Finding a New Self


Out of life's school of war,
what doesn't destroy me
makes me stronger.

Freidrich Nietzche

So you survived. And it indeed did not destroy you. At some point you may have the feeling that you are coming out the other end of this catastrophe, altered, but alive. In coming to this place perhaps you are coming home to yourself in an entirely new way, not looking anything like that other woman. Do you recognize you? The fire of trauma and grief may have melted and reforged you in surprising ways. One of my own journal entries from this period reflects a mix of surprised delight and sober remembrance. “Did all these things really happen to me? It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like that person died in some kind of natural disaster and this new person was born.”

So much of the time when we talk and think about people who survive trauma, we assume that they are open-endedly struggling with post-traumatic stress, and it’s quite true that at various times you may have experienced flashbacks or bad dreams about the worst parts of your partner’s death scene, suffered panic attacks, or couldn’t leave your house. That sights, or sounds, or smells reminding you of him sent you into a tail spin that lasted for days. Twenty percent of Americans face trauma in any given year. Seventy-five percent of us over our lifespans. But most traumatized individuals don’t stay stuck and only 8-12% actually ever have the symptoms of full Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, described in the Resources section of this site.

Why is that? Because we are gloriously designed to survive. When we go through a traumatic event, it becomes an existential wake up call. Hey you, wake up! Life isn’t what you thought and new rules apply. Time is short and things are so much more fragile than they appear.

As you struggle to integrate the facts that you and everyone you love truly are mortal, and vulnerable, and not in control of things, you slowly become reconfigured as a person, and you look at your relationships, your priorities, life’s meaning, and your own wisdom and strength in a new way. And one more thing- there’s no going back. We don’t so much grow from trauma, as we are transformed by it, like metal forged in a fire.

A metaphor for the experience may be the tree in a winter storm. The winds and snow blow and there are only three possibilities for this tree. Maybe it is brittle from a lack of summertime nourishment, disease, or insects. In this instance, it does not have the resiliency to survive the storm and leading branches snap off, shortening its normal lifespan and leaving it badly misshapen. The tree also might be young and very flexible, with few branches, or it might be protected from the storm because the farmer planted it in a warm valley. This tree bends in the storm, but bounced back unharmed when the winds die down. Nothing has changed. The third tree has the most interesting path. It suffers in the storm and loses important branches, but it’s planted in good soil and has loving care. It makes it through the harsh winter and in the spring, the warmth of the sun cause it to close its wounds and send out new shoots of green, searching for light. Eventually the tree is full and leafy, but its new branches twist in especially interesting and unusual ways because of the old damage, so it becomes a favorite subject for local artists and a gathering spot for young lovers and their picnics. It's beauty speaks of survivorship, and hope.

If you've worked to move forward, even through the most terrible times, you will eventually get here, and in arriving may have the fruits of post-traumatic growth; a new way of relating to others, a sense of new possibilities in your own life, a greater understanding of your personal strength, some form of spiritual transformation, and a genuine appreciation for life that you may not have felt before.

How many of these statements do you agree with? They are part of the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, and if you agree with many of them, it may mean that this tragedy has changed you in important ways. 

  • I changed my priorities about what is important in life.
  • I have a greater appreciation for the value of my own life.
  • I developed new interests.
  • I have a greater feeling of self-reliance.
  • I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.
  • I more clearly see that I can count on people in times of trouble.
  • I established a new path for my life.
  • I have a greater sense of closeness with others.
  • I am more willing to express my emotions
  • I know better that I can handle difficulties.
  • I am able to do better things with my life.
  • I am better able to accept the way things work out.
  • I can better appreciate each day.
  • New opportunities are available which wouldn't have been otherwise.
  • I have more compassion for others.
  • I put more effort into my relationships.
  • I am more likely to try to change things which need changing.
  • I have a stronger religious faith.
  • I discovered that I'm stronger than I thought I was.
  • I learned a great deal about how wonderful people are.
  • I better accept needing others.

Learn more about post-traumatic growth in Dr. Stephen Joseph's book, What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth and see a TED talk about trauma, change and resiliency by Dr. Meagan McElheran, who asserts that those of us who have experienced great loss, not only strive to survive, but, in the long run, most magnificently, strive to thrive. My prayers and best hopes for your continued healing. And don't stop seeking the light. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, in letting go of who you were, you become who you might be. And that, at last, is finding up.