But positive events can lead to post-traumatic growth, too: landing a new job, having a new baby, or falling in love. And, according to research, the jolts we feel from these positive disruptive events can energize us, boost our self-esteem, deepen our relationship with others, and enhance the meaning of our lives.
Over the years, through my academic research and consulting, I’ve developed a process for achieving personal growth through positive trauma called the Positive Method. Building on a well-established technique called Reflected Best-Self Exercise, my process is akin to listening to your friends, co-workers, and family eulogize you. No, this doesn’t involve faking your own death. But the process will probably make you feel vulnerable, squeamish, and uncomfortable. The task involves reaching out to people who mean the most to you of times, sharing anecdotes of when they made an impact, and asking them to share memories of you being the best version of yourself. You end up with a personal highlight reel: a set of memories of you at your very best.
If this makes you nervous, you’re not alone. In my structured interviews of people who completed the Positive Method, more than half of the people I spoke with, from Seoul and Sydney to New Jersey, spontaneously mentioned the cultural resistance to focusing on people’s unique strengths. Why? Over the years, I’ve become convinced that our allergic reaction is because we’re afraid that if we focus on people’s positive contributions, we’ll make them arrogant. I can tell you, this fear is misplaced when it comes to the Positive Method. In fact, the opposite is true. People feel inspired and energized to use their strengths even more, and give more to others, after reading their highlights.
Ironically, what makes the Positive Method so effective is how uncomfortable it is. Because it questions our basic assumptions, it can shift your controls from autopilot to manual. Often, we don’t notice how our negative assumptions and negative self-talk become our default setting. This can make life seem like a daily struggle. We spiral downward and find ourselves in ruts that hold us back from our potential. But by building a personal highlight reel, it’s possible to jolt yourself into a more positive cycle and create real personal change. Once you can see how others perceive you when you make your best impact, you’ll be more likely to maximize and build upon the unique strengths that make you exceptional.
The process, which I detail in my book Exceptional, is also adaptable to your needs. You can make this your own personal project or a team activity, or, if you’re a boss, you can choose to send notes of appreciation to your direct reports. Here’s the full process:
Give before you receive. Before you ask for feedback, send your notes of appreciation and gratitude to people in your life: parents, colleagues, bosses, kids, friends, siblings. This will begin a virtuous cycle of gratitude. Block off 15 minutes to brainstorm about each person’s unique strengths. Pretend you are going to speak at his or her eulogy, and jot down what makes this person so special to you. Dredge your memories for a few specific times that this person was using his or her character traits to make a great impact.
As you craft your notes, remember that human brains are built for stories — not facts and over-generalizations. So, rather than simply offering praise (“You’re so smart” or “You’re great with kids”), write a story about specific event that was impactful to you. Adding personal touches will help others relive those memories.
When I started at this job, as a recent college grad with little experience, I really appreciated everything you did for me. You were right by my side, giving me great projects, calming my nerves before my presentation to Melinda, putting up with my pesky questions about Excel, and introducing me to the homemade potato chips from Jules’s.
From there, I would detail how the person affected you, and how their strengths — in the above case, the person’s kindness and mentorship — was meaningful to you.
Next, when you’re ready to send your notes stories out, write something like this:
Based on an article I read, I’ve been thinking about ways I can improve my relationships. I don’t know if you know this, but you are an important person in my life. I want to share some memories with you about when I’ve seen you at your best. Then, if you are willing, I’d love to learn about a few times when you saw me making my best impact.
I can remember a time when… [add your story]
Don’t send out all the notes at once. You’ll feel more positive emotions if you spread your writing out across two weeks. Once you get started you may find you want to write more than one story for some people.
Don’t undervalue the impact of showing gratitude. The evidence suggests that people will love hearing your memories, and will want to give back. That’s how the emotion of gratitude creates upward spirals, and it’s why you’ll become closer to the people you reached out to after this exercise.
Embrace Your Emotions — Then Get to Work. As people send you their memories, save them up and read them all in one sitting to maximize their impact. Reliving those memories, especially if they span decades, can be a truly emotional experience.
Jolts of positive trauma emerged in many of my interviews with people who had constructed their personal highlight reels. Take 48-year-old Louise, a high-powered partner in a global consulting firm in Chicago. It is not easy to earn partnership as a woman in a masculine business environment, and Louise is not often prone to sentimentality. However, after reading her highlight reel, Louise told me:
I think I was more emotional than happy. Happy is not the right word. Touched. Yes, really touched. Moved. I think, rationally, I kind of knew everything they wrote. But the fact that they tell you with their own words, what they’ve seen, and how great you are, is very touching.
Throughout the interviews I conducted, what I heard again and again, across diverse age groups and national cultures, was a sense of positive trauma. People regularly use words like “intensity,” “surprised,” “amazed,” “stunned,” “touched,” and “wonder.”