New earth from fire – Prof Michael Steger

Annette Willemse -- Wed, 10/07/2015 - 13:22

New earth from fire – Prof Michael Steger

While many of us associate fire as a force of destruction and an instrument of death, Prof Michael Steger is of the opinion that fire should also – within the realm of Counselling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology, be seen as being synonymous with the process of creating new life. 

Prof Michael Steger

Professor Steger recently delivered an address entitled: “New earth from fire” during the annual School of Behavioural Sciences’ Stakeholder Breakfast hosted on the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal).  Apart from Prof Steger being a world-renowned expert in quality-of-life studies, he is also an Extraordinary Professor within the Optentia Research Focus Area on the Campus.

From fire a new beginning

During his address Prof Steger used the example of former American competitive swimmer – Amy van Dyken-Rouen, as an example of how the process of “posttraumatic growth” can develop and eventually lead to not only a shift in perspective but also a catalyst for collective resilience and flourishing.  Amy was an Olympic champion (winning six gold medals in her career), former record-holder, and Swimming World’s American Swimmer of the Year for two consecutive years (1995 and 1996) when her sporting career came to an abrupt end in 2014 during a severe all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident that severed her spinal cord. The accident left her paralysed from the waist down.


“From the moment she opened her eyes in the hospital, Amy made the conscious decision to not only focus on the pain, but to focus on recovery,” says Prof Steger and explains that Amy’s resilience gave way to “unparalleled” social support and as a result thereof she became an inspiration to the community and the world.

“When people come together the result is always change. Amy’s dedication to her rehabilitation and the public support for her – and charitable causes such as hers, eventually made a very positive impact within the public domain. This collective ethos of mutual support in turn gave way to greater awareness and empathy and as such an influx of steady funding through various charity organisations. The funding was used and is still being used to conduct advanced research which may lead to the development of novel treatment options to help other victims in the future. In short: a cycle of posttraumatic growth is systematically taking shape.”  

In conclusion, Prof Steger explained that in order for individuals to experience posttraumatic growth several “shifts” should take place:

  • The impact of the trauma should be limited by rebuilding a new ground zero – meaning that focus should be placed on relationship building and changing the way in which one views the world.
  • In a crisis it is important to change the way in which one relates to another and by doing so, also change the perceptions of what individual roles are. In the case of Amy, she had to shift her mind-set from being an athlete the pinnacle of her career to re-adjusting her entire way of living in accordance with her physical abilities after the accident.
  • There should be a paradigm shift in what we perceive our purpose in life should be. Amy went from being an Olympic star to become one of the most inspirational change makers in the world.

The journey to posttraumatic growth is long, but the rewards are great. “By systematically going about the process of change and addressing the question of ‘what now?’ instead of ‘why?’ one can achieve psychological reconciliation.”

More about Prof Michael Steger

Professor Steger is an Associate Professor in the Counselling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University and holds the position of Extraordinary Professor at the North-West University.
He received his B.A. in Psychology from Macalester College and his Ph.D. in Counselling Psychology and Personality Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 2005. His graduate work on developing a measure of meaning in life earned him the Best Dissertation Award from the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies. He has continued to research the foundations and benefits of living a meaningful life. In addition, he has published research on factors related to achieving well-being, how people adjust to traumatic life events, and social influences on depression.

He is the co-editor of Designing Positive Psychology from Oxford University Press, and Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace from American Psychological Association Press. His research also investigates what makes work meaningful, and how meaningful work enriches employees and organizations. He currently serves as the Associate Editor of the Journal of Personality, and serves on the editorial boards of several other journals.