NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Post-Traumatic Growth: Finding Personal Meaning in Your Life After Trauma

In my prior article, Coping With Psychological Trauma and Asking "Why Me?"," I discussed how people who are experiencing trauma can go through a stage where they feel that it's unfair that they're experiencing trauma.  In the scenario that I gave, I also discussed how psychotherapy can help people find personal meaning in their emotional pain--even while they're going through it (see my article: A Search For a Meaningful Life).

Finding Personal Meaning in Your Life After Trauma

Finding personal meaning in trauma often comes when time has passed and people have developed some level of acceptance, if not complete acceptance, about the trauma.  This doesn't mean that they're not sad or angry or that they're still not traumatized.

Clinical Vignette
In the fictionalized scenario that I gave in the prior article, Jane began trauma therapy to deal with the loss of her husband, who died in a fatal car accident.

Like many people who start therapy after a traumatic loss, Jane wasn't sure that she would benefit at all from therapy and she couldn't imagine that she could ever feel any better about her husband's death (see my article: The Benefits of Therapy).

However, her trauma therapist introduced her to EMDR therapy, a therapy that is usually effective in helping people to overcome trauma and, gradually, Jane realized that her emotional pain was starting to diminish.

As her pain began to diminish, she began thinking that she would like "something good" to come out of her loss, but she wasn't sure what it could be at that point.

This is a stage that many people go through as they attempt to find meaning in their psychological pain.

Let's continue to look at Jane's story, which is common to many people trying to find personal meaning in their pain and loss.

As Jane felt a strong urge to find personal meaning in her experience of having lost her husband, she and her therapist began to explore what might be meaningful for Jane (see my article: Coping With Grief).

There were still days when Jane felt discouraged, and there was an inner negative voice that told her she wasn't going to find anything meaningful about her loss so it was useless to try (see my article: Making Changes: Overcoming the Inner Voice of Negative Prediction).

But over the weeks and months that followed, she was having more days when she felt she wanted to channel her energy into something positive and life affirming.

When she thought about how she spent most of her days at work, she realized that she no longer liked her work as a corporate executive.  She was well compensated and she liked her colleagues, but she didn't find the work meaningful.

Initially, even thinking about making a change was scary for her.  Her current career was all that she knew.  She had worked her way up from an entry level to an executive position.  She didn't feel qualified to do anything else.

As part of her grief work, Jane was part of a bereavement group.  She liked the group members and she derived a tremendous amount of support.

Several months later, it occurred to Jane that she would like to "give back" by helping others who were going through experiences that were similar to her own.

As Jane and her therapist explored various possibilities, Jane looked into getting a Master's degree in social work.

She looked into the various schools and their requirements and became excited about the possibility of making a career change.

At the same time that she was excited, she was also scared about making such a big change.  A career in social work would be completely different from what she had done for most of her adult life.

She was aware that she would earn a fraction of what she was currently earning, but she was fortunate to be in a financial position to take such a cut.

She was also aware that it would be a complete change in the way that she saw herself.  At the same time, as she took stock of her life, she knew her current career was no longer satisfying to her.

In addition, Jane knew that her parents and siblings wouldn't understand why she was making such a drastic change in her life.

She knew that her mother, especially, often bragged to her friends that Jane was a successful executive and that she would think that Jane was making a terrible mistake by becoming a social worker.  In her mother's mind, there was no prestige in being a social worker.  So, Jane decided to keep her thoughts about changing careers to herself for the time being.

She took one step at a time by talking to her therapist, who was a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, about it.  She also spoke to other social workers to find out more about the field and the possibilities.

When she was ready, she sent several applications to graduate social work programs in NYC, hoping to get into one of them.  In the meantime, she continued working at her current job.

To her disappointment, she wasn't accepted into any of the graduate programs.  But several of them suggested that she could improve her chances of getting in by doing volunteer work at a social services organization.

Asking around, she discovered that there were volunteer positions open at a different nonprofit organization that held bereavement groups that were lead by trained facilitators.  After training for a few weeks, she observed a seasoned volunteer facilitator lead a group.  Eventually, she was given her own group to facilitate.

Jane enjoyed leading the group and found the experience to be personally meaningful to her.  She also discovered that many of the issues that people raised in the group, not surprisingly, were issues that she was struggling with at the same time.

Fortunately, she was able to talk to her therapist about this in her own individual therapy, so she could listen to group members and not feel flooded by her own feelings.

The following year, when she reapplied to social work graduate programs and wrote about her experiences as a bereavement group facilitator, she was thrilled to be accepted into two programs.

Jane decided to go to the program where she could attend classes part time on Saturday so she could continue to work at her current job.

She loved most of the classes, her professors and her fellow students.  She discovered that many of the students in this part time graduate program were also undergoing a career change.

She and several other students got together after class to talk about the challenges involved with changing careers.  Some of them were in similar careers to Jane's.  After a while, they became a support network for each other.

When it was time for Jane to do her first internship, she knew she would have to talk to her boss about rearranging her work schedule.  Until then, she hadn't told anyone at work or in her family that she was attending social work graduate school.

Initially, her boss was stunned and he laughed.  He thought she was joking, but when he saw that Jane was serious, he told her that there was no way that they could spare her during the day.

He said it was "all well and good" if she wanted to spend her own time on Saturdays to take classes, but they would need her to be present for meetings and conference calls during the day.  He told her that she was a highly valued executive at the firm, but he also hinted that if she wasn't continuing to bring in revenue as she had been until now, it would be reflected in her next bonus.

Jane was disappointed as she walked back to her office.  She knew that her company had made generous contributions to many nonprofit organizations, and she thought her boss might be somewhat open to her rearranging her schedule as long as she continued to meet her goals.  But his response left her feeling cynical about him and the company.

With only a few months to go before she had to start her first internship, Jane talked about it with her therapist.

Money wasn't an issue.  The real issue was:  Could she leave her job after so many years to pursue a career in social work?  She knew that this would have been a decision she would have had to make eventually, but she didn't think she would be facing it so soon.  She had hoped that she would have more time to deal with this.

As she continued to discuss this possible change, she realized how identified she had been for so many years with her career.  It had been fulfilling to her--until now.  At this point, it was increasingly meaningless to her.  At the same time, although it was no longer fulfilling, she felt secure in it.  It was the only career that she knew.

Then, she thought about all the changes that she had made since her husband died, how difficult it had been--and yet, she was doing better.  Her desire to change careers from the corporate world to the social work world was part of those changes.

At one point, she wondered aloud in her therapy, "What would my husband advise me to do?"  Then, she knew instantly that he would tell her to "Go for it!"

Moved to tears by how much she missed him and the memory of his unwavering encouragement, Jane decided that if she had to quit her job in order to do an internship, she would do it.

The following week when she met with her boss again, Jane told him about her decision.  This time her boss, knowing that Jane was completely serious, didn't laugh.  Instead, he tried to persuade her to change her mind, "Think about what you're giving up?  You've worked so hard to get to where you are now.  Why would you throw it all away?  We don't want to lose you.  You're one of the best producers in the company. What can I say to make you stay?"

By the end of their discussion, they compromised.  At her boss's suggestion, she agreed to take a personal leave of absence instead of quitting.  Jane's projects were transferred to a colleague and she was ready to begin her first internship.

After she met the senior clinician who would be supervising her internship at a nonprofit counseling center, Jane knew that she found her niche.

Throughout this time, Jane continued to attend her therapy sessions to help her manage all the changes that she was going through.

The next change, talking to her family about her career change, would be one of the more difficult ones, which I'll discuss in my next article.

Many people who experience trauma have a desire to find personal meaning in their life.

This can begin an exploration, often in therapy, about what would be personally meaningful.

Often, this exploration can lead to personal changes, including changes in how people see themselves, their worldview and what they find meaningful in their lives.

Although it can be challenging, finding personal meaning after trauma can also lead to living life in a deeper, more fulfilling way.

Getting Help in Therapy
Self-exploration is part of psychotherapy.

Finding personal meaning after trauma is a journey, and a skilled psychotherapist can help to facilitate that process.

If you're currently reexamining your life, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you through this process so that you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to discover what is personally meaningful to them and to make the necessary changes to lead a more fulfilling life.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.