‘Shattered Vase’ Theory : Posttraumatic Growth

shattered vase

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first incorporated into the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM III – (sometimes informally referred to as the psyciatrists’ bible) in 1980.

Although, without appropriate and effective therapy, PTSD can devastate lives (including, of course, variants of PTSD resulting from severe childhood trauma), as the disorder has become increasingly studied by clinicians it has also become more and more apparent that some individuals affected by the disorder not only overcome their suffering, but, also, report positive changes to their lives that have derived from working through the effects of their traumatic experiences ; indeed, many have reported  that they went on to function better, and extract more meaning and fulfillment from life, than they had been able to prior to developing PTSD.

As a result of this discovery (i.e. that some individuals not only recover from PTSD but go on to thrive), the psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun coined the term POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH (PTG). Indeed, studies now suggest that up to seventy per cent of those who have suffered from severe trauma may, at least, gain some significant benefit from their experience. Such benefits frequently include the following :

  • a greater appreciation of the importance of supportive relationships
  • an awareness of their courage and mental strength (as demonstrated by having survived extreme adversity)
  • a deeper appreciation of life and a determination to ‘seize the day’

The ‘Shattered Vase’ Metaphor :

shattered vase

The ‘shattered vase‘ metaphor was devised by the psychologist Stephen Joseph. It is based on the idea that after a severely traumatic experience we can feel as if our lives have been ‘shattered’ and that our very being has become fragmented.

However, just as one could rearrange the broken pieces of the shattered vase into a new work of art, such as a mosaic or sculpture, so too, suggests Joseph, may we be able to ‘rebuild’ ourselves.

Like the shattered vase refashioned into a different art piece, our ‘rebuilt’ self will also be different from the original, but may well possess new qualities that did not exist in our former selves, such as those listed above. Indeed, the new, rebuilt self may well be a significant improvement upon the old one and as such would constitute posttraumatic growth.

We can, therefore, draw some solace from the shattered vase metaphor, even if our suffering has been great.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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