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 six 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? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new – such as a colorful mosaic?
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. And 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. Prepare for the worst
One of the most life-altering chapters of Ryan Holidays’ brilliant book, The Obstacle Is The Way, is titled Anticipation. In it, Ryan talks about a well-known Stoic exercised coined The Premediations Of Evil (premeditatio malorum). For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call it premortem.
The idea behind the ancient wisdom is simple: envision everything that could go wrong in a certain situation. This will help you anticipate the worst and mentally and strategically prepare for it. The thinking went that if you could be comfortable with the worst, then everything else would be a pleasant surprise.
Here’s how premortem would look like in your case:
. . . What if my ex reaches out tomorrow and I fall back into depression . . . Well, I can block them and avoid the whole predicament. And when I feel better, I can always unblock them.
. . . What if my breakup pain is too much to bear and I get suicidal . . . Well, I can hire a therapist to help me out, so things don’t get that heated.
. . . What if I get so obsessed with my ex that I show up unannounced at their doorstep at 3 am. . . Well, I can always give my apartment key to a loyal friend for safekeeping and make a deal with them to only let me out at certain hours of the day.
Far too many breakup survivors succumb to their emotions and hurt themselves — physically or psychologically — for preventable reasons. It’s also mindboggling that so many of them refuse to make a backup plan if things go sideways because they don’t believe things could ever go sideways!
Your plan and the way things pan out rarely resemble each other. What you think you deserve is also rarely what you’ll get. Stop denying this fact. Stop setting yourself up for failure.
But, what can one do when nothing can be done? Well, the Stoics even had that base covered. They cultivated the mindset of “It will suck, but we’ll be okay.” I implore you to take on the same thinking.
“Life’s shit, the world’s shit, everything’s shit….but I’ll be better for it.”
4. Stay Centered
When life launches us into heartbreak and calls upon us a riptide of grief, we often lose our footing and think, “This is it, man! This is where my story ends. I’m fucked.”
Relax. Sometimes it may seem like everything is fucked, when it’s really not. At those times, say to yourself a silent reminder to center you.
“Life’s not as bad as I think it is, but it’s also not as good as I think it is either.”
This phrase — call it an affirmation if you must — is what helps you stay centered when everything around you tries to decenter you. It’s how you can keep yourself in order amid chaos. It’s how you can stop yourself from overestimating your negative or positive emotions.
Because here’s the thing: Once you succumb to the chaos and begin overestimating your emotions, you become uncentered.
From that state forward, you’re much more inclined to make idiotic decisions, like spamming your ex-partners’ phone, sending them a sappy love letter, or doing cocaine in your local mall’s bathroom.
Let’s unpack this concept further.
No, not the cocaine-bathroom thing! The whole emotional overestimation thing…
There are three types of breakup survivors: those who overestimate their positive emotions, those who overestimate their negative emotions, and those who don’t do any of the two.
The ones who believe things are way better than they are delusionally positive. Probably the type of people who tell themselves how amazing they are 50 times in the mirror every morning, love the smell of their own farts, and put #inspirational quotes in their joints. Their overly optimistic attitude makes them horrible decision-makers, inclined to grandeur and narcissism, and ultimately, sets them up for failure.
The ones who believe things are way worse than they are downers. They’re the perpetual self-proclaimed victims and the cynical bunch, incessantly moaning how life’s not fair. They’re also trapped in a cycle of self-depreciation, incapable of genuine gratitude, and often grapple with depression and crippling anxiety.
The point? Stay in the middle. Be the person who doesn’t overestimate any emotions, the positive nor the negative. Whenever you fall on each extreme, you risk severely damaging your mental and emotional health. Also, it’s a quick way to lose all of your friends.
Remember: “Life’s not as bad as you think it is, but it’s also not as good as you think it is either.”
5. Accept The 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 breakup 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. 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. 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. (5)
Just whatever you do, don’t try to avoid your breakup pain or rid your system of it. Pain doesn’t work that way. You can’t get rid of it. Pain is inextricable thread in the fabric of life. The only thing you can do is engage it.
Talking of engaging with pain, let’s continue this pain-train with our final point.
6. Find meaning in pain
According to Victor Frankl, there are three ways one can discover meaning.
- By creating a work or doing a deed.
- By experiencing something or encountering someone.
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
Let’s zoom in on the third point.
Suffering is unavoidable when you’re going through heartbreak. You can respond to it in two ways:
You can try to eliminate or minimize it — a very postmodern, often toxic way of dealing with it. Or, you can accept it, take responsibility for it, and use it to grow into a better person despite it.
The latter is the option I’d go for.
Even better, let your struggles define you. Find joy in them. Learn how to love your breakup pain because it will make you a more resilient and humble human being.
To lead with yet another example from my life. Currently, I’m working about 12 hours a day on this site. Half a year ago, I spent even more time on it. I also have a girlfriend who I have to date and a body that I want to put through rigorous exercise at least three times a week and fuel with quality food. And to top it all off, I must also make time for myself.
Obviously, doing all the above is not always possible. In fact, it’s usually a struggle. Sacrifices have to be made. Every decision has a price. Everything has its own set of consequences — good and bad.
However, despite my struggle, I love the grind. I’m somehow addicted to it. Sure, I get tired, lazy, and take days off, but there’s some weird desire for pointless suffering at the very core of my being.
Same goes for my breakups. Once I got a hold of this concept, I began to find a sick pleasure in my suffering, for I knew that even though it hurts now, I will be better for it. As will you.
And the same goes for just about any successful person. They all identify with their pain. They’re all proud of their persistence, perseverance, and drive despite all odds.
They all made friends with their inner masochists — they all kept consciously or unconsciously repeating the same thing I kept repeating to myself when in pain; the same thing you should keep repeating to yourself, too:
“Yeah, choke me, bitch! Fucking choke me!”
Find your inner masochist. Find a way to get a sick pleasure off your pain. Then leverage it to recover and heal your heart.
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