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.

The little green monster in the bedroom

Even though very few people like to admit it, we all feel jealousy from time to time. Whether it’s over a quality that another person has that we wished we possessed, or coveting precious time that we wish to spend with a person that another person is “hogging”, it’s fairly common and natural. It seems troubling, however, when it predominates in our thinking and sours our relationship with others. This is especially true with our spouses and lovers.

A common problem I see in couples and individuals in my practice stems from people feeling insecure with their mates because of real or imagined indiscretions that a person’s mate has engaged in. Sometimes both spouses have “cheated”, whether in person with another person or over social media or “sexting.” The question of trust arises, of course, but the deeper and more penetrating issue is the insecurity itself. How did this insecurity find its way into the relationship, and what to do about it once it’s there?

While there’s no magic pill or easy answer to this, I think there are some general ideas I can share that might help with this problem.

First and foremost, working through childhood wounds of feeling unloved or unworthy is crucial to feeling secure and not succumbing to jealousy, at least on a grand scale and to the extent that it hurts your relationships. This takes a while, I know, and it can be pretty painful. But trust me: it’s worth it!

Second, strengthen your relationship with the person by focusing on what you like and appreciate about the person you’ve chosen as your spouse or lover. It’s easy to find fault with other people, especially when you think they have let you down. Yet the real challenge, and the real sign of love, is acknowledging and finding the good in them. What are you grateful for in this person? What do you find attractive/sexy/compelling about him or her? What would your life be like without this person? Tell the person that. Even if you’re fighting. ESPECIALLY if you’re fighting! Keep doing it. You are “winning” not by hurling insults (the easy, obvious choice), but by softening the walls between you and that person.

Third, strengthen your self esteem by acknowledging and appreciating your own gifts and attributes. If someone else has an ability or quality you like, ask yourself two things. Is that a quality that I can aspire to have myself? If I worked on it, could I be congenial and sociable like Bill over there? Or is it something, like being 6’7″ tall and a pro athlete, that I’m not likely to accomplish in this lifetime? If it’s the former, then you can put your energy into developing that skill or ability. If it’s the latter, you can accept that you’re not a pro basketball player and appreciate the skills and size of your favorite NBA star. Which brings me to my forth idea.

Fourth, be happy — yes, genuinely HAPPY — for people you envy. Wish them well. Enjoy their success vicariously. Believe it or not, it makes you happier and more attractive. You’re not always resenting other people for what they have and you don’t. Instead, you are gracious and generous with your joy. What a concept!

Thanksgiving Reflections


In the face of tragedy, loss and trauma, it can be very hard to see the silver lining or be grateful for very much of anything. It may seem that we have lost so much, and that we will keep feeling the pain of loss forever. As mentioned before, sometimes we can experience extra sadness around the holidays because we are reminded of the people we no longer have on this planet, people who were close to us. The holidays are often celebrated with family and it reminds us of loneliness and heartbreak. Around this time of year I am reminded of my father’s passing, and how young he was to lose his life and vitality. At the same time, I am grateful for the relatives who are still alive, who persist in their struggles and with whom I can still experience closeness and joy.

Alternatively, for people who grew up in abusive and/or homes with addicted family members, the holidays can bring up a different kind of pain. We may be reminded of violence in our homes, seeing people hurt or neglected, or forced into situations where we felt out of control. How do we find peace when the holidays remind us of dysfunction and disconnection, you might ask.

As trite as it may sound, we can be grateful for the fact that we have survived our childhoods. We can be grateful for the wisdom that we have gained from surviving those situations. We can feel sympathy for the younger versions of ourselves who had to endure that pain, while still feeling relief that we are safer now. We have control over our lives. If someone mistreats us, we can walk away from the situation. If we can’t, we can figure out a way to do so in the future. We have more resources, physically and psychologically, to escape dysfunctional relationships and situations. We now know that we don’t deserve to be mistreated or lonely. We can make different choices that lead to better outcomes for ourselves. All these ways we empower ourselves are gifts that may not seem obvious on the surface, but we need to bear them in mind when contemplating trauma and loss. If we don’t remember that life is dynamic and flowing, and that we are not sad or scared or angry forever, we risk remaining stuck and suffering longer than we need to.

I try to make it a point to find at least five things for which I am grateful each day, throughout the year, so that Thanksgiving Day is every day. Does it work to pull me out of a bad mood 100% of the time? I wish I could say yes, but realistically it’s more like 80-90%. Nonetheless, if I don’t do it I feel despondent and cynical, and I can’t afford to do that. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “we only have moments to live.” This means that we only have the present moment to live in, and we have a choice as to whether to make that moment enjoyable, pleasant, and wholesome, or negative and depressing. Feeling gratitude and keeping that in the forefront of our minds is one way that I have found to be in a more pleasant moment.