That quote is attributed to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Actually, he said it more eloquently: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” It turns out that he was right!
Studies have shown that some trauma survivors report positive changes and enhanced personal development. After hardship, people generally experienced positive change in five areas: they have a renewed appreciation for life; they adopted a new world view with new possibilities for themselves; they felt more personal strength; their relationships improved; and they felt spiritually more satisfied. This phenomenon has been coined “post traumatic growth” (PTG). I can attest to having experienced every single one over the past five years as I recovered from a suicide attempt resulting in a serious brain injury.
PTG refers to any positive change experienced as a result of a major life crisis or traumatic event. There is no standard to determine what constitutes trauma or healthy growth but they have determined why some people experience PTG and some do not. As expected, it was found that people with a moderate aptitude for psychological adjustment were the most likely to show signs of PTG while those with difficulty adapting exhibited less growth. However, surprisingly, those who exhibited a high aptitude for psychological adjustment demonstrated the least signs of positive change, perhaps because they already understand that hardship is a part of life and, were already fairly adaptable and, therefore, not that changed by the experience.
In an article interviewing comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, he recalls being heckled and ignored as a struggling comedian in his early days. On one particularly soul-crushing occasion, people at a New York discotheque continued dancing right through his act as though he weren’t even on stage. The challenges, he noted, made him a stronger person and a better performer. “I don’t mind suffering. You suffer in all things — work, relationships, whatever else you do … Unless you’re eating ice cream, you’re suffering,” he reflected.
Victor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and author, said, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
While some pain and suffering in life are unavoidable and are part of the human experience, a lot is self induced with our thoughts and can be radically reduced by mindfulness practices and mental health tools. Learning to do this has drastically improved my life. To be able to work with the same types of challenges that used to cause me such panic, pain, and suffering has given me a new level of calm, joy, optimism and trust in myself and the universe.
It is not that I do not have any troubles anymore – far from it, but they do not traumatize me, hijack my life and steal my peace of mind like they used to. After a few minutes, sometimes hours -OK, maybe even days, of the “Oh crud! I can’t believe this!” feeling, I take a deep breath, stop struggling, and, eventually, accept what is before me.
Acceptance of the reality is always an essential first step to reduce suffering. Acceptance is not the same as condoning or approving. It means to stop resisting or struggling against what already is because to fight against and argue with reality causes pain and suffering. Acceptance means to surrender to the moment as it is. Not give up.
In a video by the author and philosopher, Ekhart Tolle, he indicates that we are not able to surrender until we are completely fed up with suffering. He says that a person has to have had enough and, at some level, recognize that the suffering is self created by their thoughts and that there is another way to live. This was certainly true in my case.
Surrendering is taught in every religion. It is the central message of Buddhism and is even found in the teachings of Jesus.
Byron Katie writes in “Loving What Is”:
The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want. If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, “Meow.” Wanting reality to be different than it is is hopeless.
So, while what does not kill you, can make you stronger, you can ease the suffering while going through it by learning to accept what is. Surrendering to it is not going to make it magically go away, but it will make it less painful and give it the deeper meaning to which Frankl referred. Promise.