Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth
By Jim RendonTouchstone / Simon & Schuster. 288 pages.
“How could you stand to live through so much loss and shock?” It’s a question I became used to hearing on too many occasions through the years: most dramatically, when I was 24, after being among the more than 100 hostages held for 39 hours by Hanafi Muslim gunmen at the B’nai B’rith Building in Washington, DC, where I worked. Even though they threatened us with death and inflicted a range of injuries, we all walked out alive. More sadness followed, with two grueling pregnancy losses and the challenges of caring for my fiancée through his losing battle against illnesses contracted from tainted blood transfusions. Despite these grim experiences, I thought about how fortunate I feel to have arrived where I am today as I read Jim Rendon’s new book, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.
Rendon begins by challenging an all-too-common stereotype: that most trauma survivors remain forever stuck in place, embittered, broken in core ways. As psychotherapists know, the emotional (and sometimes physical) damage may sometimes be so vast and entrenched that repair comes slowly, if at all. But as therapists also know, and as Rendon’s father, who survived the Holocaust, taught him, this isn’t always the case. To be sure, his father remains prone to nervousness and insomnia, but as Rendon writes, he’s lived a full life and “is accepting, coping,” with a good sense of humor, which allows him to joke himself out of his anxiety. In other words, like so many trauma victims, he’s managed to make life go on---and even thrive.
How that happens is the focus of a growing field called post-traumatic growth (PTG), led by researchers Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi. Starting in the 1980s, rather than emphasizing the pathology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they concentrated on the unbidden life lessons that trauma can teach. These are the so-called sweeter uses of adversity---a misnomer, in my view, since the immediate aftertaste is just the opposite. But it points to a larger truth: over time, loss, trauma, or tragedy can give way to an internal overhaul, a wake-up call that compels you to reframe your values and reenvision the way you live.
The title of Rendon’s book claims that PTG is a “new science.” But throughout history, a broad range of writers, psychologists, social scientists, theologians, and poets have described this trajectory in numerous ways, including recovery, adaptation, accommodation, resilience, and spiritual or emotional rebirth (think AA and every confessional memoir from St. Augustine to the present). Rendon is therefore not accurate when he claims, in an early chapter, that Calhoun and Tedeschi were the first to discover the dynamic of PTG.
Also, Rendon cites the debt that Calhoun and Tedeschi owe to the humanist-psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs theory places the ideal of self-actualization and its self-fulfillment and growth as the highest goal. In this regard, Rendon writes, Maslow “found that life’s most important learning experiences are often the tragedies and traumas that force people to take a new perspective on life.”
Rendon is at his best in his chapter-length profiles of a variety of men and women struggling and coping in the aftermath of debilitating injuries, war experiences, and other losses. Some of these individuals are well known, such as Max Cleland, who returned from combat service in Vietnam with both legs and his right arm amputated. After years of grappling with his physical and emotional wounds, he began his comeback to life through a career helping other Vietnam veterans (he was the first Administrator of Veterans Affairs) and then politics (he was US Senator from Georgia).
Many stories feature men and women whose new post-tragedy goals became giving back to society or “paying forward” the support and care they received. All these stories will surely provide lessons both inspiring and practical for anyone dealing with the challenges posed by a wide range of traumas. But I worry that so much emphasis on “the transformative power of trauma” is a template for a new set of false assumptions about trauma and recovery.
While several of Rendon’s interviewees do refer to their injuries and traumas as ultimately proving to have been a gift that allowed them to turn their lives around, their reframing was retrospective, and it was their way of making sense of their ordeal. Especially in the immediate aftermath of trauma, for anyone---and especially a psychotherapist---to refer to someone’s trauma as a gift is an insensitive phrase that stings. Just remember that instead of return slips, these gifts often come with recurring nightmares, trigger reactions, anxiety, or other symptoms.
What often strikes people about the concept of PTG is the man-bites-dog headline aspect of someone who’s undergone suffering still to be able to say that out of that darkness they’ve they found a new light. But behind that headline is a long story, often filled with more pain along the way. Rendon has provided glimmers of insight, but the subject deserves a more balanced and thoughtful examination.This blog is excerpted from "Life After Trauma: What are the Possibilities for Post-Traumatic Growth?" Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!