It’s been six months since I lost my job. Why can’t I just get over it already? I still feel like a failure, and still being out of work doesn’t help.
I feel better physically since my surgery, but I can’t seem to get back into the swing of things. I just don’t feel myself emotionally. What’s wrong with me?
I’ve experienced setback after setback. When is my luck going to change? I just can’t seem to catch a break!
In a world where trauma is an everyday occurrence, you might relate to one of these statements, or know someone who does. The effects unexpected or traumatic events have on our lives are well-known and experienced widely. We’re often told to “bounce back” or “find the silver lining,” but what can we do when it just doesn’t seem at all possible?
Michaela Haas, Ph.D. is no stranger to the quest for resilience. In fact, she wrote a book that turns the importance of resilience on its head. Through first-hand accounts from individuals who have experienced varying degrees of trauma, she illustrates ways of “transforming bad breaks into breakthroughs” in her book, Bouncing Forward. Michaela and I took some time a few weeks ago to discuss the concept of bouncing forward and tips for people who are working through trauma. Our conversation follows:
Great to meet you, Michaela! What inspired you to write your book?
I wrote it for both personal and professional reasons. I became ill in my 20s and I thought I was resilient before that happened. Being bedridden for 8 months, I found I was not so “resilient,” and that led me to research how other people dealing with situations (much worse than mine) manage to work through it.
I always wondered why some go through these experiences and come out more compassionate and stronger while others fall apart. Is it something that can be learned? For me, that’s the most fascinating part of the research- I found that it can be learned.
I met with people from all walks of life, survivors of cancer, addiction, PTSD, the Holocaust, loss of mobility, loss of a loved one, and childhood abuse to learn how to transform pain into a journey to wisdom, love, and purpose; for instance civil rights icon Maya Angelou who was raped as a child; Auschwitz survivor Coco Schumann; Jesse Billauer, a champion surfer whose collision with a wave left him a quadriplegic; Alain Beauregard who survived terminal cancer; and Brigadier General Dr. Rhonda Cornum, a POW in the first Iraq war.
As you put it, “they could have broken down, but they broke through.”
On average, people experience 5-6 traumatic events in their lifetimes. Sometimes it’s an unexpected everyday trauma that pulls the rug out from under us. Even in a professional context, a job loss or toxic work environment can also be traumatic.
I’ve met people who were able to deal quite well with some events they trained for, but then a loss in their personal life turned their world upside down. For instance, one man was taking his cancer as a challenge, but his divorce threw him completely. It’s really important to note that it can sometimes be a “small” trauma that affects us deeply, and that it`s not helpful to compare it to other people’s major traumas. It’s about how much that particular experience changes our world.
How would you describe “post-traumatic growth”?
The science of posttraumatic growth is comparatively new and explores the benefits and lessons we can learn from a traumatic experience. It is crucial to mention that the growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress. Rather, the stress serves as an engine for the growth. The psychologists who have coined the term found five main areas: personal strength, deeper relationships with others, new perspectives on life, appreciation of life, and spirituality. The growth might not happen immediately, and we need the right support and methods to bring it about.
What are your key tips for transforming bad breaks into breakthroughs?
People ask me, “what’s the recipe for post-traumatic growth?” The first step is to allow ourselves to struggle. Unfortunately, we can’t allow ourselves to skip that first step- we can’t drug the pain away.
Acknowledge the wound and tend to it. So often in our society we expect people to just get over it and return to their work and life.
The second important thing is to scout for allies. Reach out and ask for help. So many people believe they need to do it on their own and that doing so represents strength, but that’s not really how it works. No one can truly do it alone. Even in the US Army, they are teaching soldiers to admit their weaknesses and fears. The Army has realized it can be fatal to pretend we are strong when we are not, so they have been trying really hard to pool resources and figure out how to help people.
Prior to writing this book, I didn’t know there was a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program that every soldier went through. The US Army is the organization that has the keenest interest in helping people through trauma. This is a major culture change: leaving behind the image of the invincible soldier and encouraging the soldiers to reach out for help. The army has a unique database to find out what really works. They are trying very different methods to help people with diverse traumas, all kinds of new therapy and approaches, including service dogs.
Thirdly, there are numerous tried-and-true methods, from meditation to gratitude journals , that we can apply. The science has advanced so much and is telling us so much more about what is helpful. However, it’s important to note that there is no timeline- everyone heals in their own time. How much we lost, how much support we had, how much hurt we experienced are all factors. Each trauma is unique and each path is unique.
What is the difference between post-traumatic growth and resilience?
It’s so fascinating because resilience is defined as “bouncing back”. That’s what the word means. When I was ill, I found my ability to bounce back was zero because I could not get my life back in the same way.
We can never really go back to what our life was before. We’re changed. We’re transformed. Resilience, the ability to bounce back with a strong mindset is helpful when facing traumatic situations, but often, the people who grow the most are those who have not been resilient to begin with.
The terms overlap- people who experience post-traumatic growth develop resilience. That’s the link. Resilience is one of the outcomes of post-traumatic growth. But people don’t have to be resilient to experience post-traumatic growth. Most people I interviewed for the book were not resilient at the time of their trauma. But what fascinated me was how they slowly developed strength, compassion, and purpose in the wake of their trauma, and now I am convinced that every person can learn to become stronger. Resilience is like a muscle that grows stronger with exercise.
What are your favorite ways to foster healing?
My personal favorite is meditation. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for 20 years now. When I started out, I used it as a feel-good meditation. In actuality, I had to learn to be present even when things are painful.
Studies show how meditation helps us to stay present and strong when facing adversity. One of the things that surprised me the most when I visited the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program for my research is that in the morning, they all meditate together. The army has seen so clearly that mindfulness meditation makes an enormous difference both before training for a potentially traumatic event (combat) and afterwards in the healing process. It allows us to face our fears and be present with the pain, rather than trying to erase it at all costs.
Gratitude journals have proven to be a really effective tool as well. It’s such a simple thing: Every day, write down three things you are grateful for. The practice really changes our outlook, health, and emotional well-being. I was surprised what a big difference it made in my own life and so I included it in the exercises in Bouncing Forward.
Which of those would be most helpful to job seekers in particular and why?
We attach our self-worth to our jobs, in addition to experiencing the fear of that question, “how am I going to pay the bills?” So engage in practices that nourish your spirit.
So many times there is self-blame or guilt involved, both when you’ve actually been laid off and then again, when you are finding that it’s not easy to find a new job or make a new start in your career.
Apart from the obvious, such as sharpening your skills, there is a real benefit to nourishing your mind. We can’t control what happens to us but we can master how we respond to it. We can use this time not only to look for a new job but to strengthen our spirit. It sounds so basic to take good care of ourselves, eat well, exercise, etc. but these are usually the first things to go. Making friends with ourselves, rather than beating up on ourselves is really crucial during this time. After losing a job, invite positivity into your life by building on your strengths rather than homing in on your weaknesses.
In your experience, what are the most traumatic aspects of being laid off? How does one move forward towards growth after this particular type of traumatic experience?
Really negative self-talk stands out to me. Many times we tie our self-worth and identity to our job, and when we lose it, it is easy to slip into that trap of negativity. I think you have to be proactive on that.
I’ve been a freelancer my whole life, and you never have job security. It’s just not the reality now, for people to have the same job their whole lives. People don’t necessarily lose their jobs because they are bad at what they do. So you have to ask yourself, “How can I build my confidence and my positive outlook to get back in the game?”Resilient people take setbacks as temporary, yet they don’t take them personally. With job loss, that’s my main advice: take it seriously, but don’t take it personally.
How can people who are experiencing more than one type of traumatic experience at a time (for example, a layoff/long-term bout of unemployment plus an illness) manage their unique needs?
It’s actually so common- when it rains, it pours. It is obviously more challenging to deal with an illness on top of a job loss, but the same principles and strategies apply and are helpful.
Be aware that we all have areas where we are more resilient and areas where we are less so. For example, we might take the job loss well but the illness might hit us harder. Resilience is something that changes and requires training in different areas. It’s subjective, and the resilience we have in one area does not necessarily transfer to another area.
How can you build your resilience in another area where you are not as strong? For example, I never fully regained my health back. It’s an area where I am vulnerable and have to be aware at all times of how much I can take on. So I had to consciously focus on my mental and emotional strength first. Some areas are stronger and some need more attention, care, and nourishment.
In your introduction to the book, you say “I didn’t write this book because I have all the answers. I wrote it because I have questions.” How did writing your book help you with the questions you had?
It really changed my life because before I did the research, I thought that only a certain kind of person is resilient, like Maya Angelou or Malala Yousafzai- people we already admire for their strength and courage. I found out that anyone can become resilient and it doesn’t take extraordinary intelligence. It can be learned, through steps we can all take. So many people go through trauma and don’t develop PTSD.
Now when I go through difficulties I often read through what the subjects of my book told me worked for them. I learned that their interactions with other people kept their spirits up.
We’d love to hear some stories about people who have “bounced forward” in regards to their careers. What are some examples you have of individuals who have had particularly difficult job searches? How did your methods of leveraging stress and trauma help them?
Jesse Billauer, the champion surfer, had to change his whole life after being paralyzed. He founded the nonprofit Life Rolls On, and that has become his life and his work. Now he helps other adaptive athletes go surfing and skating. The very thing that helped him in his life is now what he does for others.
Cindi Lamb, one of the cofounders of MADD became involved in activism to help others who were affected by drunk drivers.
They call it the “magic formula.” Jesse Billauer says, “Go and help someone else who is worse off than you.” The exact same thing that threw them off course became not only what motivated the shift in their work, but helps others as well. Their lives changed when they started using what they learned to help and serve others. It became their life’s passion. As Auschwitz-survivor Viktor Frankl said, “When we have a why to live, we can survive any ‘how’.”
What happens when you have such a personal connection to the work? How do you deal with it if things from your own experiences and emotions come up, as you’re doing the work?
A lot of authors write about something because they know all about the topic. I wrote this book because I was not resilient.
I’m convinced we can only heal when we start talking about our traumas and the things that are really going on, that we are really struggling with. For many years, I didn’t tell people I had chronic fatigue because I thought it would be damaging to my career. I had to learn from other courageous people who talked about their experiences that it’s okay and actually necessary to talk about your struggles.
I’m a private person and my publisher pushed me to tell my own personal story. I thought it inappropriate to put my own story next to someone’s trauma from Auschwitz. Yet we don’t need to think our traumas are insignificant in comparison to others. I learned to be more open with my own challenges. Once we show our own vulnerability, it takes conversations to a different level. It was new to me to share my struggles on such a personal level and allow myself to be that vulnerable.
Any advice for people who are starting to blend their personal and professional lives?
Do it when it’s appropriate. Meet up with like-minded people- that’s the single most important thing. In addition to getting professional help, seek out self-help groups. You’ll be surprised how many times people say “me too!” when you open up. When we are going through it, we think we are the only ones but as soon as we seek out groups of people, open up, and other people in the room say, “yes, me too”, we find invaluable support. That’s where I would start out – to look for support groups.
Sometimes talking to other people who haven’t shared the experience of losing a job can be counterproductive. When you are in the midst of grief or pain, it might not be helpful to hear “be positive”. There are groups for every kind of trauma- online or in person. It can really be life-changing. It’s not so hard to express what you’re going through when there are other people in the room who have experienced the same thing.