What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Perhaps. But sometimes…
What doesn’t kill you makes you really sick and puts you in the hospital.
What doesn’t kill you drives you to addictive and destructive coping mechanisms.
What doesn’t kill you destroys a relationship forever.
What doesn’t kill you makes you so depressed or anxious that you can’t function at work or school, and don’t even want to get out of bed or leave the house.
What doesn’t kill you gives you Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cause you to be terrified and fearful of anything that triggers a memory of it.
Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you want to hurt someone or hurt yourself – sometimes to the extent that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t even need to…. because you’ve already got a plan for that.
Not everyone is strengthened by what doesn’t kill them.
There are individuals who have faced tremendous grief, pain, and suffering who have come out stronger on the other side. History is full of them, in every culture and continent.
Holocaust survivors, victims of child abuse, former prisoners of war, those who have lost loved ones and homes to natural disasters, cancer survivors….we all know stories about those who have endured tremendous pain and loss who somehow manage to move on and live triumphantly, despite tragedy and life-changing trauma.
Why does this happen with some and not with others? What is the difference between those who are weakened and debilitated by adversity and those who are strengthened by it?
This is a question that researchers have been investigating a lot in recent years.
Traditionally, psychology has been the field of studying those who struggle with mental illness, often as a result of tremendous stresses in their lives; however, a newer branch of positive psychology instead focuses on mental wellness – with a focus on how it is that some people stay strong or become even stronger when faced with trauma and difficulty.
The fact that trauma can actually produce positive change was studied extensively by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, two psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte who coined the term post traumatic growth (PTG) in the mid-1990’s.
Dr. Stephen Joseph,the co-director of the Center for Trauma, Resilience and Growth in Nottingham, England, and author of the book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, found that PTG is actually much more common than PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and that most people really do grow from difficulties once they have had a chance to grieve the loss and process their pain.
He also says that between 30-70% of people who have experienced profoundly difficult life experiences report some form of positive growth after the event, such as the following:
1. Change in relationships: Enhanced, deeper and more meaningful connections.
2. Change in perspective: greater wisdom, gratitude, forgiveness, self-acceptance.
3. Change of priorities: Deeper meaning to every day experiences – greater sense of mindfulness and less focus on trivial matters.
So, what doesn’t kill you really can make you stronger, if you are open to the possibility.
No one wants tragedy in their lives, but once you have passed through a time of grieving and processed the pain, eventually you can transform pain into something beautiful that builds character and deepens your sense of purpose and meaning.
In my own life, I have experienced several tragedies and painful events that impacted my life deeply, such as my mom’s stroke when I was only nine years old, the death of both my parents after caring for them through disability and illness, the death of a precious little boy I had been sponsoring and visiting in Mexico, the debilitating pain and fatigue of the onset of Fibromyalgia syndrome, and being on the receiving end of explosive violence caused by my PTSD from my daughter’s early childhood trauma while growing up in a Guatemalan orphanage.
That’s a lot for anyone to handle, and I didn’t always handle it well. But I am definitely not the same person I was before.
All of these events shattered my sense of safety at first, but after time and as I processed the grief, I was able to reframe how I looked at the results. I do feel much more like I can handle more trivial everyday matters and abundantly more appreciative of the good things in life now that I have come out on the other side. I am a WingBuilder Warrior Woman!
Sometimes a forest fire clears everything away and makes room for something new to grow.
Maybe you have been through a traumatic event or personal tragedy and you feel that you’ve already grieved, but somehow you still can’t move past the lingering pain and fearful memories of the event. Here are some practices that you may find helpful as you move forward with your life:
1. Understand and reflect on how you have changed in some ways for the better as a result of the traumatic life experience.
2. Tell your story and reframe the narrative into a story of heroic struggle and triumph. Find the deeper purpose/meaning or appreciation for life that you have gained from this experience and focus on that instead of the loss.
3. Find support in community and connectedness with others who have also lived through and survived the same or a similar loss and experienced growth as a result.
4. Reflect on your spiritual values and wisdom gained from spiritual and historical stories as well as those from current society and literature. The human story is a story of struggle – we are all connected because we have all experienced pain and sorrow, even if those experiences were unique. Find spiritual wisdom and stories that resonate with your own story.
5. Reach out to others with empathy. Surviving a great loss makes you much more sensitive to the pain of others. Use this new sensitivity as a gift to support others going through difficulty.
Sometimes after a traumatic experience, we come out on the other side having grown so much that we realize that the life we are living no longer fits us. Tragedy is painful, but it often puts our priorities into perspective.
Maybe you are at a point that you are re-evaluating what is most meaningful to you and what you really want to do with the rest of this very short and precious life that you have been given. If so, I recommend that you find a trusted friend, advisor, or counselor that you can talk with openly to explore all of your options and make a plan for moving on to the next chapter of life.
For those who feel that they have moved far enough along in their grieving and are now ready to make some big, positive changes in their lives and careers, you may also want to participate in WingBuilder’s upcoming LEAP Workshop – Launch your Excellence, Activate your Passion. Enter your name and email below for more information and to receive notification of our next workshop session.