“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In a therapy session, a client made the oft used statement that he had come to believe was true. I questioned his perception as I wondered whether he needed to go through the traumas of his youth to get to the place he was at present. He looked at me, puzzled and said that it had taught him to be more compassionate and empathetic.

As much as we might want to use deductive reasoning to understand and, in some cases, validate an outcome, do we, at times, seek out challenges to make what happened to us acceptable?

Consider the life of a woman who had experienced multiple losses that she suppressed over the years, so that she could function and then looked back in regret at what she might have done differently. She reminded herself that had she made alternative choices, stemming from a “If I knew then what I know now,” mindset, she would have missed career and relationship opportunities. She acknowledged that had she not married her husband, she wouldn’t have had the roller coaster emotional ride, but would not have learned all she had about herself. Had she left the marriage at the various times when she contemplated doing so, she wouldn’t have followed the trajectory on which she now finds herself. Had he not died, she wouldn’t have taken the career path she is on. Had subsequent relationships turned out as she planned, she would have missed out on others that ultimately fed her heart and soul. Putting these life events into perspective had her relinquishing her regrets and the harshly self-critical voices that hitch-hiked along with them. The question remains: did they make her stronger or render her more vulnerable?

Are our challenges like an intense gym workout that has us becoming more flexible and robust as we sweat it out on various pieces of equipment that might be symbolically labeled, “illness”, “death of a loved one”, “financial difficulty”, or “relationship ending”? The Holmes-Rahe Scale highlights the various events that may arrive unpredictably or by design. Each one bears a number points that can impact us in life altering ways. When faced with resistance, our muscles may stretch, but if we go too far past our limits, they may tear. Teachers of yoga advise their students to “go to their edge,” but not further, since injury is more likely. The same is true for our emotional muscles.

During major seismic shifts in my life, my long-time friend and mentor, Dr. Yvonne Kaye has reminded me not to say that I am strong, because when you see yourself as strong, it gives out the signal that you don’t need anyone. Instead, she would tell me that I have strengths. Over the years, I have developed these resiliency skills, as I engage in activities, such as taking naps, meditation, laughter, nurturing touch, dance, listening to and making music, asking for support, allowing for tears to flow, writing, time in nature, and engaging in workouts. As the daughter of a resilient mother who was “the rock” of the family, I had come to believe Nietzsche’s statement and took it to heart, literally. In 2014, my heart issued a loud and clear message that was a wake-up call. This cardiac event brought with it the revelation that I need not get to that point ever again by ignoring the signposts along the way that had me on an operating table. I could have gotten stronger in other, less extreme ways.

Stephen Joseph, PhD, author of What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger: The New Psychology of Trauma and Transformation,  explains, “Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

The concept of post-traumatic growth that Joseph endorses, offers a strengths-based perspective. Research from Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina Charlotte found that survivors of trauma often experienced profound healing, a stronger spiritual faith and philosophical grounding.

The 21-item Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory examines responses to painful event in five areas:

  • Relating to others
  • New possibilities
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change
  • Appreciation for life

Resilience is powerful factor in post-traumatic growth that often precedes the life-altering events. It helps people create a sense of stability, bond with caregivers, communicate needs and emotions, regulate themselves, and feel a higher level of self-worth. If adults model resilient responses, children are more inclined to emulate those qualities, making them better able to cope with trauma.

There is a wide variety of evidence that both support and negate this aphorism.

Journalist,  founder of Wives Self Help hotline, andauthor of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger: Turning Bad Breaks Into Blessings, Maxine Schnall comes out on the side that resilience and strength can indeed come from the unthinkable. In her case, it arrived in the form of the ending of her marriage and the brain injury of her beloved daughter at the hands of a drunk driver.

Does the Kelly Clarkson song “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” represent most people’s reality?

A study entitled “Resilience after 9/11: Multimodal neuroimaging evidence for stress-related change in the healthy adult brain” indicates, “trauma exposure plays a causal role in changes to both brain structure and function, even in nonclinical adult populations.” One of the researchers, named Dr. Barbara Ganzel, states, “Our findings suggest that there may be long-term neurobiological correlates of trauma exposure, even in people who appear resilient. We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma. This research is giving us clues about the biology underlying that vulnerability.”

I count among the people in my life, those who have survived trauma, abuse, homelessness, extreme injury, mental health diagnoses, PTSD, addiction, death of loved ones; some through suicide, divorce, and life challenging conditions. Their responses to my inquiry on the topic elicited widely varying insights.

 “I ought to be singing that song, right?! It’s more than ‘this is my fight song!”

“I think it depends how the individual handles the situation. I believe the possibility is always there.”

“Dear whatever is killing me, I am strong enough. You may stop now, please. Thank you.”

“I’ve dealt with so much…at this point, it’s micro-movements. Like in yoga…it hurts then you breathe…and go a little further…repeat.”

“I think that’s kind of bullshit. Strength comes from knowing yourself and not apologizing for who you are. Plenty of people suffer without learning a damn thing.”

“Pain and suffering are not the same thing. Unconsciousness adds suffering to our pain. We all have pain in life. We can have less suffering, though, if we are aware of where our pain is coming from and lean into it instead of resisting it. What you resist persists.”

“Soooo much to say about this, but if only one point to be made it’d be something like this…. stronger doesn’t necessarily, in fact it shouldn’t equate to hardened feelings, or less penetrable attitudes, or arrogance or indignation or belligerence! Instead, I believe stronger to mean, more allowing, more patient, more willing to let go of that which no longer works! Stronger to me means letting go of the need to control and trusting the process, having and demonstrating true faith, believing in things I cannot see nor touch!”

“In a storm, a willow may be stronger than an oak.”

“ohmygosh there is so much damage that can be sustained short of being killed, I find this generalization nonsensical at best and causing harm at worse.”

“Have always thought it was part of what I call ‘Slogan Spirituality’ — not particularly helpful when going through a difficult time. Of course, sometimes we do emerge stronger — but then again, we can also become stronger by being well loved and experiencing joy. And sometimes that which does not kill us just leaves us bedridden or housebound for years — and I would not wish that on anyone (even as I acknowledge that previous unknown strengths may be uncovered.”

“Like other schlocky pithy sayings, I find it unhelpful, especially when lobbed at people who are experiencing difficulty. ‘Slogan spirituality’ …PERFECT!”

“Every setback is a set up for a come-back! I truly believe that!”

“This disturbs me. It sets up a paradigm that tolerates suffering. It reminds me of another saying, ‘God only gives you as much as you can handle.’ Wrong. Ask my dead daughter about how much she could tolerate before she died from depression and suicide. Pain didn’t make her stronger. It made her tired and hopeless. Victim mentality? Why do we need to have it be anything other than what it is? Sometimes things hurt. And they don’t make us stronger or better.”

“Guy Lewis has a wonderful quote I prefer. ‘We take on the strength of that which we overcome.’”

“Well, at first I can be pretty resentful, but I know how cherished I am, so I always get over it. I’m grateful that I have the wisdom, fearlessness, etc. I have stopped blaming myself for my inability to do things and have become grateful to have learned so much. I have stopped blaming myself for others issues too. Sometimes it’s contrast, not a mirror.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is bs. What you do when you are dying is what makes you stronger. It is my feeling that this saying is one of those self-created oh look at me statements meant to make people feel self-superior.”

“Pray for strength and the universe will give you difficult challenges to meet that request. I NEVER ask for strength or pray for strength. Only for connection to Peace, Joy, LOVE, Happiness, Abundance and Eyes to see heaven within all people.”

“Becoming stronger is dependent upon a lot. Is stronger always better? What does it mean to be stronger? Sometimes people believe they’re stronger when they block more out. I think being more vulnerable matters more. 

And then there are a lot of people who succumb to depression because of circumstances in their lives and that doesn’t make them lesser. Idk I find the saying to be problematic. There’s choice involved, there’s definitions of meanings. There’s the fact that not everyone can come out on the other side of trauma.”