Skip to content

Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma


Just because you’re in a prison doesn’t mean you’re a prisoner.  It’s the first highlight of a book that seeks to teach the difference between the conditions that you were – or are – in and the way that you process it, label it, and let it change you.  Everyone will face trauma in their lives.  There is no choice in this regard.  However, the question is whether you’ll use this trauma to grow or whether you’ll allow the trauma to crush you.  Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma comes from the Boulder Crest Foundation based in Virginia, and it’s based in some of the best we know about trauma and growth.


It was 2017 or 2018 when Marty Seligman introduced me to Rich Tedeschi.  I was working on our book Extinguish Burnout at the time.  We were grappling with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how to avoid it.  When I reached out to ask about how one could know whether someone would react to trauma with growth or disorder, Seligman pointed to Rich as the expert.  I had recently read the excellent book, Antifragile, about how things could get better with struggle.  However, it didn’t quite explain how someone could learn to grow from trauma rather than be crushed by it.  In the years since then, Rich has been kind enough to share his wisdom on more than one occasion.  More recently, I read his book, Transformed by Trauma, to even better understand how trauma can help you grow.

Rich has been connected to the Boulder Crest Foundation for years and has helped them integrate the best research and practices into their programs to make it easier to find growth instead of disorder in the wake of trauma.

Five Areas

Growth, rather than disorder, seems to show up in five key areas:

  • Personal Strength
  • Meaningful Relationships
  • Greater Appreciation
  • Richer Spiritual or Religious Life
  • Positive Future

Said differently, people grow into a better relationship and appreciation for life.  They realize what’s important to them, and they’re able to align their life’s course to that connection with the universe of people.

The Disorder

Hysteria is the first organized label for what we now would call PTSD.  It was designated to only affect women, and the ways that it was addressed weren’t good.  It was seen as a fault or a weakness and, as a result, was generally shunned.  This created a problem when 40% of the soldiers coming back to Britain in World War I returned because of psychological problems that would eventually be labeled “shell shock.”  Men, it seemed, were developing something that was thought to be a woman’s affliction – and it seems to come about as a result of the horrors of war.  This exposure had left them with deep psychological scars that could neither be explained nor seen.  The knowledge of this was kept secret for fear that widespread acceptance of this fact would demoralize the soldiers.

The struggle still was in accepting this as an outcome of their experiences rather than a personal defect of the individuals.  The sheer numbers of people made it hard to accept the earlier explanations.

Over time, we’d begin to understand that these disordered responses to trauma weren’t personal or moral failings but rather an inability to process something that they’d seen or done.  We learned that, as sense-making machines, we needed to make sense of these experiences, and it nearly universally required that we adjust our core beliefs – literally the ways we had built our lives.  That’s never easy, but for some, it seemed harder.

In Change or Die, we’re exposed to the idea that asteroids may wipe out all life on the planet.  Rather we’re re-exposed, because most of us have encountered the idea before.  For most, this doesn’t create any real anxiety.  We quickly ignore the thought, since it’s not something we can change.  It’s our ability to ignore this fact that allows us to get up, love, support, and educate our children, and get on with our daily lives.  If we believed the world was generally benevolent, and we based our life on this fact in subtle ways, we’d struggle when an alternative reality revealed itself in the cruelty of others.  Unlike the potential for asteroids, we couldn’t ignore it, because it’s woven into every decision we make.

If the world becomes fundamentally hostile, or even if we have to accept the possibility that some people are hostile, we must change what we do today, and many of the decisions we’ve made in the past would no longer be “right.”  The ripples created by changing a fundamental view – to accommodate new experiences – cannot be understated.

The Numbers

It’s a tragic reality in military and veteran populations that there can be more people lost to suicide than in war.  Suicide routinely accounts for more firearm deaths than murder.  We hear about the mass shootings and are appalled, but we fail to realize that, despite their tragic nature, they represent a trivial portion of the overall firearm deaths in the United States.  When you internalize these numbers, the need for growth from trauma rather than being crushed by it starts to set in.  Too many people are encountering a trauma they cannot process, and they’re choosing to end their lives to escape the pain.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more about suicide as an end to psychic pain – or psychache.)

Program Problems

It’s no secret – though also not well known – that many people who enter areas of mental health are looking for their own answers.  A friend of mine reported that the difference between the counselors and the patients on an inpatient psychiatric ward was that the counselors had keys.  In many ways, the inmates are running the asylum.  However, It’s not just the fact that the people who are supposed to be teaching need to do their own work, it’s that the models don’t work either.

“Catch and release” is the way that it’s described.  You come to a training or an institute, have a good time, listen to others, have an experience, and then you’re released back to your old environment presumably changed forever.  This conceptually denies what we know about learning and recovery.

The research on learning and how we learn is clear.  As adults, we learn differently than our children.  In The Adult Learner, Malcolm Knowles and his colleagues lay out the five things that adult learners need to be able to learn.  However, that’s just the first step.  Further work has been done to evaluate what actually changes perceptions, behaviors, and results.  One of the findings of this work is that we need spaced repetition, so that we’ll retain the information that we receive – and catch and release doesn’t do this.  (If you want to learn more about how we learn, see How We Learn, Learning in Adulthood, and Efficiency in Learning.)

Why We Do It

Given the prevalence of catch and release programs and the clear evidence that they don’t work, one might ask why we still do them.  There are a variety of unsatisfying answers.  “We’ve always done it that way” tops the list, followed by the close cousin, “That’s the way education is done.”  We’ve learned in a very similar way throughout our educational experience, so it’s got to be right – right?

The challenge is that these programs are what people expect, what they’ll fund, and what they know how to measure.  Though most people funding programs like this don’t know anything about Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation, they know they can measure how people feel about the class – their sentiment.  We know sentiment has effectively no correlation to desirable outcomes, but the people writing the checks, either for internal corporate development or from philanthropic foundations looking to make a change in the world, aren’t aware of the need to have a better way to measure effectiveness.

The Power of Listening

On the one hand, most of us have had a conversation with a trusted friend where they listened to us completely.  They didn’t judge or offer advice.  They said few words.  Afterward, it felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders.  Somehow, the simple act of listening was powerful.  On the other hand, we believe that listening couldn’t possibly make that big of a difference.  We often fail to pay enough attention to the other person or the listening process.

What professionals know is that the most powerful part of their jobs is to understand other people.  They recognize that humans are necessarily social beings who need each other to survive, and this drives an innate need to be heard and understood by others.  Evolution has primed us towards the idea that if we’re not understood, we’re dead.  For most of mankind’s time, if you weren’t understood, you had to face the world alone, and you weren’t equipped for that.  (For more about our need to be connected, see Loneliness.)

Self-Regulate to Avoid Self-Medicating

What is often missed in our culture of blame is the fact that addictions are solutions to other problems.  They started out as coping strategies that eventually began to control a person – rather than the other way around.  Certainly, addictions are problems that cause other problems, but at their root, they’re solving other internal hurts.  (See Dreamland, The Globalization of Addiction, and Chasing the Scream for more about addiction and how it works.)  What people who have worked with addicts have learned is that if you want to stop the addiction – in the long term – you’re going to need to help the person learn how to respond to trauma better.

The better a person is able to self-regulate, the less they need to self-medicate.  Instead of seeking out a way to numb the pain, they find ways to work through it directly.

The Model

Struggle Well proposes a model that has three factors surrounding a central core of spiritual wellness.  The model can be summarized as follows:

  • Mental Wellness
    • Ability to concentrate
    • Creativity and problem solving
    • Curiosity
  • Physical wellness
    • Fitness
    • Nutrition
    • Sleep
  • Financial wellness
    • Where you live
    • How you live
    • Resources for short, medium, and long term
  • Spiritual wellness (center)
    • Relationships
    • Service
    • Character

Guilt and Shame

Sometimes, our views are permanently affixed to the past and either our guilt about the things that we’ve done or shame about the people that we’ve become.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on the difference.)  There is no problem in accepting the reality of our past, but a constant focus on the past doesn’t allow us to look to the future.  What we’ve done doesn’t define us.  It shapes how others think of us and how we think of ourselves, but it’s not a fixed and unchangeable destiny.

Carol Dweck researched Mindset and found that more adaptive and useful ways of thinking acknowledge that we can continue to grow throughout our lives.  Being bad a math in the past doesn’t mean we’ll be bad at it in the future.  In No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris explains how our subtle desires may result in differences in our abilities and dispositions – but that these remain very malleable to future change if we’re committed to making the change.  Small amounts of interest difference started the ball rolling, and more – but still not insurmountable – amounts of interest and desire can radically change our path.

Hurting People Hurt People

Healthy people help people.  The spiritually healthiest people – those Brené Brown would call “wholehearted” – are focused on how they can help others.  (See Daring Greatly for more.)  The unhealthy people in our lives will stumble around blindly and will hurt us – not necessarily out of malice but rather as a result of their own pain.  We minimize our hurt when we focus on our healing.  (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more.)

Looking Back on Normal for Them

There are two reasons why people will not look back on their history.  The first reason is because it’s perceived as too painful.  In this space, strategies of desensitization can be helpful.  (See Moral Disengagement for Albert Bandura’s work on desensitization.)  The second reason is trickier.  People don’t look back because they don’t perceive their history as having problems.  In short, the problem is that it doesn’t look bad, because it was normal to them.

The interesting bit is whether it was normal and healthy or only seemed like it because it was all that the person experienced.

One of my high school friends used to sleep in the dryer, because it was the only place in the house that was semi-quiet.  In my own world, my mother struggled financially.  I can remember toast and peanut butter for breakfast, and times when breakfast was a cereal with powdered milk.  Our neighbors received government cheese that they shared (or gave to us).  Our cups were margarine containers.  It was normal to me.  To be fair, growing up wasn’t bad or traumatic – but I’ve come to realize that it also wasn’t the “normal” that other children experienced.  One of my friends in grade school didn’t have a phone in their home – so I was clear that it could be worse, even back then.

I share this, because someone could ask me to look into my past, and I may not find anything that’s interesting – or it could be that others are blocking out aspects of their childhood that impact their lives today.

Integrated Self Image

Struggle Well describes it as, “The treasure that comes from connecting your head and your heart is ultimately a connection to your soul.”  I’ve previously talked about is as integrated self-image in my review of Why We Do What We Do and have explained the relationship between reason and emotion while discussing Jonathan Haidt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model.  (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis.)  The degree of peace we can feel if we begin to teach ourselves to appreciate both our logic and reason as well as our emotion and intuition cannot be overstated.

There’s no aspect of ourselves that has the one true answer.  Instead, like we discovered in No Bad Parts, we need all of the parts of who we are to be the best we can be.

Less About Others

What other people think of me is none of my business.  At first, it sounds odd.  But it’s about me.  How can it not be any of my business?  The answer comes in two pieces.  First, how can you know what other people actually think about you?  We know that people are not likely going to tell you what they really think.  They’re going to sugar coat their perspectives or outright lie to you.  (See Radical Candor for more.)

The second perspective is whether you’d change anything if you knew the truth.  If you knew that some people that you’re interacting with don’t appreciate your gifts and talents, does that mean you’d hide them?  Would you become a different person just to be more well liked by a few people?  You probably shouldn’t.  The saying goes, “Be yourself – unless you’re an asshole.  Then be someone else.”  It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it expresses a fundamental truth that we’re best off being ourselves.

Struggle Well reports their motto as, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.”

Knowing Who to Prune

If you want your plants to grow best, you’ll prune them.  You’ll remove the dead and non-productive parts of the plant, so that the other parts have more nutrients to grow.  Our relationships are like this.  We need the discernment to identify those relationships that nurture us and those that are harmful.  We then need to evaluate pruning relationships from our lives.

It’s the discernment that’s the hard part.  Every relationship has both good and bad.  Some things about the relationship feed us, while others drain us.  How do we know which relationships are positive – and which ones are not?  In addition to the daily ups and downs of the relationships, we need to know that there are also seasons.  When my friend lost his father, I poured more in than I got out.  A friend faces depression, and I carry the lion’s share of the load.  When I lost my son and I needed support, I have no doubt that I was taking more from the relationships than I was giving.

Fault Lines explains the rifts that can happen in family relationships.  In it, we learn that sometimes there are big events that make a big difference.  But there are also small things that, if adjusted, could take a toxic relationship and make it life-giving – if we’re willing to try to find that path.

Goals and Luck

Struggle Well suggests that great leaders have goals and that these goals create success.  Certainly, I concur that goals and work towards those goals are important.  (See The Four Disciplines of Execution, for instance.)  Conversely, I recognize what Jim Collins referred to in Good to Great as the Stockdale paradox.  It’s knowing when to stay the course and when to listen to feedback.  Even Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity explains that his life wasn’t a straight line.  Goals are good, but we have to be equally willing to adjust them when the straight path isn’t an option.

Louis Pasteur said it best: “Chance favors the prepared.”  That is, we need to do the work that we can to prepare ourselves to take advantage of luck – or opportunity – when it appears.  Goals do that.  Investment in ourselves and our mental health does that.

PhD in GSD

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  He was talking about the people who have earned their PhD in Getting Shit Done (GSD).

The way to earn your PhD is to start by learning how to Struggle Well.