Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs
I haven’t been able to focus as much recently on sharing books here as I have in the past, but I wanted to share Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs from Dr. Michaela Haas, because I feel it is such an empowering book – for everyone, but particularly for trauma survivors, and that includes sexual trauma survivors, of which I know I have many who read this blog. Bouncing Forward is focused on the idea of post-traumatic growth – the ways in which it is actually possible for individuals to grow and develop in positive ways in the aftermath of trauma, not just ‘survive.’ A growing body of research is focused on what conditions help to make this possible, and how we might support ourselves and others in doing so.
The book takes its title from Maya Angelou, who when asked how she rose above the many hardships of her life – including being raped at the age of 8 – described her journey as “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.” Ms. Angelou is one of many inspiring and fascinating individuals interviewed in the book, which also features jazz legend and Auschwitz survivor Coco Schumann, Brigadier General and first Iraq war prisoner Rhonda Cornum, animal behaviorist and autistic author Temple Grandin, co-founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Cindi Lamb, and several more.
These interviews are organized in such a way as to each highlight a particular trait or practice which has been shown in studies to contribute to post-traumatic growth. According to Dr. Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist focused on this field, many trauma survivors report growth in one or more of five key areas – personal strength, deeper relationships with others, new perspectives on life, appreciation for life, and spirituality. In addition to highlighting Dr. Tedeschi’s research and the interviews with survivors, Dr. Haas covers the work of other researchers focused on trauma, shares her own personal story of trauma and growth, and includes tools for building resilience within one’s own life. This makes the book a unique blend of social research, biography, memoir, and personal development guide, and for this reason I think it will be helpful and interesting to almost anyone – especially since almost all of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives, or will know someone who does.
When I first heard of the concept of post-traumatic growth I worried it was yet another way to make trauma survivors feel guilty for their pain, or to push them to ‘move on already.’ This is a message that sexual trauma survivors in particular often receive, in addition to the messages of “it’s your fault” and “stay silent.” Often survivors will stay silent for years, sharing their trauma with no one, while it eats away inside them contributing to emotional and physical problems. But Dr. Haas makes it clear that repression or forced positivity is not at all what post-traumatic growth is about, saying “Before we can overcome suffering, we need to go through it” and:
“When someone is drowning, they need a lifeline, not a swimming lesson. There are traumatic events where the mere suggestion that growth can result from it may seem naive or insulting. Often, time needs to pass before a survivor is open to the idea…But at some point, the survivor might feel the urge to learn to swim through the grief, and then these strategies become very helpful.”
She points out that in the West we compartmentalize suffering, designating it to hospitals, hospices and homeless shelters. This creates an environment in which we are so uncomfortable with both our own and others’ suffering that we do not know how to meet it when it arises. But it is of course always around us, “already here”, as she puts it. If this view sounds Buddhist that’s because the Buddhist approach to suffering does share many similarities to findings about resilience and post-traumatic growth. As a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, Dr. Haas highlights some of these similarities, and uses examples from her own meditation practice to describe how practices such as meditation can help someone move into a new relationship with suffering.
One of the main messages that shines through all of the interviews and the research featured in Bouncing Forward is how important it is for a trauma survivor to feel support and hope that happiness is possible again. While our increased understanding of PTSD and its treatments has been vital to helping many survivors through their ordeal, the focus on PTSD as the only possible outcome of trauma provides survivors a limited view of how their lives might unfold in the aftermath. It’s important to look at the whole picture:
“Depending on the circumstances, Dr. Tedeschi estimates that as many as 30 to 70 – in some instances even up to 90 – percent of survivors generally experience at least one aspect of postraumatic growth…Contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. It is vital to look closely: while most people will suffer from posttraumatic stress in the aftermath of trauma, few will develop full-blown PTSD, and even of those, most will heal with therapy and time.”
This information is not meant to diminish the very real suffering of PTSD, but instead to empower individuals with the knowledge that moving beyond it is possible, that the ability to do so can be developed over time through specific methods, and that they may not only survive but thrive – as the individuals featured within this book are a testament too. It’s a message of hope, but of hope grounded in social research, personal stories, and backed up with specific suggestions for how to enable such growth.
In later chapters the book moves into a larger look at resilience, and the importance of focusing not only on suffering and helping people through the worst of it, but also on the human capacity for growth and change. Ann Masten, a researcher at the University of Minnesota focused on childhood abuse and its impact, puts it this way:
“We focused on the gloomy for such a long time. It really bothers me that when people hear about the evidence for trauma, child abuse, and in utero exposure to alcohol, they assume, ‘Oh, I must be totally damaged.’ People pick up on this idea, but there are many opportunities for reprogramming in the course of life. Resilience does not mean you don’t have any scars, but I am continuously amazed by the human ability to reinvent ourselves.”
In the Epilogue to Bouncing Forward, Dr. Haas features “Five Exercises for Cultivating Courage in the Face of Adversity”, which includes meditation. She offers simple instructions and research to back up the claims of each methods’ benefits.
Overall, I found this book both inspiring and informative, and if you are a trauma survivor, I think you will too. You can find it at Amazon here.
P.S. Dr. Haas is also the author of Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, which I also featured here, and which is another favorite of mine. If you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and/or women’s spiritual biographies, it’s a must read!