Sometimes, you coincidentally run into things – and you instantly have a flash of insight that profoundly deepens your understanding of a specific facet of human life. This so happened when one of my fellow Mappsters, Hayley Goldenthal, shared a link in our MAPP 9 Facebook group. It´s a collection of 50 pictures displaying quotes and aphorisms on “the good life”. Here, I´m going to share with you No. 9 of that collection:
It´s about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsukuroi (or Kintsugi) which basically is “fixing broken pottery with lacquer resin dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.” And I thought to myself: This is probably the best metaphor that I´ve ever come across for the process of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), a research area that – although it might seem non-positive at first look – lies at the heart of Positive Psychology.
Nietzsche used to say “What doesn´t kill me makes me stronger!”. While I totally agree with him, Kintsukuroi can tell us that our suffering, struggles, and hardships can also render us more profound, unique, and beautiful…
Does a heart surgeon need to have suffered from a heart attack in order to be a top-notch heart surgeon? Probably not. Does a psychotherapist need to have suffered from depression in order to be a top-notch psychotherapist? Probably not. But in the latter case, it might still help a lot. The difference: whereas in the first case, the patient lies in the operating room, in the second case, a hell of a lot of empathy is needed.
In Greek mythology, there´s the character of the centaur Chiron. Among other attributes, Chiron is the epitome of the Wounded Healer. He is frequently depicted as one of the greatest healers of his time – but was accidently hit by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, resulting in the only wound that he could not heal. And that might have turned him an even better healer.
In a paper by the name of Survivor mission: Do those who survive have a drive to thrive at work? the researchers (including Penn´s Angela Duckworth) investigate this issue using samples of police detectives (with and without a history of violent victimization) and mental health workers (with and without a history of mental illness). Their results indicate that police detectives who have experienced violent victimization and mental health professionals who have experienced the same mental illness as their clients do indeed exhibit greater work engagement than their colleagues who lack these parallel life experiences. The link between firsthand experience of client’s hardships and work engagement appears to be explained by higher levels of grit among police detectives and by a greater sense of life-narrative continuity among mental health professionals. In a nutshell:
Wounded Healers seem to try harder and experience a stronger sense of meaning in what they do.
These findings strongly resonate with a broader strand of research (in Positive Psychology) that investigates the phenomenon of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). It is true that suffering a psychological trauma leaves a lot of people shattered. But that is by far not the only possible trajectory. Many people manage to reach a markedly higher level of psychological functioning some time after the trauma then they were at before. Specifically, successfully coping with a trauma can lead to: