Post-traumatic Growth

Last week was traumatising for me to say the least. A dear friend of mine, a friend whom I’ve known since school, passed away. While I am distressed, I can only imagine what his parents are going through.

For the last couple of days, I’ve deeply thought about how to deal with tragedy. I believe everyone — without exception — will eventually face an irreversible tragedy they did not expect — and they didn’t prepare for it specifically because they did not expect it. While there’s no way to avoid it, we can, at the very least, mentally prepare for what is about to come.

At the root of every grief is some variation of, “It’s my fault.” I should have been there for him; I should have known that something was wrong with her; I wish I had called them more often, etc.

Even if you do everything right, you always could have done more. Taking responsibility for a tragedy is one thing, but blaming yourself for it is another. We often confuse the two.

This doesn’t limit to personal tragedy. If you make a bad decision as a leader that affects the whole team, blaming yourself for it would only put you in a bottomless pit of self-blame. This helps nobody.

A more constructive approach is to look at the overall picture, consider what you have done well, what you could have done better, and take steps for improvement to make sure you avoid something like this next time.

No tragedy is ever so big that it affects everything in our life. It may affect a big part of our life, it may affect the most important part of it, but it can never affect everything. It feels larger than life because it’s the only thing that occupies our minds.

If a wife loses her husband, it’s not the end of everything. A person is not just a wife, a husband, a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, or a friend. Our lives have multiple facades. One might be a widow, but she’s still a mother, friend, artist, poet, leader, manager, or writer. Even if a tragedy kills one facade, the rest of them are still alive.

For example, if you lose a business because of a bad decision, it might suggest you are not a good businessperson. If a loved one leaves you, it might suggest you aren’t a great partner. Now, you may not be great in one aspect, but it doesn’t suggest you are hopeless in everything.

And when I say you aren’t great, it doesn’t mean it’s permanent. As long as we have a growth mindset, we can turn things around with effort. Having thoughts such as, “This is typical of me, I am not going to succeed in anything,” is a sign of a fixed mindset.

People with fixed mindset see their overall intelligence, talent, or skill to be a fixed entity — something that cannot grow. They are prone to give too much of importance to their natural knacks, abilities, and talents.

People with growth mindset believe that difficulties can be tamed with time and effort. They believe that a novice can become the master — incrementally, with small, consistent steps. It’s not very hard to inculcate this mindset.

One failure or tragedy doesn’t define one’s life. We have many examples of successful people who have overcome tremendous personal and professional tragedies to bounce back in life.

People become resilient for other people, not for themselves. I know of two mothers who are dealing with different personal tragedies. One of them is separated from her husband and the other has lost her husband. Both have young kids, and both of them have bounced forward from the tragedy — for the sake of their kids.

Responsibility propels resilience. If a mother doesn’t stop feeling sorry for what has happened, her kids cannot recover. If a husband cannot find moments of joy and allow himself to be happy, his wife cannot be happy.

When psychologists started studying resilience, they identified two paths. One is where a tragedy or hardship breaks down a person. This leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), debilitating depression, and severe anxiety. The other is when people try to bounce back after a tragedy, and return to the state they were before.

But they were surprised to discover that many people end up with a third response to tragedy. They not only bounce back, but they bounce forward. They emerge with a positive change from a negative event.

For a lot of people, post-traumatic growth is about a stronger sense of meaning in life — having a purpose, which is often about taking responsibility and helping others. This not only gives meaning to our lives, but gives meaning to our suffering.

That’s not to say that the grief or sadness goes away, or that anyone is happy for the tragedy. But alongside a lot of negative emotions, often come positive changes in our lives, when they’re able to say, “I’m stronger. I lived through that, I can live through anything!”

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