Is It True: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?
“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.