How to Bloom in the Dark

Beyond Resilience: How to Bloom in the Dark

Michelle Pearce, PhD

I used to want to be resilient. Then, I learned there was another option when going through adversity, a perspective that would allow me to go beyond resilience. Now, I want to be a Night Bloomer.

Let me back up.

Resilience. It’s a popular word these days and there are many ways of defining it. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences” (APA, n.d.).

Adapting or “bouncing back” can mean any number of things. It might mean interviewing for another job after being rejected by the last ten companies with whom you’ve interviewed. Or, falling in love again after you have been betrayed.

Resilience Isn’t Always Enough

As wonderful as resilience is, I don’t think it’s enough. For one thing, we don’t always want to “bounce back” to where we were before the adversity arrived. That original place wasn’t necessarily a great place to be. And, second, if we must go through it, why not come out even better than we were before? Why not have something positive to show for all our effort and struggle? Time spent in suffering and struggle is like an investment, and no one strives for a zero return rate.

A few years ago, I came across the psychological concept of post-traumatic growth. The idea is that people can grow as a result of going through a trauma or severe stress. It’s the opposite of post-traumatic stress, which leaves us in a worse state after experiencing a trauma.

Post-traumatic growth is also possible without going through a trauma as defined by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual—the set of criteria that mental health professionals like myself use to diagnose mental health disorders. Small “t” traumas, losses, and adversity can also result in our growth. It certainly has for me and for many of my clients. I call positive transformation and growth through adversity “blooming in the dark.”

Blooming in the Dark

I was in clinic seeing clients one afternoon, not too long after my husband rocked my world by announcing he wanted a divorce. A friend texted me a picture of a vibrant pink flower with a message that read, “Night blooming cactus. I’ve cared for this cactus for years and it finally bloomed last night.”

Those two sentences and that pink flower changed everything.

I had no idea that some flowers bloom in the dark, that some flowers actually require the dark to bloom. As I paused to consider this new information, it hit me: some people need the dark to bloom.

Some people need the trials and suffering and loss and life upheavals to experience growth and transformation, to come into the fullness of their beings and life purpose. I am one of those people. Like it or not, my greatest personal growth has always come from spending a season in the darkness of pain, loss, and suffering.

I think there are a lot of us out there who need the dark. I call us “Night Bloomers.” We do just as our name says—we bloom in the darkness of adversity.

People Who Bloom in the Dark Become More Than They Were

Blooming in the dark includes the idea of resilience, but it’s about even more than that. When you bloom in the dark, you don’t just bounce back from a trauma or adapt to adversity—you become more as a result of that trauma or adversity.

Let’s return to the examples we used earlier to help define resilience: the job seeker seeking again and the lover loving again. Now let’s take it a step further and see what it would look like if these people bloomed in the dark, allowing their adversity to propel them forward in life.

The man didn’t just continue to interview for jobs after experiencing a series of rejections. He took the time to do some difficult soul-searching with the help of a therapist and realized that deep down he didn’t believe he was worth hiring. He expected rejection, not just from potential employers, but from everyone in life. He worked through this negative self-belief and not only did he interview well and get the job, but he also started enjoying life in a brand-new way. His whole outlook was more positive and engaging.

The woman who had been betrayed didn’t just fall in love again; this time she loved with her whole being. She fully engaged in her next relationship and experienced a level of intimacy that she didn’t even know existed. This second relationship was far more fulfilling than her first one. Through her experience of loss, she learned how to really love a partner and how to receive love in return.

In these examples, the individuals weren’t just resilient, meaning they didn’t just refuse to let an adversity define them or their dreams. These individuals bloomed in the dark. They allowed the force that collapsed something in their lives to be the very energy that caused them to become a better version of themselves.

How to Bloom in the Dark

In my book, Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity, I discuss 12 concrete strategies that we can use to bloom in the dark. I’ll briefly summarize three of those strategies here. Let me preface the strategies below by saying how important it is to acknowledge our pain and mourn our losses before we get to blooming. Indeed, one of the first principles in Night Bloomers is to Grieve Before Growing.

1. Set an Intention to Bloom

This might sound obvious, but before you can bloom, you need a vision of your own transformation, a vision of what is possible in your life, and a clear idea of how you want to harness the adversity you are experiencing.

Usually the pain and suffering that enters our lives is out of our control, as is the ultimate outcome of the painful situation we are in (e.g., whether or not a cure is found for an illness). However, setting an intention to develop certain character traits or create a new focus for one’s life, coupled with practical tools to achieve these intentions, can provide you with a sense of control and agency during difficult and uncertain times.

Blooming Tip: Journal about the type of person you want to become and the story you want to be able to tell about yourself and your life when this dark season is over. Creating a blooming vision board is another great way to have a visual reminder of who you want to become, as a result of this dark season.

2. Support Your Bloom

Don’t try to get through the darkness alone. We need to get and stay connected to others, especially during difficult times. Just like some plants need to be staked as they are growing, Night Bloomers need to be “staked” or supported as they are going through their blooming process. This kind of support can come from a variety of people in your life: family, friends, professional counselors, coaches, clergy, mind-body workers, and so on.

Blooming Tip: Make a list of all the stakes (i.e., support system) you already have in your life and what role each person plays. Then, write down the steps you can take to draw upon each person’s support strategically, as well as who you might need to add to your support system to have a well-rounded garden of support.

3. Expand Courageously

Blooming takes a lot of courage. For some, courage means facing reality rather than embracing an illusion. For others, courage is simply getting out of bed in the morning. For other a little farther along in the process, courage means forging a new identity and expanding both internally and externally. To become more than you were, you must expand, and expanding takes both action and courage.

Blooming Tip: Make a list of new hobbies and experiences you want to have, and what baby (and big) steps you need to take to get there. Then, flex your courage muscle by engaging in one of the activities on your list. Take a friend with you if you need, and remember to stretch, but not splatter as you are expanding. One baby step at a time.

If you are going through a difficult time right now—and with everything that is going on in the world, most of us are facing more challenges than ever—I hope you will consider going beyond resilience and instead choose to bloom in the dark.

You’ll be in good company—there are a lot of us Night Bloomers out there. And, with this new perspective and these practical strategies, I think you’ll find the darkness to be a surprisingly fertile and transformative place. Here’s to you blooming!

–Adapted excerpts from Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity published by Ixia Press/Dover Publications.

About Dr. Michelle Pearce:

Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” is available at your favorite online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *