or absence of struggle, but can be experienced alongside it. To quote a common coaching maxim, breakdowns precede breakthroughs. The larger the breakdown, the more transformative the potential breakthrough.
In the realm of posttraumatic growth, the benefits of potential breakthroughs include an enhanced experience of life. Not just getting ‘back to normal’ but bouncing forward to a whole new level of wellbeing that surpasses any previous ‘normal.’ For instance, stronger self-esteem, deeper relationships, a greater appreciation of ‘the little things’ and of life itself. It also includes an expanded confidence for meeting future challenges…. “If I handled that, I can handle anything.” As my freshman college son Ben, who graduated high school in our living room last June recently said to me, “It takes a lot more to stress me out these days.”
It’s impossible to predict what post-pandemic growth each of us might experience when we can finally put this pandemic squarely behind us. Yet there’s reason to be confident that many, like Ben, 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 themselves more authentically in all areas of their lives.
To facilitate your own ‘post-pandemic growth’ – so you don’t just ‘bounce back’ but ‘bounce forward’ to thrive on a new level – here are a few strategies you can practice. As you do, keep in mind, kites don’t rise with the wind, but against it!
Embrace the hard moments… you cannot thrive without them
Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art of fixing cracked pottery or ceramic. Rather than hide the cracks, the broken pieces are rejoined with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. When restored, the piece holds a new unique beauty, not despite its past ‘breakdown’ but because of it.
To move forward from this challenging time, we must embrace our own breakdowns for the opportunities they’ve held for us to grow, to learn and to experience life on a higher plane – individually, and collectively in our families, communities, organizations and society at large. This includes our often-underestimated capacities for agility, resiliency, ingenuity, and growth.
Celebrate sharpened strengths
Adversity has a way of introducing us to ourselves on whole new levels; acquainting us with strengths we might never have discovered. Chances are that over the last 12 months you’ve discovered new strengths or honed existing ones. Indeed this last year has provided a masterclass in building resilience, agility and new skills… from mastering Zoom to homeschooling (no one said you wanted that mastery class, but you got it anyway!).
Taking time to acknowledge the talents you’ve uncovered and mastery you’ve gained helps combat the negativity bias which works against posttraumatic growth.
Reach out, 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 a mask or withdraw entirely, make a point of staying in touch with a few people with whom you can reveal the truth of your life.
Rewrite your stories (reconstructing your ‘Assumptive World’)
You might not know this, but you live in what psychologists call an ‘Assumptive World.’ It’s like an elaborate mental map that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it. Trauma has a way of knocking our ‘assumptive world’ off its axis, as our beliefs about how the world (and our lives) ‘should be’ butt head with reality. Comments like ‘I never thought this would happen to me’ or ‘this just can’t be true’ tend to follow such collisions.
I remember saying just such things to myself when I experienced being held up at gunpoint and miscarrying my first (mid-term ) pregnancy in short succession. Sure I knew these things happened to other people, but I somehow assumed they would never happen to me. In the months that followed I had to reconstruct my assumptive world and craft a story that would enable me to move forward.
Reconstructing a shattered ‘assumptive world’ requires rewriting the story you have about how life works in ways that incorporate your new reality without leaving you lingering in emotions of self-pity, blame, or powerlessness in your ability to create a future worth living.
My new story expanded my optimistic ‘life is good’ outlook in ways that incorporated my expanded awareness that ‘bad things can (and do) happen to good people including me. It’s how we respond to our hardships and heartaches that define us, not the events themselves.
Look for ways to use your suffering for service
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote that “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Of course we each gain meaning in different ways, but one of the most powerful is finding ways to channel our hardships and heartaches in service of others. Having a spiritual belief system – whether through religion or outside of it – therefore helps to facilitate PTG as it facilitates the process of meaning-making. As I found after my brothers’ suicide, leaning on my faith helped me process my grief in ways that deepened my resolve to live my life in ways that honored the life he would never live.
While the cascading crises of this pandemic have brought many of us to our knees, it’s also showed us that we rise stronger when we lift those around us. How can you be of greater service to others today? Your own wellbeing will benefit.
Double down on self-care (and be kinder to yourself!)
When life feels out of control, double down on what lays within it….starting with doing 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.
Create a morning ritual that gets your day off to a strong start. Having recently relocated back to the US, I’ve just found a new morning bootcamp that always starts my day strong. That coupled with reading some form of ‘wisdom literature’ and a short mindfulness meditation (Insight Timer is my go-to) sets me up to handle everything else better. Of course, bootcamps in freezing temperatures aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. So find what works for you. As I have written before resilience isn’t what you have, it’s what you do.
Just because life is hard doesn’t make it bad.
Calm waters don’t make for great sailors. Growing into our potential requires weathering a few stormy times. You may not enjoy those rough waters that put a chink in your ‘assumptive world’, shattering the image you had of yourself and life. But research shows that accepting their inevitability will help you rise above them faster and emerge from them better off.
Often the experiences you’ve thought were ruining your life are actually opening a window to take it to a whole new level. Look for the open windows that are opening, and don’t dwell on those which have closed.
I truly believe that the universe is conspiring for our highest good. But we must do our part.
Let’s each do our bit to turn this turbulent time into a catalyst for transformation of the highest order. In our lives, in our workplaces, and in the world.