An excerpt from The Unexpected Gift of Trauma. Copyright © 2023 by Edith Shiro. Reprinted by permission of Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins.
When a traumatic experience shatters our world and we’re left to pick up the pieces, the idea that we can heal, and actually transform as a result of the suffering, can feel impossible. It’s hard enough to put what happened behind us in order to deal with the day-to-day realities of life, let alone move on. But the fact is, by embracing adversity and working through the pain we can derive meaning from our experience. We can grow from our traumas, and even more than that, we can completely transform. That is what posttraumatic growth is all about.
People talk about transformation all the time. They often say that they’ve been transformed, and describe being “changed for the better,” feeling stronger and more resilient, even becoming a nicer, more mindful version of themselves. Which is wonderful. It truly is. When I talk about the transformation that happens as a result of posttraumatic growth, however, I’m talking about something different. Think about a caterpillar. To become a butterfly, this little creature (formally called a “larva”) must lose all of its “caterpillar-ness.” It must decompose; be stripped of everything—its shape, its ecosystem, its way of inching through the world. Everything. In fact, if you were to look inside the chrysalis midway through its metamorphosis, you wouldn’t see a partially formed butterfly or a partially decomposed larva. All you’d see is what wildlife biologist Lindsay VanSomeren calls “pink goo,” a nutrient-rich soup. No trace of the caterpillar remains. In other words, it had to die in order to be reborn as something completely new. At the same time—and this is important—the butterfly would never be what it is without its caterpillar-ness, without the enzymes, nervous system, and breathing tubes provided by the larva, VanSomeren says. The caterpillar even has what are called “imaginal disks,” which are “small clusters of cells that match up with the structures they’ll need as adults,” such as wings, eyes, antennae, and so forth. Moreover, the butterfly’s emergence into the world cannot be interrupted or assisted. The winged creature must be allowed to push its way out fully formed or it will die. It’s a brilliant and quite dramatic example of transformation in nature.
When it comes to human transformation, I have long held the image of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” an ancient Japanese artform of mending broken pottery, as the perfect symbol of posttraumatic growth. Kintsugi comes out of wabi-sabi, the Japanese worldview that honors the beauty within imperfection and impermanence. In repairing cracks in a ceramic bowl, for example, or putting the broken pieces back together again, the goal isn’t to hide the imperfections but to use lacquer mixed with powdered gold (or sometimes sterling silver) to enhance them and integrate them into something unique and often more beautiful than the original.
We all have broken pieces within us, wounds that remind us of experiences we would rather forget. But our wounds are the cracks, as singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen famously wrote, where the light gets in, where wisdom and connection and compassion can enter us. The lacquer represents the value of our wounds. Wabi-sabi invites us to acknowledge the beauty in our imperfections, to celebrate our uniqueness and our brokenness. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is what posttraumatic growth is all about. Posttraumatic growth allows us to hold the trauma and the healing simultaneously—both are true. I was broken, now I’m whole. But this wholeness includes the broken pieces, which have been put back together in a totally different way, one that is more sustainable, more beautiful, and can ultimately be of service. It’s important to note, however, that in posttraumatic growth, as in kintsugi, we’re not simply repairing what’s broken—that’s only part of the process. We are reimagining, reinventing, and recreating a whole new story for ourselves. One that doesn’t deny our wounds from the past but seasons the story with their own “nutrient soup.”
As a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, I’ve placed PTG at the core of my work for almost thirty years. During this time, I’ve raised these kinds of questions: What if it’s possible for someone to go beyond healing after experiencing trauma? What if, after bouncing back to health, they could leap forward and transform? In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s achievable. PTG is the stage where true transformation happens, but to reach PTG requires an often difficult journey. My five-stage model is the process to get us there. It’s the blueprint that takes us from trauma to wisdom and growth. The five stages move from radically accepting the trauma to seeking safety, experiencing a shift in perspective, being able to integrate the old ways of being with a new understanding, and finally, growing and becoming wiser.