The intriguing thing about human nature is that there is no one way to exist. Just recently, I was speaking with a colleague who struggled to understand why some people cannot handle a heavy workload or stressful situations. Because she can.
Ironically, in that very same conversation, I wondered why she wasn’t more empathetic. Because I am. In all my self-righteousness, no one could have convinced me in that moment that I was just as guilty of being judgmental and unempathetic as she was.
Neither of us saw the value in the other’s experience or point of view. In each of our minds, our way (resilience from her perspective, and empathy from mine) was the one right way. Never mind the possibility of common ground — that perhaps what was more important was that our perspectives were likely rooted in some form of trauma that shaped the way we see the world and approach our lives.
Relativism as root to self-belief
There’s this concept in qualitative research called relativism. It means that we don’t place judgment on the perspectives and experiences of other people. We find value in the journey, validity in all experiences and meaning in all perspectives — even the ones we don’t like. In honoring each other’s truths, we open the door for authenticity, compassion and belief that we are worthy of being heard. Neither my colleague nor myself were practicing relativism that day.
How often do we subject our youth who have experienced trauma to our varying forms of judgment? We know that they have been dealt a devastating set of cards, but still, even if in the most subtle of ways, educators, counselors, social workers and other professionals who haven’t yet adopted a relativistic approach expect them to think, act and behave in the ways we would given similar circumstances. Why won’t she try harder? Why isn’t he more responsible? Why would they do it that way? I made much better choices at this age.
We may mean well. We want to motivate them to strive for success. We want them to know that the real world is harsh and unforgiving. We want them to live lives of integrity and purpose — but we want them to do it our way, on our terms and in our time frame. Unfortunately, that’s not how effective motivation works. We can try to motivate, but if we are not planting the right seeds based on who they are and what they need, that motivation we are pushing may never manifest into their self-determination.
It is important that we understand the difference between motivation and self-determination in this context. When I refer to motivation, I speak of the work that we do with the intention to positively impact a young person’s life. This can take the form of counseling, mentoring, coaching or advising. Self-determination is a reflection of the internal view of self and the action taken accordingly. If the internal lens is positive and hopeful, they will likely move in the direction of self-improvement and growth. If the internal lens is negative and hopeless, they will likely remain stagnant or spiral downward to a place of lesser hope.
Thus, we can engage them in motivational activities and offer endless opportunities for mentorship, coaching, counseling or advising, but if those efforts focus only on goal attainment, academic success or overcoming difficult situations without addressing belief in self — particularly as it pertains to competence, autonomy and relatedness, they are not likely to embrace a true sense of self-determination. These results are not sustainable and are less likely to lead to a genuine place of growth.
Self-belief as root to self-determination
I was moved by a quote by writer Brooke Hampton that I recently saw on social media: “Speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become.”
This, of course, does not just apply to our own children. It applies to any young person placed on our path. Belief about self is perhaps one of the most important underlying factors of self-determination. To be self-determined, three basic psychological needs around belief are essential: belief in one’s own competence, belief in one’s own autonomy and belief in one’s ability to foster positive and healthy relationships.
After traumatic experiences, these elements are vitally important keys to not only recovery, but also to the possibility of growth after recovery. At the core of healing, of self-determination and of post-traumatic growth is belief. And the core of belief rests on the words, assumptions and interactions we offer to our youth. Even in negative, hopeless environments, our expressed belief in them can shape the course of their lives.
Elijah’s story of growth
Elijah, one of the participants in my study of first-generation college aspirants, described a traumatic childhood laced with drug busts, violence and extreme poverty. As a child, he was highly self-sufficient and responsible. With his mother working nights, Elijah was often left to oversee the household and get himself to and from school. During my interview with him, he shared a situation in which his mother was arrested, and his responsibility was to find the drugs and hide them before the police discovered them. Elijah was able to clearly identify the negative patterns in his family, observe the consequences and decide that he would take a different path. He says:
“The environment I grew up in; drug dealers, prostitutes, drug addicts … there is a collection of these types of people in my family structure. People that are raising me and my cousins ... but they had the attitude of do what I say, not as I do. I usually saw them do it, but I would see a consequence. That really helped me; and made it easier for my mom. They would keep me on the right path.”
Though his environment was not healthy or positive, the family members who were involved with drug dealing spoke life and hope into him. His mother offered raw truths about life and encouraged him not to go down the path she had taken. Here is how he described his mother’s strategy to keep him on the right path:
“I remember one particular time she was arrested and we were in a police car and she was handcuffed; she had a bunch of drugs. She would have been facing a whole lot of time. And a thing about my mom; she is very upfront. She would always tell me things and she was trying to coach me and prepare me for anything. She would tell me things, whether I wanted to know or not. There were just so many things that I saw that I didn’t want to get into. Life was so rough; there has to be something else, I would think. I understood that life didn’t have to be that way. At one point, I thought it was normal for people to not have lights ... it was only until I got older that I got to see my perception change.”
As Elijah’s perception changed, his life choices became more reflective of the lessons his family imparted, despite the choices they were making. He realized that it was his call to head in a different direction, and as he followed that calling, his life began to mirror the concept of post-traumatic growth.
The power of post-traumatic growth
Post-traumatic growth is the experience of positive life change after trauma. It means that the individual goes beyond healing and takes steps to enhance their lives mentally, spiritually and physically as a result of the trauma. Furthermore, they find greater purpose in their lives and focus on also enhancing the lives of others. According to the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, post-traumatic growth results in the following five changes in individuals:
- Stronger and more meaningful relationships
- Seeing new possibilities and purpose in life
- Increased personal strength (resilience)
- Greater spiritual connection
- Greater appreciation for life.
These powerful changes, as I have found in my own research, have the power to change the trajectory of a person’s entire life. But the greatest impact of post-traumatic growth is its influence on the lives of those who surround the growing individual. After experiencing growth, there is evidence that the individual steps into his or her purpose and becomes intentional about making a positive difference in the lives of others.
Elijah’s post-traumatic growth was strongly evident, as he met all five requirements for positive life change. (1) He discussed the meaningful relationships he developed with school counselors and peers who aspired to pursue a college education, as well as the strengthening of the relationship with his mother; (2) as a member of the National Honor Society and his high school’s football team, he saw great possibilities for his future and a purpose that compelled him to remain a positive role model for his younger cousins; (3) he perceived that he had a strength unlike that of his peers and other family members who seemed to struggle with challenges that were not nearly as daunting as his own; (4) he maintained a solid sense of spirituality, which he says played a major role in his ability to stay focused on his future; and (5) he valued life tremendously, often expressing how he wanted to make the most of every moment.
Elijah is that rare rose that grew out of concrete, but his experience does not have to be rare.
Self-determination: A root of post-traumatic growth
From the research on post-traumatic growth, it is clear that the characteristics of self-determination are essential precursors to post-traumatic growth. It takes deliberate action to grow — action that requires a strong belief in self, as well as a sense of hope in others.
While all youth do not experience growth after trauma, the odds are greater if the right internal and external conditions for nurturing self-determination are in place.
Self-determination is most effective when it is internally driven and when the inspiration is rooted in a deep level of self-satisfaction, rather than in fear of rejection or punishment. It is our responsibility to resist imposing our own lens and our own experiences on others. When we adopt a relativistic mindset, we can build bridges that help link our young people to new mindsets, hope for the future and a renewed belief in self.
According to P. Alex Linley and Stephen Joseph, there are four internally driven factors that lead to post-traumatic growth: optimism, extraversion, positive affect and openness to new experiences. As supporters of our youth, we cannot necessarily force optimism, extraversion, openness and positive affect. That is up to them. What we can do is teach them how to believe in themselves through our own belief in them, by the words we speak to them, by showing up in ways that say “you matter.” When they believe in themselves, they will have the foundational tools needed for growth. We can then show them the way to growth by creating growth opportunities.
Optimism does not come naturally for everyone, but accomplishing goals and rising to new levels of living requires some level of optimism, even if just enough to take baby steps toward a goal. We can help our youth develop this optimism by helping them achieve small wins that gradually grow into bigger wins, such as encouraging them to join a writers group as a first step, to write a poem as a second step and to read it out loud at an event as a third step. It is important that the small wins are on their level and that the wins are based on their own willingness to complete the task and not on any specific form of completion until, of course, they are ready to embark upon some big wins.
Extraversion is not just for our extraverted friends. This means that in order to experience growth, we have to experience moments of extraversion. Moments just long enough to allow us to make important connections, build empowering relationships and ask for what we need. We grow when we strengthen our ability to connect to other people. And the relatedness element of self-determination gives us the sense that we can do exactly that — build relationships. We can help build extraversion with goal-setting strategies that challenge them to meet a certain number of people within a certain time frame or to reach out to an individual who inspires them to set up a conversation.
Openness to new experiences: An important precursor to any form of growth we experience in life is the willingness to step outside our comfort zones to experience new people, places, opportunities and viewpoints. This wildly expands our scope of possibilities and enables us to broaden our understanding of the world and the many ways in which we fit and can make a difference. We can encourage openness by leading book discussions based on books that offer new viewpoints or by taking trips to places never traveled.
Positive affect: Can we see the positive impact we make in the world? In the lives of others? When we realize that our presence, our stories, our ability to survive has the power to inspire someone else, we experience growth. We want to keep giving back because we see the difference. We want to keep peaking because as our voice liberates ourselves, it also liberates others. As supporters of our youth, we can create experiences of positive affect by engaging them in community engagement projects, service learning and missionary experiences. This is most effective when we tie the experience to an issue that is near and dear to their heart.
The impact of relativism
When working with young people who have experienced trauma, their optimism, extraversion, positive affect and openness to new experiences can lead to life transformation. But we cannot jump to these factors without first ensuring that their own self-determination is intrinsic and strongly rooted in belief in self. It may feel great to be motivational and see progress, but motivation is ineffective and short-lived if is not intrinsically driven.
When we can help transform beliefs, we instill self-determination, and with self-determination comes the foundation for growth. The words we speak make a difference. They can make or break a spirit. They can build or tear down self-belief. They can arm our youth with the tools needed to grow or they can keep them in a cycle of despair. It is our responsibility to suspend judgment and to focus on planting seeds that open the door to authenticity, compassion and their own belief that they are worthy of being seen and heard.
Pamela Larde, Ph.D., is an associate professor of research at Mercer University, an Institute of Coaching Fellow at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital and a certified life coach. She has written four books and contributed chapters to various academic texts.