Once you endure major trauma, you will change as a person–that much is certain. And while you didn’t choose your trauma or the potential negative impact that it had on you, you do get to decide what you’ll do next. That’s the beauty of both liminality, and the post traumatic growth it leads to.
How trauma changes us
I am a trauma survivor. In October of 2016, I survived an assault, and prior to that, I’d undergone a very substantial amount of trauma during my childhood and teen years that had already left me with a diagnosis of PTSD.
In my life, I have met a lot of other people who have survived trauma, and what always strikes me about these individuals is the resiliency and wisdom that they carry.
I have met people who are extraordinarily happy despite having been through tremendous amounts of trauma; at the same time, I have met people who identify with no substantial hardship, who feel as though life is happening to them, they’re trapped, or they are just generally unhappy.
That said, there is no value judgement on whether or not we’ve experienced trauma. We all have our own path, and you don’t have to go through tragedy to suffer or to grow.
But while trauma is not a virtue, it can be a unique teacher–of very important lessons that all of us need to learn, trauma or not. Many survivors take these lessons from their life circumstances or from piecing themselves back together after threatening or painful experiences.
What is post traumatic growth?
Post-traumatic growth (or PTG) is a positive form of psychological growth or change that occurs in an individual following trauma. This trauma can be complex, or it can follow an emotional “sentinel event” that forces you to shift your way of living. The theory of post traumatic growth promotes the possibility that after trauma, a person can reconstruct their sense of themselves, others, and the world around them to be more helpful and optimistic than even before the trauma.
We often hear about people who come into peace, develop a new sense of confidence, go through a spiritual awakening, or have a new appreciation for life after experiencing a traumatic event. All of these experiences could be considered post-traumatic growth.
The five areas of post traumatic growth
Developed in the 1990s, the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory was built to measure positive outcomes that can occur for people post-trauma. The inventory contains 21 questions that relate to the following five areas which show most potential for growth after trauma:
- Personal strength and confidence
- Openness to new possibilities
- Relationships with others
- Appreciation of life
- Spiritual change
Not everyone who survives trauma experiences post-traumatic growth, but research has shown that those who have undergone trauma are more likely to experience these types of positive growth, than those who haven’t. Nobody thinks trauma is a good thing; but post-traumatic growth opportunities can be seen as proof of your own resilience after going through such pain.
Another way to look at it: proof of your own strength
As someone who has undergone it myself, the way that I like to view post-traumatic growth is that the growth you experience isn’t something that the trauma gave to you; rather, it’s something that you give to yourself and that trauma simply allowed you to do.
Post-traumatic growth is the process of focusing not on the helpless feeling of trauma, but instead, focusing on what you can do for yourself after the fact. It’s your opportunity for self-directed reclamation.
That said, post-traumatic growth doesn’t develop overnight after a trauma. All forms of growth take time, and this time can be painful. The time between a traumatic event and the realization of post-traumatic growth is called liminal space.
Ok, so what is liminal space?
There is a space between trauma and the eventual feeling of growth from it; that period, from point A to point B, is called the liminal period, also referred to as liminal space.
It’s a chrysalis-like stage; and while it may be corny to say that things have to get worse before they get better, it’s often true.
The word “liminality” refers to a transitional state of being, or a transitional period of time in one’s life. In regard to trauma, this is really the “hard part,” where a survivor must open themselves to realization, recalibration, and rebuilding in order to heal.
When talking about trauma specifically, liminality or liminal space relate to the often uncomfortable stage of time between the period where the trauma takes place and the time before post-traumatic growth is fully-fledged, or has begun at all.
It’s a chrysalis-like stage; and while it may be corny to say that things have to get worse before they get better, it’s often true.
Why is the transitional or liminal period so painful?
The work done in a liminal space is that of accepting a new perspective on the world–and for some, living in a liminal space may feel too hard to bear.
As we discuss the topic of post-traumatic growth, it’s vital to talk about liminal space. It’s so crucial to acknowledge this time because we can’t expect ourselves to heal overnight. Even though it feels like the pain should be over once the traumatic event ends, we have to mourn and rearrange the scraps of our lives before we can start anew.
Recognizing liminality as temporary
Depending on what kind of trauma you went through, there is a lot of work to do before you can really process what happened. That could be paperwork, police reports, cleaning out a deceased loved one’s house, moving to a new place, or just scrambling to survive and pay the bills.
When you finally do get a break from all of that, you are tired. You’re exhausted from all of the tangible, physical things that you’ve had to complete, many of which are so heart-wrenching that no one should ever have to do them. You had to do these things, with the crushing weight of trauma on top of you. So when they’re done, you crash, and all of the feelings that you were too busy to process begin to hit.
After trauma, that time of tiredness and mourning characterizes liminality. It’s a strange and tumultuous time, but it’s valuable. And although it is a sensitive and unsure state to be in, it won’t last forever.
Liminal opportunities for growth
The liminal space between trauma and post traumatic growth is both uncomfortable and necessary for a new beginning. Liminal periods in life are opportunities to look at where you’ve been and decide how to move forward. It’s your chance to put things in perspective and decide who you’ll be from now on.
You aren’t obligated to be solely positive right now; it’s expected that you feel your feelings, and it’s healthy to do so. But remember that this difficult time is something you can work with. With respect to all of the pain it comes with, liminality does mark a time of opportunity in the purest sense of the term.
Looking forward while respecting your trauma
Post-traumatic growth adds a whole new dimension to the idea of “growing pains.” It’s not something to force along, and it’s also not about putting on a happy face all of the time. You don’t owe that to anyone, nor will it help you.
Post-traumatic growth, and having a positive outlook in general, doesn’t mean forgetting your trauma, dismissing it, or painting something awful that happened to you in a totally optimistic light.
Growth can coexist with the fact that what happened to you sucked. You don’t even have to believe that it happened for a reason to take something positive from it.
Ultimately, the people who assaulted me are not the ones to thank; I am.
As mentioned earlier, tragedy and pain aren’t required for us to grow and shape our lives more consciously. However, trauma often teaches us that we have only one life to live. In the case of some traumatic events, you do have a brush with death in a very literal sense, but with other forms of trauma, that’s not the case.
Whether your trauma is physical, mental, emotional, or all three, it does typically come with some sense of loss. Whether that’s the loss of your old routines, an important relationship, your innocence, or who you used to be, your loss is valid, and will come with a multitude of feelings and life changes. What you’re experiencing is real and deserves to be recognized–please don’t let anyone make you feel anything less than validated in your pain.
Tip: give yourself credit
As someone who has experienced post-traumatic growth myself, I find it helpful to distinguish myself from my trauma when I talk about these things. Instead of chalking my growth up to what happened to me, I give myself the credit for my growth.
Ultimately, the people who assaulted me are not the ones to thank; I am. Before my trauma, I couldn’t give myself that kind of credit. As many of us are, I was shy to credit myself or proclaim what I liked about myself. But since my trauma, I have learned the value of being able to recognize myself, especially when it comes to personal development and growth.
Post traumatic growth allowed my outlook and personality to change substantially, allowing me to be more generous and kind toward myself. Framing it this way is something that allows me to respect my trauma and use it to be stronger and more resilient at the same time.
Ways to ease the pain so you can start to grow
Trauma has a way of making you realize that life is something to be cherished. You will grow as you process trauma, but you might also cry. A lot.
You might mourn silently, or you might spend weeks or months staying stagnant in a cocoon-like state. Maybe that’s what you have to do.
At the very least, you have to experience your emotions, you have to grieve, and you have to rest. Both the pain and the payoff are important, and healing from trauma shouldn’t be a battle between optimism and negativity. It’s ok to feel all of the things that you’re going through right now. These feelings are simple facts of your reality, and you don’t need to change or power through them. But some steps may be necessary so that you can experience the growth trauma may unlock.
Here are some tools that you can use to grow, work through the liminal space, and feel your feelings all at once.
In therapy, we often talk about radical acceptance, and when we talk about radical acceptance, we’re generally referring to learning to accept what we can’t change about ourselves. It doesn’t mean we like what we can’t change; it just means that we won’t vie for control that we don’t have.
Radical acceptance is about focusing on what is in our power, and changing that–rather than wrestling with the inevitable, which only leaves us feeling hopeless. During the liminal period, we don’t always feel powerful, but we are. This is where you start creating your life’s map. This is where you let go of all of the arbitrary restrictions holding you back and decide that you’re going to live your life to the fullest, whatever that means for you.
I was a mess when I was living in the liminal space. From the outside looking in, I’m not sure that the people around me thought that I was going to be okay. I reflect on who I was during that time in my life and see that I was a determined person who was rapidly growing despite how I appeared to those around me. Those around me hadn’t experienced what I did, and I had to remind myself that I knew my own perspective best.
Be gentle with yourself, and understand that growth, like healing, is not linear.
Inner child work
Inner child work can be incredibly important post-trauma, because it’s all about how you treat yourself. It helps to imagine your inner child, as a template to be gentle with yourself the way that you would be with a child. After trauma, we are like children, in that we’re just learning to live in a world that feels very new. To do work with your inner child, you can imagine how you’d treat a little cousin, or even yourself as a child, in this situation.
Give yourself the same compassion that you would give to a little kid who is hurting. How would you help them feel as safe as possible right now? Inner child work is something that you can do in therapy, or at least start on in therapy, and it’s also something that you can do the bulk of yourself.
Sometimes, there’s no better form of support than from people who have been there themselves. You can find people online (anonymously, like here at Supportiv) or in your area that have been through similar forms of trauma to talk to. You can also come to supportive friends or family members. Tell them what you’re struggling with and where you’d ultimately like to be. Let them be there for you, and thank the people around you that make an effort to understand.
One of the first things that I did after I started to move out of the liminal space was ask my doctor for a referral to see a therapist. I didn’t necessarily know what my goals were in therapy, but having been through trauma previously, I knew that therapy was something that could help me. It did. I had an excellent trauma-informed therapist, which is exactly what I recommend looking for if you are healing from trauma.
Now is the time to think about what you want (and deserve)
Your actions and the ability to change your life are in your hands, so take this time to think about what you truly need to feel whole. Think about who you want to be.
My post-traumatic growth looked like this–I gained:
- the ability to stand up for myself,
- a heightened sense of humility that allowed me to apologize with ease, and
- the realization that I could make a difference in the world.
I always believed that every single person had power, but before my trauma, I couldn’t seem to extend that to myself. After trauma, I realized I deserved more; I became confident and started believing in myself.
Trauma made me realize I could’ve lost it all by dismissing my own needs–and that motivated me to learn to put myself first.
Your post-traumatic growth may not look like mine. It’s different for everyone. But ultimately, growing through trauma means asking yourself, “What am I going to do for myself now? How can I be the best person that I can be, for my own sake?”
Post-traumatic growth not only creates an opportunity for positive change, but it shows you that you can change, period. Our lives are meant to be spent evolving, and trauma can clarify how unbounded your growth capacity really is.
You get to keep growing for the rest of your life if you choose to do so. The pain of trauma is a loss, but it also spurs a beginning. What will you do with it?