How Suffering Can Lead to Positive Change

Last weekend I was honoured to hear Professor Stephen Joseph, the leading researcher in post-traumatic growth, share his wisdom on how instances of suffering can in fact lead to positive change. It was part of an Alumni event at the University of East London where I completed my studies in positive psychology. It was an inspirational evening with a great mix of positive psychology alumni from the last 8 years – you can imagine the positive energy in the room was quite powerful!

Positive change through suffering

Post-traumatic growth refers to positive change which occurs after a traumatic event, with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote simplifying it, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” The research has explored this phenomenon with a focus on war veterans, sexual assault victims, natural disaster survivors, and those who have experienced severe health challenges (such as cardiac arrest patients & individuals who have acquired disabilities later in their life). Saying that, things such as accidents, bereavement and other traumatic events in your life can spur similar reactions to that of post-traumatic growth. The studies have shown that personal gain can be found from the suffering that comes from trauma, and below I’ve highlighted how.

How Post-Traumatic Growth Leads to Positive Change

1. You change your perspective in life. Maybe you’ve stopped worrying about the little things, become more appreciative of what you have, learned to live in the present more, or reevaluated what truly matters in life.

2. You change the perception you have of yourself. You find personal strength you never knew existed within you, and you realise you can do things you thought you weren’t capable of. You become more accepting of who you are, cherishing your best qualities and accepting your limitations.

3. Your relationships are enhanced in some way. Perhaps you find a new sense of gratitude towards your family and friends, your sense of compassion towards others grows, and you long for more intimate relationships. If you’ve shared a trauma with someone, perhaps that brings a new level of connection between you.

Stephen Joseph on positive change

The essence of the whole idea of positive change is that you accept the trauma as a part of who you are and cherish the positive change you have seen in yourself after it. If we consider trauma can make you fall into pieces, it’s not about trying to put all the pieces back in the same way but in a new way. Stephen illustrated this beautifully:

Imagine that one day you accidentally knock a treasured vase off its perch. It smashes into tiny pieces. What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was? Do you collect the pieces and drop them in the rubbish, as the vase is a total loss? Or do you pick up the beautiful coloured pieces and use them to make something new – such as a colourful mosaic?

It’s about understanding that adversity can lead to positive change if you let it. Don’t stay fixated on your old views of the world, the sense of who you are, and how your relationships are. Be open to accepting this breakage and building yourself anew to become more resilient and find new ways of living.

Personally, losing one of my Grandmothers six years ago was a very traumatic event for me. One minute she was a relatively healthy, energetic Grandma, and the next minute she was in the hospital having caught a bug. And then, all of a sudden, within two weeks, she was gone. I even remember my last phone conversation with her on one of the first days she was at the hospital, and what we spoke about. I had no idea it would be the last, and neither did anyone else in the family. When things took a turn for the worse, I chose to fly to Finland to say goodbye, and I held her hand as she passed away, with my mom and other Grandma beside me. It was after that experience that I truly understood the importance of family, and became more appreciative of my loved ones around me. It was after that that I realised the continuity of life that happens through generations, and it was the first time I realised I wanted to have kids and a family of my own one day.

How suffering leads to positive change

An exercise which helped me find this clarity, and expand on that personal growth, was one on expressive writing designed by Pennabaker and Beall in 1986. Over four consecutive days, I wrote for 15 minutes each day, not thinking about spelling, grammar, punctuation or handwriting – I just wrote, even when I didn’t know what to write. Even though, I did it five years after the incident, it was an incredibly powerful exercise and I felt more at ease after it. In fact, it is recommended that this exercise is not done if you are still grieving or suffering extremely negative emotions from the trauma. This exercise is better suited when you have had some time and distance from it, and feel well equipped to now reflect on it. These are the directions if you want to give it a go:

For four consecutive days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experiences of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie this trauma to your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives. You may also link this event to your past, your present, or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different topics each day. Not everyone has had a single trauma but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors – and you can write about these as well. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until 15 minutes is up. 

Towards the end of this exercise, I encourage you to reflect on the growth you have experienced, and the positive change which has followed. And if you’re interested in exploring this topic further, Professor Stephen Joseph’s book What Doesn’t Kill Us has rave reviews. It’s definitely on my reading list now!

If you enjoyed this post, please share it, like it, tweet it, pin it – it could help more people understand that positive change is possible after suffering. Personally, learning about this a few years back was a needed breath of fresh air for me!

Do you want to share your story? Or the positive change you have experienced? Comment below with your thoughts – I would love to hear from you!

With that, I wish you amazing adventures for the rest of the week!

Happy Regards,

Susanna 🙂