Mind & Body

Brene Brown talked about vulnerability. Now it’s time to talk about trauma


Brene Brown made talking about vulnerability a vital part of our lives. Now Dr Sarah Woodhouse is going to do the same for trauma. In this edited extract from her book You’re Not Broken, she explores growth and resilience and lets you know one important fact: there’s nothing wrong with you.

You’ve been through a lot in your life. You’ve had some difficult experiences. Some of these experiences may have been traumatic. But hear this: there’s nothing wrong with you.

There’s an unbreakable centre in all of us, sitting underneath all our reactions. It sits under your thinking and behaviour, under your ego and external identity. Some of you reading this will have been given a diagnosis before. Perhaps you’ve been told you have depression, or anxiety. Perhaps some of you have PTSD. I need to be very clear that I am not disputing the diagnoses. What I’m disputing is the idea that there’s anything wrong with you – there isn’t. At the core of you is something strong and beautiful.

Traumatic reactions disconnect us from the parts of ourselves that are supposed to take the lead in creating our lives. They disconnect us from our unbreakable core – the beautiful, universal, essential part of each of us. They separate us from our wisest, instinctual higher self, and from our worth, our purpose and our sense of belonging. They detach us from our sense of identity; from our under-standing of who we are and why we’re here. They uncouple us from our body and from the much- needed sense of presence and grounding that our body provides. They also disconnect us from our social self and our understanding of who we are in relation to other people. Our entire being can feel fragile, dispersed and out of reach.

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What are growth and resilience?

Okay. Relax. Breathe easy. Here we’re going to look forward to the solution. Although it’s not all unicorns and rainbows, there’s no more heavy trauma chat. We’re going to consider post- traumatic growth, spirituality, respectful relationships, resilience and the growth mindset (whatever that is!). So, admittedly, no unicorns but it’s 100 per cent solution-focused.

Post-traumatic growth

Have you heard of post- traumatic growth? It’s a beautiful concept and can be seen in millions of people around the world. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) describes people who experience trauma and then, in one way or another, thrive. People who don’t take the traumatic experience as proof that they’re damaged, but instead take it as proof that they’re survivors. People who reconnect to their unbreakable core and higher self. People who build strong, resilient, positive identities in the face of great hardship and challenge. They rise up out of their reactions and patterns. The trauma itself becomes the motivation for growth and success. It puts fire in their belly and a determination not just to overcome, but to move forward into something beautiful. To transform.

This isn’t just about the big names, well known for having overcome traumatic childhoods – people like Charlize Theron, Kelsey Grammer, Oprah Winfrey, Christina Aguilera and Curtis Jackson (50 Cent), who between them overcame abusive families, family tragedy, poverty, sexual assault and drugs. It’s not just about people who live abundant lives of private jets and bejewelled swimming pools (I don’t know if Oprah Winfrey has a bejewelled pool, but I’d like to think so!). This is about all kinds of people who transform from and through their trauma.

Some – like the household names I’ve just mentioned – are so driven, so determined to rise above what they were handed, that they fly high and keep on going. The big names I’ve mentioned went all the way to the top despite their trauma. For others, it’s about having joyful relationships despite carrying relational trauma. Feeling peace and contentment despite coming from chaotic, abusive families. Running a successful business. Feeling strong and self- assured. Being able to feel joy and happiness. The outcome isn’t always tangible (e.g. that bejewelled swimming pool), but the outcome always involves positive transformation.

People who experience growth after a traumatic experience also experience overwhelm, self-doubt and fear. They also experience traumatic reactions. They may also be diagnosed with PTSD. They don’t skip away from the traumatic experience with no traumatic reaction. They grow despite the traumatic reaction. This is what post- traumatic growth is – the extent to which someone experiences growth after trauma. I’ve grown. You’ve grown. Oprah Winfrey has grown, a lot. We can all grow more.

When growth after trauma is measured we ask how much people agree with statements such as:

  • I am better able to accept the way things work out.
  • I can better appreciate each day.
  • I can better accept needing others.
  • I have a greater sense of closeness with others.
  • I am more willing to express my emotions.
  • I changed my priorities about what is important in life.
  • I established a new path for my life.
  • I am more likely to try to change things which need changing.
  • I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was.
  • I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.

People who strongly agree with these kinds of statements have high post-traumatic growth, so the statements tell us a lot about what we’re aiming for. They show us that developing a greater appreciation for life and for ourselves; developing respectful, close relationships and being emotionally open with others; opening up to new possibilities and finding a new life path; recognising and reconnecting to our strength and exploring spiritual beliefs will help us transform through our trauma.

This is an edited extract from You’re Not Broken (Penguin Random House Australia, $32.99) by Dr Sarah Woodhouse. Available today, March 30.

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467. In an emergency please call 000.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue SupportService – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.