Why ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger’ Is Generally Not True
The famous saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” is a popular saying used daily in music and movies, and everyday conversation. The problem with the saying is that it is not generally true for most people, according to recent research. The saying, originally penned by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was actually “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
In our society, there is a widespread belief that trauma and tragedy can be good for your personal growth. On a daily basis, we hear the expression widely used by self-help gurus and media personalities as a truism and proof of one’s resilience. We are told: “You’ll appreciate life more,” “You’ll feel grateful for what you have in life,” “You learn some important lessons and become more resilient.”
This theme appears time and again, in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, violent crimes, and of course, now, the effects of COVID.
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about how, after experiencing loss or trauma, people reported feeling a greater appreciation for life, closer to their friends and family, stronger, more spiritual, and more inspired. They dubbed this phenomenon “post-traumatic growth.”
Their findings argue that there’s a silver lining to every tragedy. It’s also consistent with the biblical theme of redemption, which says that all pain and suffering will ultimately lead to freedom.
Their research postulates that trauma and tragedy will also help us make sense of our own lives. Psychologists have demonstrated that we like to narrate our lives in terms of the challenges we’ve confronted and the setbacks we’ve overcome, rather than our successes and good times. Most popular literature and movies illustrate this. We like to believe good things can emerge from a bad turn of events because it’s often a key element of the stories we tell about our own lives.
The idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is based on the theory that by going through difficult experiences, people build up their strength for the next, possibly more painful event that may occur. This can be a comforting thought, especially during a trauma — that all of the pain one may be suffering will be rewarded with a stronger sense of inner courage and the ability to take on the next painful life event.
Tragedy and trauma can also be viewed as a badge of honor, almost an accomplishment, to survive a terrible time feeling braver, more powerful, and more ready to take on the next battle.
There is some research to support the aphorism. Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., 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.
However, some research has shown that the expression is not accurate. According to some researchers, past stressful experiences do not create resilience to a future trauma. Recent research suggests the opposite is true: Past traumatic events sensitize people to future traumas, increasing their chances of developing mental health disorders. A study from Brown University is calling into question the validity of that statement. The researchers reported that past traumatic events usually make people more sensitive and vulnerable to future problems, not more resilient. The researchers concluded their findings based on their study of the Chilean disaster survivors who had experienced traumas were at a greater risk of developing PTSD compared to those who had experienced few or no prior stressors.
Barbara Ganzel and colleagues published a study on resilience after 9/11 published in Neuroimage. “Our findings suggest that there may be long-term neurobiological correlates of trauma exposure, even in people who appear resilient,” said Ganzel, “We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma. This research is giving us clues about the biology underlying that vulnerability. When trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt.”
In a major study by Judith Mangelsdorf and colleagues, published in Psychological Bulletin, they conducted a meta-analysis of the aftereffects of post-traumatic growth. They concluded: “A positive trend has been found for self-esteem, positive relationships, and mastery in prospective studies after both positive and negative events. We found no general evidence for the widespread conviction that negative life events have a stronger effect than positive ones. No genuine growth was found for meaning and spirituality.”
The problem of our memories of past events
Jayawickreme and Infurna have found that people aren’t very good at accurately remembering what they were like before a traumatic event. Or participants will say they’ve grown from the event when, in fact, they’re still struggling. Their reports of growth don’t always match what their friends and family think and may not reflect actual changes in their behaviors.
Some psychologists would argue that telling others (and ourselves) how we’ve benefited from past trauma can be a way to cope with the pain you’re still experiencing. Western culture permits little time to grieve; eventually, the expectation is that people are supposed to “get over it and move on, ” they say.
The best-designed studies examining growth have found that how much people believed they had changed following a traumatic experience was not associated with how much they actually changed over time. Jayawickreme and Infurna say that those who reported that they had experienced the most personal growth in the wake of a tragedy were more likely to be still experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
A personal perspective
I have a personal perspective on this issue. My family spent almost four years as POWs as prisoners of the Japanese in WWII in an internment camp in Hong Kong. I was born in that camp. We survived that ordeal, but the damaging physical and psychological effects stayed with my family until the present day. While we survived, I can’t say that we were stronger as a result of the experience.
By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves — and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services. Suffering is not what fortifies the soul or clears our vision. What makes people stronger is working with others to overcome trauma. Giving and receiving help gives suffering meaning, not the suffering alone.
We should exercise a great deal of caution in believing and embracing the notion that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity. Think about what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t. Moving on from trauma is not easy to do. For example, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse, never fully goes away.
And then there are those who are open about the fact that they’re struggling after loss months, even years later. If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” were true, these people might be viewed as “weak,” or seen as having something “wrong” with them.
And our culture likes to profile the “heroes” who have recovered from tragedies, trauma, and adversity, with the implicit message that anyone else can do the same.
The problem with that belief is that it neglects what is truly necessary: Institutional mental health services and communities of people who support those who have experienced trauma.
Here’s what we do know from the best science that’s been done: People can indeed grow from adversity. They can become stronger, improve the quality of their relationships and increase their self-esteem. But it probably doesn’t happen nearly as often as most people and some researchers believe.
Stories of growth stemming from trauma are certainly powerful. They can serve as inspiration for our own lives. But we need to do better research to know whether such stories are the norm or the exception.
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