Dr. Edith Shiro, THE UNEXPECTED GIFT OF TRAUMA: The Path to Posttraumatic Growth

Dr. Edith Shiro, THE UNEXPECTED GIFT OF TRAUMA: The Path to Posttraumatic Growth

Zibby welcomes renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Edith Shiro to discuss THE UNEXPECTED GIFT OF TRAUMA, a powerful, groundbreaking book that offers a five-stage framework for posttraumatic resilience, healing, and growth. Inspired by her grandparents, who were refugees and Holocaust survivors, Dr. Shiro discusses intergenerational trauma and multicultural experiences. She also describes her roadmap for navigating trauma, the transformative power of community support, and the importance of collective healing. Finally, she shares the books she’s reading and loving!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Edith Shiro, who is the author of The Unexpected Gift of Trauma: The Path to Posttraumatic Growth. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Edith Shiro: Thank you, Zibby, for being here. I’m very excited to be with you.

Zibby: We met at the Miami Book Fair after a panel that I did with several Zibby Books authors. A lot of it was about grief and talking about post-traumatic growth. You were like, “This is literally what I do. You need my book.” I’m like, “Yes, I do.”

Edith: My friends came to me and said, “We just saw Zibby. How come you weren’t in that panel? We don’t get it.” I’m like, “I know. Me neither.” I ran to you to say, “Hey, we need to talk.”

Zibby: You were absolutely right. In your book, you start out by giving the reader your own history of trauma and how you got past that. I wanted to just read this paragraph, if that’s okay, to summarize so everybody gets some context here. You said, “My fascination with these questions began in my childhood and is deeply personal. Every generation on both sides of my family has suffered greatly from trauma. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who were the only members of their families to get out of the Nazi death camps alive. I am also the granddaughter of Syrian refugees who fled their home country traveling on foot with their six young children from Aleppo into Israel. My grandmother, heavy with child, gave birth in the Bloudan Mountains and had no choice but to keep going. I am the daughter of Jewish immigrants who escaped from political, religious, and social persecution and made their way to South America. I’ve been a minority Jewish woman in Venezuela and later, a minority Latina immigrant studying and working in the United States. I have experienced the impact of migration and multicultural conditions firsthand. I know what it’s like to be exposed to discrimination in my own neighborhood and city. This too is trauma.” Wow. You’ve got it from all sides here, Edith.

Edith: I actually do. Yeah, I actually do. At the same time, given all of that, which is intergenerational trauma, historical trauma, developmental trauma — yes, I’ve gotten all of that. I feel it in my body. Zibby, it comes in my dreams. I have experiences that I haven’t lived in this lifetime that I feel like I have, as if I have had them. I want to say that at the same time, there’s so much wisdom, so much knowledge, so much culture, so much worldly experiences that I’m also having that whenever I talk to somebody that comes from anywhere, I can relate in some way. I’m so grateful and privileged for that. Because of the languages that I speak, because of the cultures that I’m connected with, because of the experiences that my ancestors have had, it’s almost like I can relate to such a variety of people in that sense. I use it as a superpower in some way.

Zibby: You’re a healer. That’s your purpose in the world. It’s wonderful to see.

Edith: I feel that. That’s very aligned with who I am, absolutely.

Zibby: Post-traumatic growth has gotten a lot of airtime, if you will, lately about this new concept of something that people who have gone through trauma know on some level. You can see things a little bit more clearly. Things have more meaning. Maybe you’re more dialed in on your purpose in life or the brighter side of trauma, if you will, which, at some points, feels like there is no brighter side, but then what? Tell listeners a little more about post-traumatic growth and how to identify it, prepare for it, the benefits of it, just the whole thing.

Edith: Post-traumatic growth, I love talking about that. I’ve been talking about post-traumatic growth for the last twenty-five years, believe it or not. That was my doctorate dissertation, on post-traumatic growth, millions of years ago. At that time, I think the world was not ready for that topic yet because we were barely, barely dealing with what trauma was and barely understanding PTSD as a diagnosis. The world, and especially the United States, was only, twenty-five years ago, thirty years ago, really acknowledging and recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder. We needed to go through that journey in order to get to where we are today in which we can embrace more this thing that is post-traumatic growth. What is post-traumatic growth? It’s the positive consequences that come out of traumatic experiences. I’m very careful when we talk about that because some people say, how can you put trauma and growth or positive in the same sentence? I’m saying that’s precisely why I wrote the book.

People, when they experience trauma, when they experience loss, when they experience adversity — we’ve all had big traumas, little traumas. You and I can talk a little bit more about that. We think sometimes that it’s a life sentence. That’s it. I’m doomed. My husband died. I moved countries. Somebody left me. I’m being bullied all day long. The world is collapsing. There’s a war. It’s the end of the story. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. One of the things that would be very important is to recognize and acknowledge that there’s another possibility. There is some hope out there. There is a light at the end of the tunnel if we know that that’s a possibility that we can consider, that we can play with, that we can see and envision. Knowing that even if we can’t even feel it, even if we can’t even recognize it at first, even if we can’t even imagine that that’s possible, knowing, or at least somebody knowing, that growth is there or that transformation is there is very, very important.

Let’s say as a psychologist or as a mother or as a partner or as a caretaker, knowing that we’re going to help that other person go through a process because there’s something else that is positive, that is transformational, that is transcendent I think really changes the game. It makes for something to move forward to. The way I talk about it is in five stages. These five stages, I didn’t invent them. This is me working with people, with groups, with communities for all these years and recognizing those five stages and putting language to it, putting an understanding. Okay, now where I am? In what stage am I? How many more stages do I have to go through? Understanding this is a process, understanding that there’s some sort of acknowledgment and recognition that this has to happen and knowing that this transformation is incredible — it’s like a quantum leap of a jump in how we can do things. It’s going from breakdowns to breakthroughs.

Zibby: We all need help from breakdown to breakthrough. You talk in the book about collective grief. I feel like there’s a lot of that going around right now. Talk more about that. Can we still have post-traumatic growth from a collective trauma?

Edith: Yes. There’s a lot of books about trauma out there. One of the things that are in my book in the way that I think, really, in the way that I work, it’s very systemic, Zibby. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Jewish. I don’t know, because I’m more spiritual. I don’t know where this is coming from. Also, my professional learning. I see people in the context. I see people in community. I see people in relationships. When something happens to you, there’s an interconnectedness that is related to everyone around us. Collective trauma, the war that we’re in right now, that is extremely traumatic for a lot of us and for the world. Let’s say even the pandemic, it’s a collective trauma. The way to go about it is by collective healing, recognizing that there’s some belief system that has been shattered. The way that we understand ourselves, the way that we understand others, the way that we understand the world has been shattering. It’s breaking. It’s not the same. That happened during COVID. It’s like, what? You mean this is not who I am? My relationship is not like this? The government doesn’t function this way? The world can be — these are beliefs that we didn’t know we had in that they’re no longer functioning, how do we pause and recognize that and radically accept it in order to build a new narrative of ourselves and of others and of the world? That’s where the transformation begins to happen. How do we accept it, we validate it as a group, as a community?

Let me talk about Venezuelans. When the Venezuelan people are fleeing the country and seven million refugees outside of the country, until and unless there’s some validation, acknowledgment, and recognition of the oppression that has been happening in that culture, of the breaking of the very fabric of who they are and then really having a more public validation of that, the healing cannot happen. Yes, we can do individual healings, but as a collective, we need that collective public space to contain that grief and to contain that pain and that wound in order to begin to heal it. That happens in communities, with leaderships, in open spaces. I’ve been doing groups about that. For example, right now, I’m working with the parents of soldiers in Israel. These parents are grieving. They are at a loss. They’re in this ambiguous loss place in which they have kids, but they don’t know if they’re there. They don’t know how long they’re going to be alive. They don’t know if they’re going to come back home. Are they happy? Should they be sad? Should they be hopeful? Yes, I can see each and every one of their parents alone, but the power of the group in which we’re working is so amazing. The healing that is happening between them as a group and the connection that is going on, it’s so powerful that something else comes up. That’s also the collective that needs to happen at the same time.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. After the attacks on October 7th, like everybody, I was just rocked. The first month, I didn’t know what to do. The thing that helped me the most was gathering with a bunch of other women authors and starting this whole Artists Against Anti-Semitism thing. We did a silent auction. All of that was great. We did raise money. Everything was helpful. That was great. The best part was seeing all the people who were like, I want to be a part of this. I want to volunteer. Let’s do this together. Getting on a Zoom with so many people and just knowing that you’re not alone in it and all the fear, that you’re part of this whole thing, that, to me, was intensely therapeutic.

Edith: Totally. That’s exactly what it is. Why? Because trauma is like a bomb. When it falls, it separates. It polarizes. We see it in politics. We see it not just in countries. We see it in our everyday, in families. It polarizes people. It fragments the relationships. It isolates you. Then you say, I’m suffering. You cannot understand what I’m suffering, so you are no longer with me. You are my enemy. We’re separated. That separation, that isolation makes us even more shameful to share our feelings or more not trustworthy. We don’t trust the other because they’re going to hurt us or because we disagree. Then this is the very thing that creates trauma. That’s the thing. More than the bomb that falls is that fragmentation, isolation, and separation. It’s that thing that says, we’re no longer together. We don’t have support. There’s no one by my side.

When a woman is being abused in a relationship, when a child is being sexually abused or molested, it’s not just the event that happens. It’s that there’s no one to talk to. How am I even going to tell this experience to anybody and they’re going to believe me? I’m not getting the support that I need in order to overcome this. People that go through a difficult experience and have the support, their trauma flows so much easier. The healing goes so much easier than the ones that don’t have this kind of support. You creating a community after October 7th was such a healing thing. It was very natural, very organic. More than just that, the money that you raised or the books that you — it’s that gathering, that connectedness, that belonging to something. The same with the groups that I’ve been building here after. It’s the parents coming together. The community, let’s all do something together for this. It’s that we’re not alone. We’re connected. We’re not breaking the binds. We’re keeping that alive. That really makes a big difference.

Zibby: It’s funny, right before this, I interviewed a woman who specializes in — Erica Keswin — workplace community, and how basically, feeling a part of the group at work leads to more productivity. She cited one study of, firefighters who had lunch together ended up saving more lives as a team. It’s exactly what you’re saying here. This is the secret sauce of getting through trauma, getting through life, of work, of everything. I can imagine people listening being like, yeah, yeah, that’s great, but you can’t just snap your fingers and get a community. How do you do that? I think that’s the challenge. I remember after college, I was like, wait, so I’m just alone in the world now? I’m not a part of anything after a lifetime of being in educational institutions? What do I do now? My little company? This isn’t anything. We leave work, and then I’m like, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?

Edith: I know. It’s a very difficult moment. That’s a transition. It’s very difficult.

Zibby: For people listening who are like, I have had trauma, I am going through a hard time, but I don’t know, necessarily, how to find that group or my people — I’ll say being a part of this listening community is already a part of something. Being part of anything in this bookish world that I’ve tried to create, anyone listening is a part of a community. For more specific connections and their own individual traumas and everything, how do you recommend people find those groups or find their people like that?

Edith: I really appreciate that question because that jump is not easy. Sometimes it takes people months and years until they’re able to do something about it. One of the things to do, the first step is to have this radical acceptance, is sitting with yourself, looking at yourself in the mirror. I think it’s a very intimate and brave experience to say, you know what, let me be radically honest with myself. I am addicted. I am depressed. I am going through something horrible. I am vulnerable. I surrender to what’s happening to me. I can no longer continue my repetitive behavior. You know what I’m talking about, Zibby. We all have this. We do this repetitive thing. We keep doing it. We can’t get out of this cycle. We keep going through the same relationships. We keep having the same behavior. It’s like, today, I’m not going to do it. Then you fall into that again. It’s really stopping that for a moment, even pausing for a moment and recognizing that that’s what’s going on and having that really, really honest conversation with yourself and say, let me accept that.

Once you do that and you’re able to be radically honest and radically clear with yourself, that’s when you’re going to the second stage, which is giving yourself the permission to ask for help and to extend that hand and say, I can’t do this alone. Let me just make one phone call. Let me just talk to one person. Let me find my yoga teacher and just tell my yoga teacher what happened. Let me go on a retreat and see if I can do — let me tell my family member or my best friend. That’s how it begins to build, that asking for help and that looking for that support and protection. That second stage of support and protection is extremely important because that’s when you begin to feel contained and feel safe. That can be in the form of therapy, but it can be also in the form of a book community, a book club in which people talk with each other. Then you’re going to have an opportunity to maybe say something about yourself and understand something more about yourself and see what the other person did about it that is different than yours or the same. It can be in the form of a retreat or a sports group that you joined. This is how you begin to find yourself and slowly ask for that help. Obviously, therapy is a really good way to go about it because then you have that way of being validated and being accepted and recognized, which is so, so important to open up for the healing.

Then it goes into the third stage, which is really opening up for new stories, new narratives, new ways, new perspectives to look at your story, look at yourself. When you go through a big trauma, this is your opportunity to say, I can let go of the things that I used to do and the way that I was. I’m opening up for news ways of seeing the world. Books, by the way, are an amazing pathway for that. People begin to read books that they weren’t reading before, to listen to podcasts that they weren’t. My patients are like, I’m trying out this thing. I logged into this other podcast. I’m listening every day. I’m going away with this group. It’s like trying out new clothes, new dresses, new costumes to see what fits. The ones that you had before, they no longer work. They’re broken. It’s broken. It’s dead. That’s when you open up. This is when, also, people become more spiritual. People more of a path of spirituality. Not necessarily religion, but more spirituality.

Then you go into this fourth stage of integration. Then you really integrate your old self with your new self. It’s your whole story. You’re not just this new thing. You’re able to see what happened to you and talk about what happened to you without being retraumatized. You can talk about that loss that you had or that breakup that you had or that painful experience that you had, but you can say it without having all those overwhelming feelings again and say, that’s also who I was. I was that. I was in a relationship that was abusive. You know what? Yes, I got divorced, and this is what happened. I really had a bad experience in childhood, but I’m also this, both this and this. You integrate it into your whole self, which allows you to then go into the wisdom and growth, which is the fifth stage. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. I would love to hear about your story because you have such an example of post-traumatic growth. You’re such a perfect example of post-traumatic growth, Zibby. It’s how your relationships are. Your connections are more meaningful. Your priorities are more clear. You know what you like, what you don’t like, where you’re going. A lot of people become very clear in their life purpose. All of a sudden, you see there’s a mission there.

It’s like the medicine is in the wound. You know the medicine already because you’ve been in the wound. From that place, you have the medicine. People become more spiritual. That spirituality, that feeling like you are not alone, that you’re part of a bigger thing, that it’s something bigger than yourself, that’s not necessarily religion. It’s more as human beings. You’re part of this humanity that is more truthful and more meaningful. There’s actually even physical ways of measuring that spirituality in the brain. It becomes a protective factor for future trauma, which is beautiful. I am super excited when I write about that in the book and when I talk about it because these are the elements that will help you for the next situation that happens to be so much more protected, resilient, so much more in the growth, in the wisdom stage and say, I can handle this. I’ve been through something very difficult. I can handle the next thing. I’ve developed resources. It’s a different way of being. You’re in a different stage of being. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to suffer again or go through pain again or have difficulty again, but there’s something that has shifted inside of you that is very meaningful.

Zibby: It’s like what I always say to my older daughter. You’ve done it before, and you can do it again. You have to use yourself as a model. When you were talking about different groups and finding your way and therapy, I was thinking also about Facebook groups, which I know aren’t exactly new and riveting advice, but it’s something so easy you can do with just a click. All of a sudden, you’re in a group. You see how many people are in the group. I think Facebook groups can be really helpful.

Edith: Absolutely. Also, you know what? Yesterday, I was having therapy with this wonderful woman that I’ve been working with for many years. She works really hard. She was like, “I need to do something else with my life, but I don’t know what. Maybe I’ll learn a new language. Maybe I need to do more exercise or do more meditation.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s really good, but this is more of your improvement with yourself and your routine of exercise, meditation. What is it that you love? What do you love doing? What gives you pleasure?” She said, “Dancing.” I said, “You’re in New York. Great place to find dancing places. Go to meetup groups. Go to a dancing academy. Join a group that is dancing salsa, merengue, creative dancing, whatever.” It’s like the world was illuminated for her because it didn’t occur to her. This is creating a new community for her in which she can do something that she loves and also become part of something else. It’s not just the Facebook and the virtual. Also, think about what you like, some food you like, some hobby that you like, some situation that you — just join some cause. A lot of the times, I say that the best antidote for depression is serving other people. Pick up the phone, and see who is the old lady there that needs some company, the little children that are — you know that. Being in service completely helps you and makes you be part of a bigger group as well.

Zibby: I say that to my kids also when they’re, “I don’t want to go to school today. I’m sad,” or whatever. I’m like, “Your job today is to make someone else feel better. You have to make somebody smile. Go in there, and make somebody smile.”

Edith: That’s incredible that you’re teaching that to your children so early. I honor that. That’s beautiful.

Zibby: This went so fast. I have so much more to say. We’re going to do a really quick speed round in the next minute. What are you reading that you love or a book that you love?

Edith: Right now, I’m reading Mario Vargas Llosa. I just came back from Mexico. Mario Vargas Llosa, he’s Peruvian. Latin American literature is my favorite thing. I love it. He just came out with a new book. Rosa Montero is a wonderful, amazing woman. I recommend you check her out. Rosa Montero, she has incredible writing. These are the books that I’m reading right now. Three books. Jonathan Sacks, he’s a rabbi. He has lessons for every month and every week. I’ve been reading him because I’ve been missing his lectures. That also, I’m reading.

Zibby: TV show or a movie you’ve loved lately?

Edith: I saw Anatomy of a Fall. Have you seen that movie? I just saw that last week.

Zibby: Not yet.

Edith: Brilliant movie about a relationship, a couple, a child that is blind, the family dynamics. Fascinating, brilliant, and very illuminating. I recommend it.

Zibby: I will go see it. A product of any kind that you’re obsessed with.

Edith: I was, this weekend, looking for quartz, for stones because it was recommended that I should get some. I saw this beautiful quartz — it’s from Brazil — that were in a bracelet. I’m not wearing it, but I have it. I love the color. I’m into stones and quartzes and energy. I love that. I’m always having little stones and little pieces of energy all over the places where I work.

Zibby: Perfect. Thank you. Edith, thank you so much for coming on. I’m looking forward to seeing you in real life in March.

Edith: Absolutely. Looking forward. You know I’ll be there to support you. Let’s talk before so we can do something about it. Bye. Thank you. Have a great day. Ciao.

Zibby: Buh-bye. You too.

THE UNEXPECTED GIFT OF TRAUMA: The Path to Posttraumatic Growth by Dr. Edith Shiro Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

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