The Theory of the Shattered Vase

(as a metaphor of trauma accommodation and assimilation leading to post-traumatic growth)

Imagine that a cherished vase sits on a table in your home. Perhaps it was a gift from a beloved relative or friend. One day, you accidentally knock it off its perch. Luckily, there is only a little damage. It is easy to quickly glue the few broken pieces back into place. The vase looks as it did before, and the mend is invisible to the eye. For some people, traumatic events are like this. Such events may dent or even break some of their core assumptions, but not to the extent that their overall worldview changes. It is relatively easy for them to assimilate the experience.

But imagine that vase smashes into a thousand tiny shards. Devasted, you rush to collect the fragments. How to put them back together? In the disorganised confusion the vase seems beyond repair. Nevertheless, some people will try to put it back together exactly as it was before it fell to the ground. If they‘re lucky, the vase may look as it used to. Closer examination will reveal the truth, however: it is held together by nothing more than glue and sticky tape. The cracks are still visible if you look carefully, and the slightest jolt would send the vase back into pieces once again. Likewise, those people who try to hold on to their worldviews following trauma are often more fragile, defensive, and easily hurt. Their wounded assumptions are subject to being shattered again and again.

But assimilation is not the only strategy: some people will take up the pieces and build something new. They are sad that their prized vase is broken, but accept that it can never return to its old form. The question now becomes: what to make of it next? Perhaps they can use the different coloured pieces to assemble a mosaic, find a new and useful form to preserve their memories. This is the essence of accommodation.

Stephen Joseph (2011). What doesn't kill you. new york: basic books. 113-114.