The Unexpected Gifts of Trauma

Mother and daughter gardeningTraumatic experiences and the trauma healing process can expose the shrapnel from what feels like perpetually open wounds. Time lost to history and recovery, missed opportunities, broken relationships, and a delay in building life’s foundation can be negative side effects of traumatic experiences.

Therapists and people who have experienced trauma are able to identify, with ease, what may seem like irreversible damage or pain. However, it is simple to overlook the pieces of people’s trauma stories that are peppered with traces of hope and with a certain innocence that runs counter to what many of them have survived. This article will reflect on what people in therapy have shared with me. Through their eyes, these are the gifts of trauma:

Gratitude

We can begin with the basics. Survivors regularly express gratitude, disbelief even, for the fact that they are still living. Operating from this premise provides a great deal of delight in each day received. While it may sound cliché, perhaps this is so because of the ordinariness of what is being conveyed; it seems natural that life would be lived with greater enthusiasm in the face of its uncertainty. However, near-death experiences do not appear to be a necessary condition for people to begin to appreciate each new day; rather, being confronted with suffering, fear, or an assault on one’s humanity appear to be more relevant to our ability to appreciate existence.

Enjoying Simple Pleasures

Despite the real struggle associated with trauma recovery, there is often a simultaneous increase in a person’s capacity to enjoy the mundane. A blue sky, a delicate fragrance, a small act of compassion, the subtleties of nature, and the innocence of children and animals are often noted as having significance. Perhaps the sweetness of normalcy is illuminated when confronted with certain kinds of darkness.

Enhanced Awareness and Intuition

Survivors of trauma regularly inform me of what they experience as something akin to having superpowers. The capacity to feel things other people can’t, to identify either the goodness or inherent evil in someone just by looking at them, or to “predict” interpersonal outcomes are some of the new-found abilities people have described. People who have experienced trauma often indicate that they are able to pick up on covert human behaviors, and there is a great deal of trust in their capacity to intuit. Oftentimes, these powers really do exist; survivors have developed a discriminating aptitude for picking up on environmental cues that may have significance to them. A clinical explanation could be hypervigilence; however, people do not necessarily experience this skill negatively and are often quite opposed to this capacity diminishing.

Sense of Surprise and Enchantment

Finally, survivors often work from the assumption that, at some point, things will go awry. There is a sense of something lurking, and they conclude that something will happen that will take them out emotionally (or physically). The consequence of being right is the devastation of experiencing their truth (i.e., the world is not safe, I will never be happy) as real. However, when things go well, even smoothly, a genuine sense of surprise and enchantment is rendered.

Feelings of defeat, pain, and innocence lost can be simple to identify following trauma’s destructive trail, while the search for a trailhead to peace can feel insurmountable. Throughout the witnessing of people’s narratives, I have discovered that there are nuggets of their remaining truth that may linger under the surface. During the process of unfolding and unpacking their stories, honoring each component of truth can facilitate a sense of hope for those who have none. In addition, some people are fully aware of what their trauma has provided them and do not want to lose these new strengths; they may have concerns about admitting this to themselves or the therapist.

Identification of trauma gifts throughout one’s story provides a platform for discussing this in a nonpathologizing way. It may also allow therapists to assist people in letting go of vigilance while embracing intuition, releasing pain while maintaining gratitude, and experiencing safety while holding on to joy.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Scott

    Scott

    February 1st, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    There is a lot to be said for being able to go through a traumatic experience and being able to come out the other side with a part of you that is still able to look at the good in your life. You may sometimes think of the sadness and the anxiety that it caused you, but you can also see the good and see how there is still something worthwhile that you have been given another chance to live.

  • Linda Mittenthal, LCSW

    Linda Mittenthal, LCSW

    February 1st, 2012 at 8:58 PM

    Just wanted to add that we can easily fall into defining ourselves by trauma. It’s good to realize one need not be stuck in such a place, that we are complicated and multfaceted. We are stronger than we know.

  • anna

    anna

    February 1st, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    no matter how hopeless the situation a positive person will find positives in it..it’s dependent not on the situation but the individual.and one who can bring in positives from the worst of situations is a winner.

  • Will

    Will

    February 2nd, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    Yay to all the trauma survivors out there..Just the fact that you fought and won against your traumatic experience is an achievement,not everybody can do that.

    Be thankful for a second chance and try to make the best use of it folks. All the best.

  • m peters

    m peters

    February 3rd, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    sometimes a loss can make us look at life differently.if a failure can become a stepping stone then why cant trauma provide positives for the future?! look ahead and put everything around you,be it positive or negative,to a positive application and you can reach the skies :D

  • Ed

    Ed

    February 26th, 2012 at 12:01 PM

    Hello Athena,

    Thank you for a nice article that makes one stop at least for a while and think about beauty around. I have suffered most of my life and still am, but I see more and more beauty around us, started to appreciate things more, think about things in a more positive way and respect what I have. Life is so fast nowadays that we forget to stop and enjoy those beautiful small things and wonderful moments. Even though I have various problems these days I feel better about myself and start to see life in a different way.

    You can do this, just let go and never give up.

    Take care you all.

  • stephanie Locascio

    stephanie Locascio

    March 4th, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    Thank you for this beautifully written piece of clinical literature! Working with clients who have experienced trauma is dark, heavy, and painful…and the client can can lose hope on healing and recovery. The article presents a hopefulness, strength, and beauty in human resiliency. The concept of exploring trauma gifts with survivors therapeutically opens up the door for them to once again feel safe, secure and connected in the world. These gifts are things that can never be taken away..the most precious ones to our existence. This simple concept and the way it was presented, gives me a new, refreshing way of working with my clients. Thanks again<3

  • Beth Gooch

    Beth Gooch

    March 7th, 2012 at 7:43 PM

    Definately some recent Kubler Ross and maybe some EMDR

  • Steve

    Steve

    November 23rd, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    Good stuff. Thank you.

  • Emily

    Emily

    January 15th, 2016 at 11:31 PM

    After reflecting on my experience, the songs Landslide, Greatest Love of All, and Hero (by Mariah Carey) finally made sense.

  • Howard

    Howard

    April 26th, 2016 at 9:42 AM

    I am a three times survivor of trauma , i believe that I have gifts but am slightly confused. Some amazing thing keep happening to me which i have trouble explaining. Can you help or advise please.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 26th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    Dear Howard,

    The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we do want to encourage you to reach out. If you would like to speak about this or any other concern with a mental health professional, please return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • William

    William

    May 8th, 2017 at 10:48 AM

    I am a trauma survivor, and I have not sought treatment yet. After two failed marriages, losing my children, and my inability to keep a job I am ready. I am open to any feedback.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 8th, 2017 at 12:46 PM

    Hi William,

    Thank you for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    We wish you the best of luck in your journey.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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