Crisis as a launching pad for growth
When the challenges come, I hope you remember that deep within you is the ability to grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It’s a muscle you can build up and then draw on when you need it.
Dr. Maya Angelou gave me a gift: the title for this book. When asked how she emerged from her violent childhood and rose above poverty and hardship, the poet and civil rights icon called her emergence “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.”2
You have probably heard of posttraumatic stress. But beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of posttraumatic growth. It may seem paradoxical even to put the words “trauma” and “growth” next to each other in one sentence. And yet, survivors and experts are increasingly focused on the new science that we can not only heal, but benefit from hardship. As someone who has struggled with chronic illness, I myself needed to learn that this is a possibility, and perhaps you chose this book, because you do, too?
The common notion of resilience entails a sense of bouncing back from a severe crisis,3 but for me, the idea that we can “bounce back” from a devastating blow and “return to our original shape” falls short. We never forget the ones we’ve lost or the arduous struggles we’ve fought. The lives we lead are markedly different before and after a trauma, because these losses and struggles transform and profoundly change us.
This book is not about bouncing back, but rather about bouncing forward. About letting the fire of trauma temper and teach us.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting in any way that trauma is good or that we need to “get over it” already. As Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild, told me when we spoke about her struggle with grief: “I hate the word ‘overcome,’ actually, because it sounds like a negation of the experience. The key to my ability to move on with a sense of life and beauty has to do with the fact that I always carry my suffering with me. Once I learn to say, ‘Yep, here is this part of my life that is sad and hard and unfortunate,’ I can make room for other things, things like happiness and contentment and peace. In so many ways, I learned to look at that burden, that suffering I had to carry, as a gift, even though it is a gift I would gladly return to the store. The fact is that this gift is mine, and that I need to make something of it. I’ve made a lot of progress in my life, in part because I decided to strive to turn that ugly experience into something else, something beautiful.”
Of course, we wish we had our loved ones back, that we were not sick, that we didn’t experience or witness terror, violence, rape, addiction, accidents, injury, betrayal, poverty, or grief. But in reality, most of us live through five or six traumatic events in our lifetime. One in five Americans has been laid off from their job. Nearly 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. Over 19 percent of adults nationwide have suffered the death of a child. This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates that 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer. Yes, traumatic events happen to the best of us. Whether it’s an everyday crisis, like a divorce or a car crash, or a “capital T” trauma, like violence or severe illness, it is crucial to know that the trauma is not the end of our story. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can master what matters most: our response to it—our mind.
How can we get our lives back?
Here is the most encouraging fact I’ve uncovered: We really can do it! Leveraging a crisis as a force for personal development is not reserved for the rare and heroic; in fact, posttraumatic growth is much more common than posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the stress actually serves as the fuel for the growth. According to Richard Tedeschi, posttraumatic growth’s leading researcher, as many as 90 percent of survivors experience at least one form of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or a deeper connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. We need to actively work toward positive change, and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.
This is the focus of Bouncing Forward: to open our eyes to possibilities.
My hope is that this book will offer you a new perspective on pain: A new meaning of life. A renewed sense of optimism. Because a growth mindset not only fortifies us in challenging times, but the same qualities and skills help us in our everyday lives as well. In fact, ideally we cultivate resilience while the proverbial waters are smooth so that we have a buffer and good sailing skills when the going gets tough.
The goal of researching the science of posttraumatic growth is precisely this: to find out what protects us and those around us from unnecessary suffering; to discover strategies to intervene when life’s trajectory goes ballistic; to help the healing. And not only to heal, but to use the crisis as a launching pad for a new beginning.
This sounds encouraging, but what exactly is posttraumatic growth? How do we achieve it? Are we ever going to feel better? How do we move on from feeling stuck, afraid, angry, ashamed, sad, and hopeless? Will we ever be happy again? How do we get our lives back?
In Bouncing Forward, I address these questions not only through my research with resilience experts and encounters with survivors and trauma “thrivers” from all walks of life, but through introducing you to the tried-and-true methods that helped them.
The groundbreaking science of posttraumatic growth is still new, ever expanding and adding fresh insights. Psychologist Stephen Joseph regards the science of posttraumatic growth as “one of the most exciting of all the recent advances in clinical psychology, because it promises to radically alter our ideas about trauma—especially the notion that trauma inevitably leads to a damaged and dysfunctional life.”4
Over the following chapters, we will explore some of the skills we need to face life’s perils and pitfalls. Our upbringing plays a role, as do genetic factors, resources, social skills, and our purpose in life. You’ll walk away with a deep understanding of the strength of your spirit and five powerful practices to transform your own life.
A crisis is not a cul-de-sac, but rather a watershed moment. What we do next matters: advance or retreat, take a turn south or north, run or hide, crawl or fly. We can avert our eyes or dig deeper, try harder or grow softer, close down or break open.
We are stronger than we think
Ever since I watched my grandfather succeed as a businessman and father of five despite his crippling injury from polio, I’d wondered: How is it possible that some people emerge from pain fortified? Throughout my decades as a reporter, when I visited tsunami victims and torture survivors, these questions tugged at me: Why do some people fall apart after catastrophes while others not only survive but thrive? What makes the difference?
When I was diagnosed with a debilitating virus in my twenties and found myself bedridden for eight months, this quandary became deeply personal. How could I glue the smithereens of my life back together and become whole again? Had my resilience just been a mirage?
Resilience is such a catchy concept. Estee Lauder sells “Resilience Lift Extreme” makeup, retailers market “Resilience & Strength” lotion, and Hanes produces “Resilience” panty hose.5 I wish getting in resilient shape was as easy as putting on the right panty hose!
But after my health crisis, my ability to lather on a layer of resilience and strength was close to zero. Rather, I was beating myself up for not being able to live up to my ideal. When people attempted to cheer me up with well-meaning advice to pull myself up by my bootstraps, they just added to my despair, because I felt they didn’t understand how hard I tried. I was relieved to discover that the science of posttraumatic growth offers strategies and hope for those of us who don’t consider ourselves resilient. Resilience is one of the outcomes of posttraumatic growth, but we don’t need to be resilient to begin with. In fact, the science of posttraumatic growth goes beyond resilience. I learned that most people are not born innately resilient, that every single person I admire had to learn to grow this resilience muscle before they could flex it, and, much to my relief, that it is sometimes the least resilient people who grow the most.
Giving up is not an option.
When doctors and psychiatrists research loss, grief, or trauma, by default they often pay more attention to the patients who suffer the most. However, the majority of trauma survivors eventually attest to a renewed zest for life, major empathetic growth, and increased emotional maturity not despite their painful experiences but because of them, and sometimes simultaneously with posttraumatic stress. We are so vulnerable, yet tenacious at the same time.
I never gained my health back fully, and my life has not been the same since. My body is an unstable companion that regularly gives out on me. My physical immune system has gone haywire, some of it beyond repair. Instead I have had to go deeper to find strategies that strengthen the immune system of my soul.
The fundamental question is not whether we encounter suffering—because we all do. “It is how we work with suffering so that it leads to awakening the heart and going beyond the habitual views and actions that perpetuate suffering,” Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says. “How do we actually use suffering so that it transforms our being and that of those with who we come in contact? How can we stop running from pain and reacting against it in ways that destroy us as well as others?”6
To find out, I asked masters of resilience how they found strength in adversity. By researching their life stories, perhaps a bit of their magic would rub off on me? Did they have a resilience code, and could I crack it?
The resilience recipe
Many think of resilience as a kind of Teflon quality, an impenetrable armor that magically wards off pain and suffering. Most likely, this magic potion exists only in Hollywood movies and makeup ads.
The mavens of posttraumatic growth tell a different story: that resilience is a matter of small steps, of inching forward one breath at a time. Only after they embraced their suffering and after they let it penetrate them to the core did things change. As we will see, posttraumatic growth is quite the opposite of Rambo’s grin-and-bear-it bravado. In fact, the lone cowboy who thinks asking for help is a weakness is the one most at risk. Covering up a scar with a smiley-face Band-Aid does not lessen the pain either. Growth arises, quite to the contrary, from acknowledging our wounds and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. This might include recognizing the traumas we have created ourselves.
To go on this journey, you need to arm yourself, not with weapons, but with curiosity and an open heart that is willing to explore the spaces the pain has carved.
Before we can overcome suffering, we need to go through it. The way beyond suffering leads through, not around. Think of it as a grand experiment: What would happen if we opened up instead of closing down, if we let the pain in rather than warding it off?
Father Thomas Merton writes: “Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most.”7
None of us floats through life on a cloud, without experiencing the loss of a loved one, without grave illness, without at least one or possibly several life-threatening events. It is normal that we struggle with what life throws at us. We’re not alone in this. Could we use the hard lessons to impact our own lives and the lives of others for a greater good?
Paralympic sprinter and double amputee Aimee Mullins says: “There is adversity and challenge in life, and it’s all very real and relative to every single person, but the question isn’t whether you’re going to meet adversity, but how you’re going to meet it. So our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well.”8
I purposefully sought out people from all walks of life, with diverse traumas, both to show that each trauma is entirely unique and yet as human beings we are incredibly similar in our ability to grow. I interviewed Maya Angelou just months before her passing, drummed with Def Leppard’s one-armed drummer Rick Allen, fed puppies with ex-POW Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum on her farm in Kentucky, discussed panic attacks with autistic animal behaviorist Temple Grandin on her ranch in Colorado, went to my first Fanfest with genetic wonder woman Meggie Zahneis, and explored Berlin nightlife with famed jazz guitarist Coco Schumann, who had played for his life in Auschwitz. I cheered on paralyzed surfers as they navigated eight-foot waves, learned about the power of bearing witness from Buddhist teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, and talked with Canadian business consultant Alain Beauregard about his realization that cancer was “the greatest gift” he was ever given. I sat with Tibetan yogis in the Himalayas, attended the US Army’s resilience boot camp, and spoke with pioneers of a burgeoning movement of psychotherapists, scientists, and medical professionals who are trying to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes some people grow in the midst of adversity.
It is at this interface of Western psychology, Asian wisdom, and Army toughness that our journey begins. We will look at crisis from different angles: physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. You will meet people who have approached pain from seemingly opposite perspectives—hard-bitten soldiers, soft-spoken Zen masters, creative entertainers—and yet their best strategies to tackle these pains turn out to be surprisingly similar.
My interviewees are role models for all of us who are exploring our life purpose while facing challenges. One of the most insightful ways we can progress is by studying the biographies of people who have mastered the art of bouncing forward. I have known some of them for more than a decade, and I consider it crucial not to gloss over their challenges but to delve deep into how they arrived at their life-changing insights. I hope these stories will resonate with the fibers of your own being, and will energize and enliven you just like they have inspired me.
How did they summon such courage? Their world has shattered. Somehow, they survived.
Acceptance, openness, flexibility, optimism, patience, mindfulness, empathy, compassion, resourcefulness, determination, courage, and forgiveness are all part of a resilient mindset. These are qualities we can train in. Maybe there is a “resilience makeup” after all. We just can’t buy it in a store.
Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs
Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs
Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs radically shifts our perspective on adversity. Author Michaela Haas, PhD, explores the new science of posttraumatic growth through her moving personal story, encounters with survivors from all walks of life—from soldiers to surfers—and a practical take on the latest scientific research. Filled with powerful insights and more than 60 tried-and-true methods to grow in five areas of your life, this treasury of wisdom will shine a light when life seems overwhelming.
Michaela Haas presents twelve inspiring stories from survivors of cancer, addiction, PTSD, the Holocaust, loss of mobility, loss of a loved one, and childhood abuse to show how to transform pain into a journey to wisdom, love, and purpose. This book will help you become more resilient, stronger, and happier in the face of life’s inevitable setbacks. The author immersed herself into her subjects’s lives, and even interviewed the late Dr. Maya Angelou, who shares with us how her childhood trauma led her into a passionate life of meaning; ex-POW Rhonda Cornum, who found a new purpose after being captured in Iraq; renowned autistic pioneer Temple Grandin, who overcame crippling panic attacks; and famed jazz guitarist Coco Schumann, who played for his life in Auschwitz.
In Bouncing Forward, Michaela Haas draws upon powerful storytelling, psychology, history, and twenty years of Buddhist practice to reshape the way we think of crisis. You’ll walk away with a deep understanding of the strength of your spirit and five powerful practices to transform your own life. It’s also a great gift for friends who are going through a rough time.
“One of the most inspirational books of 2015” —Cyrus Webb, Conversations Book Club
“So beautiful! The world needed that!” —Jenny McCarthy, Sirius XM
“A great message of hope.” —Claire Fordham, The Huffington Post
“Some of the most interesting research I`ve ever read. I don't think this has ever been done before.” —Sheila Hamilton, Kink FM Radio
“This book is phenomenal!” —Allen Cordoza, Answers for the Family LA Talk Radio
- Atria/Enliven Books |
- 400 pages |
- ISBN 9781501115127 |
- October 2015
Turning Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs with ‘Bouncing Forward’
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Posted by Michaela Haas