That 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.