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). PTG refers to any beneficial change resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event, but people most commonly experience a positive shift by having a renewed appreciation for life; adopting a new world view with new possibilities for themselves; feeling more personal strength; feeling more satisfied spiritually, and/or their relationships improve.
In the years I spent recovering from a brain injury, the result of suicide attempt, I experienced every single one of these.
There’s no standard to determine what constitutes trauma or healthy growth, but it has been determined why some people experience PTG and some don’t. 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. However, surprisingly, those with the highest aptitude for psychological adjustment demonstrated the least signs of positive change, perhaps because they already understood that difficulty is integral to life, were already adaptable, and therefore were not that transformed by the experience.
In an article which featured and interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian recalls being heckled and ignored as a struggling comedian in his early days. On one particularly soul-crushing occasion, people at a New York disco went right on dancing through his act as though he weren’t even on stage. Such challenges made him a stronger person and 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 commented.
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 is unavoidable and part of the human experience, much is self induced by our thoughts and can be radically reduced by mindfulness practices and mental health tools. Learning to alter my thoughts 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 provided me a consistent level of calm, joy, optimism and trust in myself and the universe.
It’s not that I don’t 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 believe this!” feeling, I take a deep breath, stop struggling, and, eventually, accept what’s before me.
Acceptance of the reality that’s present is an essential first step to reducing suffering and isn’t the same thing as condoning or approving. To accept means to stop resisting or struggling against what is, because to do so causes pain and suffering. Acceptance means to surrender to the moment as it is — not to give up.
In a video by the author and philosopher, Ekhart Tolle, he indicates that we aren’t able to surrender until we’re 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 our 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 to surface. Promise.
Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and brain injury to become an inspirational writer and brain health educator. On her blog, The Best Brain Possible she tells about lifestyle, behavior, and thought modifications, alternative therapies, and mental health practices she used to rebuild her brain and life to find joy and thrive. You can do the same. No brain injury required!
Connect with her on Facebook and start learning the steps to a better you today with her book Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain which outlines simple practices, easy to implement in your daily life. Improve your brain, improve your life.