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Becoming A Resilient Survivor: How Recovery from Emotional Trauma Can Lead To New Strengths and Wisdom

by Al Siebert, PhD, Director, The Resiliency Center

Adapted from The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks by Al Siebert, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Anyone who survives a highly distressing experience will never be the same again. Some survivors remain emotionally wounded for life. They relive and re-experience distressing moments over and over. They often dwell on fears about what could happen to them again or to others.

Many survivors recover fairly well with the help of their family and friends. A few go beyond recovery, however. In their struggle to heal and put their past behind them, they grow and become even better than they were before. They become transformed in ways they value.

Every transformational journey is unique, but heroic survivors have two things in common. First, they integrate the traumatic experience into their public identity and make the experience a defining part of their life story. Second, they talk or write about it in a way that has an inspiring effect on others.

The transformational process of recovery from deeply distressing, traumatic experiences takes many months or years and usually proceeds through these phases:

Into the Fire: Reliving the Fears and Memories

  • Your effort to suppress the painful memories and feelings is not working. You have not been able to make the feelings and memories go away. You tried to keep your feelings secret, you didn't tell anyone. You avoided situations that might stir up the feelings and memories. You may have attempted to deaden the pain with medications, drugs, and alcohol. Are easily upset by certain statements made by others. You have flashbacks. You wonder "Why me?" You have tried to fake being "normal." You feel isolated, lonely, and have few close relationships.

  • You take the courageous step to relive your traumatic experiences with a friend, a counselor, or a support group of people who have been through similar experiences. Painful memories and feelings get uncorked. You have nightmares. You feel like you are falling into a bottomless well. You find yourself reliving the experience during conversations, at movies, in the store, almost any place. You wish you never started this.

Taking Control Phase: Wrestling for Control of Your Spirit

  • You repeat, relive, and talk about the experience again and again with good listeners. You write about your feelings in a journal. You discover after awhile that you can tell a shorter version, a summary of what happened with less emotional pain. You feel moments of relief. You sleep and feel better. You notice that there is something freeing from knowing that other people know what you went through and care for you.

  • You begin to observe yourself more than ever before. You face your fears. You question your erroneous beliefs and assumptions. You discover that you are not as responsible for what happened as you always believed. You struggle to break free from old emotional habits. You defiantly build positive self-regard. You experience breakthrough insights into yourself and others. You give up old scripts, "games" and ways of manipulating people. You feel embarrassed about what you used to do, but also feel happy about what you are learning about yourself. You see some positive aspects, some benefits from going through all this.

  • You dismiss suggestions that you forgive the offender/perpetrator (if any). You still feel angry. you do not want to forgive. You may want revenge, punishment, justice. You may need to take some action to confront, report, publicize, or resolve what happened.

  • Transition Phase: Awkward Efforts in Unfamiliar TerritoryYou regress, slide back, or repeat an old pattern you thought you'd left behind. You find that old mental and emotional habits are hard to break. You accept that you are human, forgive yourself, and start over again.

  • You decide that for your own well being you will to try to forgive, but are very clear this does not mean condoning, approving, or excusing what happened. You don't try to forgive because others say you should. You will forgive only when you feel ready, if you ever do.

  • You experiment telling your story to others outside your support group and circle of closest friends. You discover that many people either cannot handle listening for more than short time or become overly sympathetic and distraught about what you went through. Both kinds of listeners have to be coped with, are dissatisfying to talk with. You face a new challenge, that of learning to develop conscious choices about who you tell about your past, when, and how much you say.

  • You struggle with assimilating your traumatic experience into your identity. How do you deal with people who label you by your experience?

  • You ask yourself "Is there a gift in this? A blessing?"

Learn to Deal With Poor Listeners

Many who inquire about your experience become people you have to cope with. Some people ask what it was like for you, but cannot handle listening for more than several minute; they walk away or interrupt to express their opinions. Other people become overly sympathetic and distraught if you tell them about what you went through. To handle questioners well, it is useful to develop the ability to choose to:
  1. not talk about your experience even when asked.
  2. give a short, "Reader's Digest" summary and then change the subject.
  3. talk in detail with the rare person who is sincerely interested, will take time to listen, and is a good listener.

Speaking With Wisdom, Not Pain

  • You find that you can have two sets of feelings about what you went through. You can have both negative feelings and positive feelings. The counter-balance to painful memories is finding a positive meaning in what you'd been through (like Dr. Viktor Frankl) and discovering a new, positive life purpose.

  • You notice that you have more self-confidence and better judgment than before. Your relationships improve.

  • You make yourself available to others who are just starting to deal with similar traumatic experiences. You are able to listen to them without falling back into your old pain. You encourage and coach them without trying to rescue them. You can talk about what you did and what you learned in a way useful to them.

  • You talk with various people about your healing process and your learnings in away that does not subject listeners to the pain or distress you went through. You can talk about your experiences as an observer and learner. You confess mistakes, bad judgment, weaknesses, and laugh at yourself. Now when you tell your story, you do so without re-experiencing strong distress. When you tell your story you do so for the benefit of others to inspire and encourage them.

  • You discover that you have valuable messages for a wider audience, that you have acquired important learnings in the school of life that you want to share with people facing many kinds of difficulties. You realize that without the traumatic experiences you would never have accomplished so much beneficial personal growth. You appreciate that you have managed to convert misfortune into good luck.

  • You find your voice. You talk to groups about your experience and what you learned. You may write an article. You may think of writing a book about how the worst thing that ever happened in your life was also the best thing that ever happened. You want others to know that something very good can come out of something very bad.

  • You work at making your story of your experience and your healing journey a small part of your larger identity. You avoid letting your experience become your primary identity in your own mind, even though it may be how others often refer to you.

  • You find that you are immune from opinions, comments, and statements that used to upset you. You connect with other survivors who have been through their own transformative journey. You appreciate and validate each other's spirit.

  • You discover at times that you've gone many days without thinking of the traumatic experience or your long healing journey. You appreciate that your emotional wounds have healed, that you are free from what happened, and that your recovery struggle changed you into a better person than you were before.

Become an Inspiring Role Model for Others

  • You offer your strength and insights to others who are struggling with their pain, anguish, traumas, and crises. You can stay calm and keep your attention on others in distress without having your painful memories stirred up. Your presence is helpful to others who see you as a role model and as proof that a person can heal and be happy again.

  • You may decide to write a book or create a website with valuable resources. You have the courage and strength to relive all your experiences as you write in ways that inspire others to cope with their challenges.


The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Bollingen Series/Princeton University Press.

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. Washington Square Press.

"Surviving Being a Survivor," Chapter 18 in The Survivor Personality, by Al Siebert, Ph.D. Berkley/Perigee Books.

Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis, by Richard Tedeschi, Crystal Park, & Lawrence Calhoun (Eds.) Jossey-Bass.

Al Siebert has studied mental health for over thirty years. He is the Director of The Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality.

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