Growth is real or rationalized depending on how you respond
It was like discovering a new world. How had I never experienced this before?
In the spring of 2017, I found myself in the aftermath of a traumatic event. It was intense. I wanted to alleviate the pain, of course, but I just didn’t know how. I was lost. And in short of any answers, I hoped I could just wait it out.
But the days went by, and it didn’t get any better. It actually felt like it got worse. And at one point, it almost felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. Instead of giving in, however, this pushed me start looking for answers. I couldn’t wait around anymore; too painful.
I began to search the internet for how to deal with my problems. And eventually, I stumbled onto articles on psychology, philosophy and life advice in general.
I had never read about such things before, but I could feel the effects it had on me. It was like getting in touch with new world, one which slowly transformed my old.
It was still a struggle though, but day by day I got better. And I started to apply other means to transform myself as well. Several months later, my life looked a lot different. I felt better than ever before; like I had grown from all this pain.
Post Traumatic Growth Is Appealing
My story fits well with how we tend to romanticize pain. Phrases like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” echoes through our culture, and it’s almost like we view it as necessary for our personal evolution.
There’s truth to such claims though, because pain can indeed be a driver of growth. However, it’s far less common that we like to think. Few people actually become stronger. Some are broken. And the majority only thinks they’ve grown because of it.
Psychologists call it post traumatic growth: the idea that adversity can trigger positive functioning — manifested in such areas as personal strength and closer relationships. They also emphasize that positive growth isn’t the result of any event per se, but of the struggle that comes with it.
It’s appealing. With the chance of growing through it, pain becomes significantly more meaningful. And indeed, if you were to ask people in the aftermath of a trauma, many would say they’ve experienced a meaningful growth because of it.
But you shouldn't belive everything that people say — especially when they shouldn’t belive it themselves. There’s a difference between thinking you’ve grown and actually growing. Perceived growth isn’t genuine growth.
The Comfort of a Lie
The things you see, hear or even taste, is not objective truth, but colored by what you pay attention to. Perception isn’t reality. While many people seem to recognize this fact, my experience is that people tend to forget it applies to themselves. It’s understandable though, I forget it too.
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” — C.S. Lewis
In particular, people become extremely forgetful of this when pain or trauma is involved. But it isn’t that surprising. We’re motivated to alleviate pain, so when a painful thing happens to us, we start to find ways to get rid of it.
“Perceiving growth is a way of coping with the event itself. It’s a ‘motivated positive illusion’ whose purpose is to protect us from the possibility that we may have been damaged… when an event threatens our sense of self, we are more likely to believe that the event made us better in some way.
Perceiving growth is a rationalization; a lie that protects our self-image. We tell ourselves it wasn’t all bad, and that it actually helped us grow in some regard. After all, the trauma would have been worse if we in fact, were not.
As a consequence, we end up thinking and feeling that we’ve grown. And because it’s so difficult to discern perception from reality, it’s hard to know whether we’ve really grown or not.
Ok, but if we end up feeling the same way in either case, does it really matter if it’s perceived or genuine?
Truth is, it doesn’t matter much in the short- to the medium term. The outcomes will feel very similar here. In the long-term, however, the differences matter greatly.
While perceiving growth makes you feel better, it doesn’t make you better. And that’s an effect that plays out over time. In the long-term, perceived growth wears off and diminishes functioning.
Genuine growth, on the other hand, is sustained in outcomes such as heightened self-esteem, mastery and positive relational experiences. In short, genuine growth is the only one that leads to a better future.
Choosing Your Path
At this point you might be thinking, how do I know whether my growth was real or not? And is there a way to really know?
One way you could find out, is by watching the long-term consequences. The problem, however, is that it’s too late to change anything after the fact. So to make sure it’s genuine growth you end up with, you have to do something on the outset of a painful event.
Imagine there’s a crossroad there. One path leads to perceived growth, while the other leads to genuine. What separates them is the effort it takes to follow them.
Remember the emphasis on that positive growth isn’t the result of any event, but of the struggle that comes with it. It’s not the pain that makes you grow; it’s how you respond to it.
That means the path of genuine growth requires more effort. And this is how I know (combined with the long-term consequences I experience). Conversely, the path of perceived growth entails less effort. Because when you rationalize that you’ve grown, any additional struggle won’t seem necessary.
“The natural tendency of all human behavior is toward the path of least resistance. When you resist this tendency, you become stronger and more powerful.” — Brian Tracy
For me, reading played a big part for my genuine growth. There are, of course, other ways to respond as well, and researchers propose there are two overarching ways to ensure it:
2 Ways to Ensure Genuine Growth
1. Adaptation through accommodation
According to renowned psychologist Jean Piaget, there are two ways you can respond to new information. That is, when a painful situation occurs, you can either assimilate or accommodate the information that comes along with it.
Assimilation means using your existing knowledge to deal with the event, and accommodation means changing your existing knowledge to deal with the event.
Accommodation requires sustained effort. It’s a rebuild of what you know, and that means it will take time before you can enter into genuine growth, because you have to adapt.
Assimilation, on the other hand, requires far less of you, as using your existing knowledge allows you to dismiss any new information and enter what is perceived as growth much quicker.
However, using old knowledge to deal with new information isn’t the way to change. It’s like continuing to use a hammer the first time you encounter a screw. By definition, accommodation is the only way to change. Meaning, it’s also the only way to have genuine growth. Specifically, accommodation can happen through:
- Reading. When you read, you influence the way you think. Allowing information to flow from books to your brain changes what you know and makes you better equipped to deal with new situations.
- Writing. By writing, you gain clarity of your situation as you get to articulate your emotions and your cognitive understanding. This will make any problems, as well as any solutions, clearer to you.
- Communicating. When you communicate with others, you bring about spontaneous change because talking transforms your innermost thoughts into the open. You also get feedback when you talk to someone — both consciously and unconsciously.
2. Improvement through influence
Psychologist Lev Vygotsky conceptualized a model of how growth happens through others, which he called the zone of proximal development. The main idea is that, through supportive social interactions, we develop our own abilities.
More specifically, if you spend time with others that are slightly more experienced than you in some field, you will inevitably try to match their level of behaviors.
And through continued exposure, you eventually enhance your abilities and grow. When you’re encouraged to operate at someone else’s level, you’re likely to adapt and change.
Conversely, if you’re surrounded by people who doesn’t support you or puts you down in every way, growth doesn’t occur that easily. It’s like trying to fly while you’re wrapped in steel chains. To grow, you need to break off the chains and put yourself in a better environment.
This might be difficult, however, as it’s not always easy to step out of your familiar environment. But coincidentally, exposure to a painful event might actually trigger a need to step out of your current environment, as it gives you time to analyze and deal with the information.
If your old environment is a good one, you can return to it as it will support your growth when you’re ready. But if it’s not, now is the chance to enter a better. As the author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn said:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
One Last Question
When pain occurs, how will you respond?
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