Grateful for our Hardships

How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.

When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

Created for Connection, Part I

I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?

The Disconnected

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.

But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.


I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.

We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.

You’re Not to Blame!

Children often blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. As adults, we don’t have to keep blaming yourselves.

In working with trauma survivors for over 12 years, a common theme I have encountered has been that people who are abused as children often take responsibility for what happened to them. They think that if they were lovable, stronger, or better able to figure out what their adult caretakers wanted, the abuse would never have happened. The sad thing is that many perpetrators of abuse say things to encourage their victims to feel responsible for the abuse. Very often these are people whose personal developments are immature and do not allow them to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. Therefore, they project responsibility onto the people they harm. This is true for physical as well as sexual abuse.

Of course, we humans are very good at justifying what we do, and our memory is self-serving in most cases. We’ll remember many events in a way that favors us and makes us look good. However, a healthy, normal adult can also take a step back and look at their behavior, realizing that there are more than one versions of any story. Thus, we can see ourselves as culpable and capable of mistakes in most situations, and hopefully take corrective action accordingly. People who hurt others often find it too uncomfortable and painful to take responsibility, so they have a binary system of responsibility. What this means is that they generally see everyone else as wrong and at fault, and themselves as perfect and poor victims who are acted upon by all those wrong-doers. Other adults can swat away people like this like so many flies, realizing that this way of thinking is unhealthy and dangerous to be around. But children are often stuck in a one-down position in relation to people like this. Imagine being the child of someone who can never admit fault, can never say “I’m sorry” after inflicting physical or emotional pain on you. Or worse yet, who can make you feel as though you deserved to get mistreated. This is one of the horrible side effects of abuse that takes a long time to heal.

If you have come to see your own childhood abuse as your fault, I hope that you can reach a point where you realize that you did not deserve it. It may take a while to realize this, but it is a very important part of healing from trauma. If you feel stuck and believes that don’t work for you, professional help may be essential to your healing. Please consider calling me if you are in the Antelope Valley area; my phone number is 661-233-6771.

Terror on Our Soil

It seems like just a few weeks ago I was happily celebrating LGBTQQIA pride and waving my ally flag high, when the terrible shooting in Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida occurred. I have seen how it has affected my clients who identify with that community. It brings up all their trauma and grief of being rejected, bullied, and targeted for violence for years. It’s hard to conceive that someone could be so hateful and unstable to kill so many people, but even one fatality or injury due to hate is one too many. How do we make sense of this, and how do we recover from this tragedy?

I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I can tell you how I cope with tragedies like this. Maybe that can help guide you, in healing from terror on our soil. Interestingly, our culture seems more supportive of attacks from people outside our country, like 9/11, than gun violence within our country. Both are vicious attacks and deserve to be taken seriously, but the way some religious leaders are blaming the victim in the Orlando shooting would never have happened post-9/11. Who would have the gall to blame the people in the Twin Towers for what happened to them? And who has the audacity and lack of compassion to say that the people in the night club that night are to blame? Unfortunately, some do.

First, I think we heal collectively when we offer each other support and kindness after any tragedy. The receivers of the support benefit, obviously, but givers of support also do better. I believe that is because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning; it’s an opportunity to unite and comfort each other. That comfort is crucial, especially for a group of people who has been historically ostracized and treated appallingly by mainstream society. We now have a chance to show that we’re better than our history, that we can be redeemed through kindness and acceptance now.
Second, I think that we need to find a way to make our culture much less violent in general. Wherever you stand on the issues of the LGBTQQIA community or gun control, it’s hard to argue that we’re a peace-loving culture. Our culture is steeped in violence, from our entertainment to the way we treat each other, our families, our children, and sometimes even ourselves. I think we need to take a collective step back and ask, “Why do we have so much violence? What purpose does it serve? How do we benefit from it and how do we pay for it? How can I reduce the violence in my life?” This may take the form of activism, writing your congress people and senators and asking for different approaches to domestic and foreign policy, or it may take a more personal approach of reflection and spiritual seeking. Whatever form it takes, I think it’s worth the effort. And there is nothing wrong with taking both an activist and personal approach. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

To the families of those who passed in the shooting, and all shootings, I offer my sincere sympathy and I hope that you get the support and kindness you need. This should never ever have happened, just as any shooting should never have occurred. I hope that we can all prevent something like this from happening again.

I would love to know how you are coping with this tragedy. Please share your comments with me below.