Cheryl Strayed was born in late 1968 in Pennsylvania. Throughout her life, she endured many traumatic adversities that few of us will ever face—severe poverty, sexual and physical abuse, violent family drama, drug problems, living in near-constant fear of the future, and so forth.
And as if that weren’t enough, the particular events of Cheryl’s life wouldn’t make it any easier for her either.
She spent her childhood living in a dingy, handmade house without running water or electricity on 40 acres of land She endured a father who physically abused her and her mother. She was raped by her grandfather at the age of three. And to top it all off, when she turned 22, she became an orphan—one who tried to escape her pain with travel and heroin.
Cheryl Strayed has indeed seen it all. Yet, despite all of her struggles, she went on to become a New York Times bestselling author, renowned podcast host, political activist, and a voice of hope for millions of trauma survivors worldwide.
What’s most impressive about Cheryl, however, is not her career but how she turned her trauma into growth. She even publicly declared that her suffering made her a more well-rounded, compassionate, and resilient person and that she’s grateful for all her struggles.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Huh, so trauma, is a positive thing?”
Obviously, that’s not true. Trauma in and of itself is horrible. But the aftermath of trauma can be—and 90% of the time is—a source of personal growth.(1)
Numerous studies show how traumatized victims experience various positive changes in their lives following adversity—changes like more fulfilling relationships, higher self-esteem, an updated value structure, and a beneficial shift in their entire life philosophy.
However, not all traumatized victims grow in the same way. Some don’t experience any positive changes in their lives for years, while others experience them in just months following their traumatic event.
The extent to which a person grows after trauma boils down to two components: personality factors such as emotional stability, openness, self-esteem, optimism, problem-solving skills, and acceptance; and the narrative a person constructs around their adversity and the world.(2)(3)
Therefore, the more developed your personality factors are, and the more you believe that your trauma is something that can be overcome (and that the world isn’t all bleak), the higher your likelihood is for growth after adversity.
As a result of numerous studies on growth after trauma, a relatively new branch of psychology lit up—one that investigates the sunny side of trauma and educates people on how to recover from it and thrive despite all odds. This branch is named post-traumatic growth.
Below, I’ll cover three ways of growing from trauma that I see repeated time and time again throughout post-traumatic growth resources and conventional self-help.
1. Ask better questions
Most breakup survivors groan about how life’s not fair and ask prosaic and stifling questions such as, “Why does this happen to me?” “This isn’t fair.” “Why do I have to suffer?” or “How did I let this happen?”
Unsurprisingly, this type of self-inquiry does not promote recovery, nor does it contribute to personal growth and well-being. The only thing it does is insert you into a victim mentality, envelop you in misery, and promote self-belittlement.
But does that mean that we should eliminate negative self-inquiry?
No, of course not. The more you try to obstruct involving yourself in negative self-inquiry, the more it will prevail.
What you should be doing instead is asking yourself better questions—the kinds that help you see yourself as a hopeful survivor rather than a hopeless and helpless victim.
These would be questions like, “What can I learn from this?” “How can I rebuild myself?” and “What can I do to better my breakup situation?”
To be more specific, below are five key questions Stephen Joseph, the leading psychologist on post-traumatic growth, recommends you ask yourself daily after any trauma.
- Are there ways in which my relationships with family and friends have been strengthened and deepened in intimacy?
- Are there ways in which I have found a different perspective on life with new opportunities?
- Are there things I did to survive what happened that showed me strengths within myself that I didn’t know I had?
- Are there ways in which I have found a greater understanding of life and how to live it?
- Are there ways in which I find myself being more grateful for what I have and for those around me?
2. Rebuild your belief system
To get over your breakup pain, you need to rebuild your belief system or also stamped as your shattered assumptive world. This idea is beautifully illustrated through Stephen Joseph’s famous broken vase metaphor. (4)
” 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?
Like the vase held together by glue and sticky tape, those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable.
Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new – such as a colorful mosaic? Those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.
The secret to dealing with adversity is to know that you can’t put the vase back together exactly as it was, but instead, start to use the pieces to build a new mosaic.
We can learn to live each day more meaningfully in light of our vulnerability. We can learn to give our love to others in light of knowing that we are not as important as we thought we were. We can work out what really matters to us in light of finding out that what we thought matters, doesn’t.”
These changes don’t necessarily mean that you’ll be free of the memories of your heartbreak, grief, and suffering but that you’ll live life more meaningfully in the light of what you endured.
3. Accept your breakup pain
And then there you are, traumatized and bewildered, lost and thinking it’s the end of the line. You’re questioning your existence and believe that that it will never get better.
But—and I know you don’t believe me yet—it does get better.
Whether you’re suffering from the passing of a three-month online relationship or a 20-year marriage, your pain will fade away in time; like every emotion, pain is temporary.
But there is a way people prolong this recovery process: by pursuing myriads of trivial activities (i.e., weeks-long YouTube binges) with the intention to distract or numb themselves from their pain.
Here’s the tough pill to swallow in this case: the more you avoid something unpleasant, the more it persists, and the more unpleasant you’ll feel.
Therefore, the more you avoid dealing with your pain, grief, or any other demon you have under the hood, the more painful and tumultuous those things will become.
The best way to tackle this problem, or avoid it altogether, is to focus all of your mental bandwidth on accepting your negative emotions, thoughts and your whole breakup in general.
In practice, this would mean admitting to yourself that what happened did indeed happen and that you’re suffering. Nobody deserves trauma. But deserving is not the point. Trauma is just something that happens to everyone. So admit that to yourself.
The whole thing just happened, and you can’t change it.
Even better, seek out others who are enduring for the same reason you are and join them, or find people who are willing to listen and talk to you while you’re suffering. Socializing, be it online or in the real world, is proven to help anyone cope with trauma.
Just whatever you do, don’t try to avoid your pain or rid your system of it. Pain doesn’t work that way.
“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable” – By Mark Manson