Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

In recent months, I’ve had the a-ha that I don’t get rattled by turbulence like I once did.  In thinking through why, I pinpointed that it is due to experiencing a severe depressive episode. I now have more perspective. The latest issue in front of me is just not that bad. It too will pass.

I calmly accept what goes awry and move forward, rather than wasting energy over wishing it did not happen or beating myself up for letting it happen. The quote by Nietzsche, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”  has taken on new meaning.


I realize this new behavior is a part of my post traumatic growth (PTG), a phenomenon identified in the 1990s by UNC Charlotte psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.  About half of people who go through trauma will experience PTG.

What is PTG?  A positive psychological change that some individuals experience after a life crisis or traumatic event.  It doesn’t deny deep turbulence, and PTG can co-exist with post traumatic stress disorder.  Post traumatic growth positions the distress to unexpectedly yield changes in understanding oneself, often benefiting one’s family and colleagues, and often yields  a desire to positively impact one’s broader global community.

In my HappinessWorks™ sessions, where I share with corporate audiences how the science of positive psychology works, I like to use a quote in positioning trauma. “This thing is not happening to you, it is happening for you.”

Benefits of PTG

Individuals who have post traumatic growth experience one of these or several of these benefits:

A greater appreciation for life. I definitely had this reaction when I went downhill at age 40 in a traumatic cycling accident and was airlifted unconscious to an ICU with a broken neck and a closed head injury.  Whereas others focused on my suffering, I simply was thankful to be alive and decided to dedicate the second half of my life to helping others.

Recognition of one’s own strength.  After my husband abruptly walked out on me when our son was only 14 months old, I had to suddenly figure out how to be on my own financially and as a single parent. The IPO of my start-up had not gone well, so I knew I had best search for a new opportunity.  I accepted an executive role at a fast-growing, well-funded tech venture.  I quickly hired a strong team and learned the ins and outs of business to business enterprise software marketing. I grew immensely as a leader.  I had not recognized the capacity of what I could do on my own.

Better relationships.  After the passing of both my parents and a couple other professional and personal losses, I experienced a severe depressive episode. When I went into remission, my family and close relationships got stronger.  When my parents were in their final years, my dad expressed his wish that my sister and I would get along better.  I felt like I was bearing the weight of our parents’ care and didn’t appreciate it when she would swoop into town and ask her many questions.  After I was able to move back to Cary and into my old home, I decided to buy a grand piano and restart piano lessons to honor the memory of my mom, my first teacher.  My sister, a professional musician, has helped me in getting better at my playing.  I know that my dad is smiling up above, seeing that we are now closer.

Awareness of new possibilities, priorities or pathways.  While I’ve been told that one of my strengths is seeing possibilities where others do not, traumatic times have definitely opened up the window to even more.  When I veered off Sonoma Mountain Road in my life-changing cycling accident, due to my head injury, I started babbling in Chinese.  My short term memory was shot, and my long term memory came alive.  My mom liked to tell the story about my first words being “gan-gan”  meaning dry, as I was telling her she didn’t need to change my diaper. Soon after I recovered, I made trips to China to better understand my roots and received an appointment from MIT Sloan School to teach entrepreneurial marketing in Fudan University’s international MBA program in Shanghai.

Spiritual or existential development. I cling on to the power of prayer more when going through life’s trials and going through trauma definitely demonstrated this. I am now more focused on impacting others’ lives in a meaningful way and valuing each and every person I encounter, taking the time for quality interactions versus optimizing only on efficiency.

How PTG Occurs

Education.  In addition to starting piano lessons after going into remission, I also stayed true to my word that if I got better, I would restart my happiness studies and enrolled and completed in 18 months Tal Ben Shahar’s intensive program to become a certified happiness trainer. This ongoing study combined with in-person retreats with fellow journeyers around the world has helped me develop new thought processes and tools to be well and help others to be also.

Emotional regulation. Through my renewed happiness journey, I have learned the power of metacognition and putting oneself into the role of the neutral observer when facing emotionally charged situations. I have been able to share these techniques with coaching clients facing their own challenging situations.

Disclosure and narrative development.  I have now written 92 columns on Happiness & Leadership, and given many  talks on the topic.  In doing so, I have reflected and processed how my trauma allows me to now lift up others, so that they will hopefully not have to go through the same issues or if they do, they will have tools to get to the other side.

Service to others. My mission is to continue sharing my story and learning to help others.  I also am spending time thinking strategically about where my philanthropy and volunteer time may best serve others.

How to encourage PTG

Process it. In my HappinessWorks™ programs, I emphasize that happiness and wellness is not the suppression or avoidance of negative emotions. Rather, it is very important to express the pain, accept the trauma and understand how it affects you.

Reflect on your beliefs. Evaluate your core beliefs and understand your priorities.

Seek help.  Working with a professional trained in trauma informed care can help.

Recognize strengths.  Give yourself grace and recognize your courage in getting to where you now are.

Give it time.  PTG does not happen overnight.  It takes the passage of time to process and translate challenging events into gifts for our life.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Exercise: Write about one or two of the most traumatic events in your life. How did each allow you to grow stronger?  Which of the 5 articulated above benefits did you realize?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a management and marketing consultancy that since 2003 has been helping leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential through conducting strategic reviews, marketing audits, and coaching.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles in marketing, business development and product management at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. A TED speaker, her work has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and Inc.

Contact her firm for more information on Grace’s flagship workshop, HappinessWorks™.

Subscribe for free to her Happiness & Leadership@Work.  You will receive one research based lesson each week to learn to be a happier and more productive leader: click here