What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger

4466934200_bf069fe2fc_zThat quote is attributed to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  Actually, he said it much 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, called “post traumatic growth” (PTG).  Although PTG refers to any beneficial change resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event, people generally experience positive change in the following ways: they have a renewed appreciation for life; adopt a new world view with new possibilities for themselves; feel more personal strength; their relationships improve; and/or feel more satisfied spiritually.

In the years I spent recovering from a brain injury, the result of suicide attempt,  I experienced every single one of these.

There is no standard to determine what constitutes trauma or healthy growth but it has been 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 difficulty is integral to life and were already adaptable and not that transformed 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. These challenges made him a stronger person and a better performer he said.  “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, much 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 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 don’t 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 “I can’t effing believe this!” feeling, I take a deep breath, stop struggling, and, eventually, accept what is before me.

Acceptance of the reality that’s before me is an essential first step to reducing suffering.  Acceptance is not the same thing as condoning or approving.  It means to stop resisting or struggling against what is because to do so only leads to 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.

The concept of surrendering is taught in every religion.  Surrendering is the central message of Buddhism and is even found in the teachings of Jesus.

Byron Katie writes in Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life:

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 doesn’t kill you, can make you stronger, you can ease the suffering of going through it by learning to accept what is. Surrendering to any situation isn’t going to make it magically go away, but it will make it less painful and allow the deeper meaning to which Frankl referred. Promise.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/redskyguy1/

15 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger

  1. I was inspired by Victor Frankl’s book and story – how he used the most traumatic experience and realized that it was going to help so many other people after he got out of the camps. He was actively trying to be prepared for when he got out and used a horrifying experience to make him stronger and help other people.

    I’ve had to find this lesson out the hard way Debbie. sometimes when you refuse to surrender, life will beat you up until you learn to stop resisting and start accepting. Not only do you become stronger, but what doesn’t kill you, helps you grow as a person. thanks for this post.
    Vishnu recently posted..Is Costa Rica paradise on earth?

  2. I hear ya, Vishnu. I used to have to “beat up” and have absolutely no other choice to stop resisting something I did not think that I wanted. It had to get to a crisis point every time. Talk about drams. Whew!

    I did learn a lot by reviewing the events of the past and eventually figured out a different way. I prefer a much gentler path these days!

  3. Hi Debbie,

    This is so true! So much of our suffering is self-created. I really feel this is a message that needs to be shared again and again and am so glad you are writing about it here. We all need encouragement! For those who are the less able to adjust psychologically, it’s not so easy to surrender. I really feel for them too!
    Sandra / Always Well Within recently posted..Summer Calls: Setting Aspirations, Clarifying Dreams

    • I agree Sandra, this stuff needs to be talked about and shared widely.

      I have been made aware several times lately that this is not a widely accepted philosophy. I guess I tend to forget that because most of the people in my circle do believe in this. Just introducing the concept of surrendering and having people understand it and adopt it is a first step.

      Surrendering is a never ending learning process, I am finding. Keeps me challenged! ;)

  4. while i agree about acceptance, i am always leary of “surrendering” too early? what is civil rights leaders “surrendered” and “accepted” things instead of “struggling against what WAS”? this is a tricky line because i think history shows that human progress comes from struggling AGAINST what is and improving it.

    • Thank you for you thoughts. I would say to you that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation or settling. Acceptance and surrendering, in my opinion, mean allowing that the circumstances are what they are right now and consciously evaluating the information and your intuition to move forward. Sometimes, moving forward may mean working to change the circumstances sometimes not. It is an informed judgement call in every situation and it is a fine line which is not clearly defined and can be fluid.

      In my case, after spending much effort, time and money trying to continue to change and improve my condition which did prove beneficial for many years, I reached a point where I was no longer getting any results for about a year after trying many new and different therapies. It was then that I knew it was time to accept what was and put my energy into other areas of my life. This has proven to be a good strategy for me. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

  5. Hi Debbie
    Suffering (unless you are nailed to a cross) is a mind thing.
    If surrendering to it is not appealing or looks like being weak then rather than face it head on, get at it from the other end and embrace the whole damn thing, ”enjoy it” experience it in its entirety, then when you ‘understand’ it on all levels & you have taken all the energy out of it (it ceases to be a fear if you will) you are then able to let it go or drift away and move on.
    This is about the only way to gain strength from it if you are a heart person , head folk are more the ones that can adapt with the platitude.
    ”re balance yourself — work out your traits.
    traits are our Karma ………think around this as a new philosophy??

    • Bryan, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I totally agree that suffering is a mind thing. I would also agree that, if you are willing to face any situation head on, “turn into the pain” as Pema Chodron advises, and look at it from every angle, all suffering is eliminated. Everything in life becomes beyond “good” or “bad.” It just is what it is and, like you say, can be enjoyed – even the seemingly “bad” stuff.

  6. If we trust god we will be very sad at the begining and after that we have to reevaluate our weaknesses and then starting to take actions to improve it. I know this is will be hard but I did it,

    • Abeer, thank you for your sentiments. I am glad that you found your strength!. You’re right, not easy, but so worth it!

  7. This is an exellent and practical advise I have feel it strongly as I pass through many experiences similar to it. Thank you,

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