What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Strong…

We’ve all heard this mantram, probably had it quoted at us, maybe even quoted it to others. When it’s us who’s suffering, it often feels like cold comfort; but now a MIND column by Benedict Carey,  On Road to Recovery, Past Adversity Provides a Map, in the New York Times, suggests that it may be scientifically true.

He quotes Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine:  “Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their support networks — to learn who their real friends are. That kind of learning, we think, is extremely valuable for subsequent coping”.

In short, “the number of life blows a person has taken may affect his or her mental toughness more than any other factor.”

Certainly there can be too much of this “good thing“, and people who experienced up to a dozen negative events in their lives did not necessarily rebound well or quickly. But an odd result suggested by some studies was that people who hadn’t ever experienced serious negative events in their lives didn’t necessarily feel especially happy or confident. In fact, their satisfaction level was roughly the same as the overburdened.  People who had had to deal with two, three, perhaps four, serious traumas exhibited the highest level of confidence and well-being.

Writes Carey, “The findings suggest that mental toughness is something like the physical strength: It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked. Some people in the study reported having had more than a dozen stressful events, and it showed.”

Of course, this is the finding du jour, and today’s conclusion is apt to be upended tomorrow. But I know I’ve always recognized an intuitive truth in the saying, and sooner or later, it provides a gleam of hope that can become light in darkness.

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14 Responses to What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Strong…

  1. pauline says:

    As one who’s seen her share of hardship, I’d say yes, I’ve been made stronger physically, emotionally and mentally after having pulled myself through some serious challenges in all three categories. I discovered a blessed network of helping hands I didn’t know were there, found great satisfaction in knowing I could provide most things for my children (except for a Dad), and learned strategies for taking care of myself – perhaps the most important lesson. And yes, when someone said that to me after suffering a third hard blow in as many years, my first impulse was to show him just how strong by knocking him flat on his arse 😉


    • Touch2Touch says:

      “when someone said that to me after suffering a third hard blow in as many years, my first impulse was to show him just how strong by knocking him flat on his arse”
      Yeah, that’s the thing about it — it’s true, but it takes a while just to absorb the blow, and the benefits only appear a whole lot later —


  2. Claudia Shuster says:

    I always rebel at an analysis like this one based upon number of events. I surely agree with you (and the researchers) that recognizing and actively working through “negative events” can provide opportunities for growth. I think they also provide opportunities to see the world as “against you” and NOT take responsibility for one’s life – both feelings and actions.

    I have also struggled with the theory of resiliency. Some children (especially those experiencing abuse or neglect) seem to crumble. Others do “rise above” these experiences. I wonder if having someone in one’s life who loves you and believes in you…, may not be a critical element. As children, how do we build a sense of self-esteem on our own? This person I think preferably is a parent (readily available on a daily basis) but anyone – teacher, relative… who provides this I think can make a substantial difference.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      I know someone whose childhood was pretty appalling, but for a few years there was a grandmother — and that was sufficient. It left marks, of course it always does, but it was enough to support a viable, even satisfying life. Without anyone to care, to nurture, and most of all, perhaps, to model — well, it’s true. Some people, not only children, crumble. It’s interesting about this study that it recognizes the bad effects of “too much.” Some adversity usually strengthens, too much often destroys; and who is to say, in any person’s case, how much is too much? Only hindsight, which is 20/20, but pretty useless for all of that.
      Actually, it occurs to me, that one truly important antidote, or means to strengthening, is gratitude. Too bad it is so de-emphasized in our culture of entitlement.


  3. Julia Brumbaugh says:

    And this saying (from Nietzsche, if I’m not mistaken), does seem true to me. I feel stronger having been though some mighty hard things…though being able to see/feel that has been a long time in coming.

    I think that the difficulty with these kinds of catch phrases is that they are often addressed to those who are grieving, suffering and struggling in ways that make them cheap, empty words used to address the discomfort of the “comforter” while doing little or nothing for the one in need of comfort. I put this one together with “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” and “everything happens for a reason” (both of which are complete theological hooey IMO–unlike the one you cite) as things people say to make themselves feel better about the suffering and struggle of others. Modern science, classical wisdom, and reflected experience may all affirm that, objectively speaking, struggle and hardship are good for us, but that’s cold comfort to the person in the throes of pain, failure or loss.

    I know I’m taking this a bit afield from your observations, Judith, which I don’t dispute. And, I would never fear to find such responses to another’s pain in you. I have just heard this kind of stuff so often in the context of well-meaning attempts to console or make sense of my pain by people who, in the end, were just trying to shield themselves from what my pain and difficulty in overcoming it revealed about the universe, and even God. Over and over people insisted that the random, horrible, devastating death of my infant son was somehow part of a benevolent order that I would someday peacefully and gratefully accept as part of a grand design that included my own character development. “You’ll become such a better person because of this, Julia!!” was a common–and hated–refrain in my ears. Well, maybe I have learned things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, but one of them is that when people are in pain, you don’t throw cliches at them, however true they may be to those with the freedom of a little distance.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Julia, one thing I respect about this study (and I take all studies with big salt shakers) is that they recognize that “too many” can have a damaging effect. The same might be true of “too heavy,” and Michael’s death might have fallen into that category. Yes, you learned things from it, but at what a price! And yet it’s also true that you are a strong person who ultimately has become stronger from it.
      Ultimately — that’s key.
      Timing is vital in how to attempt to offer comfort to grieving and suffering people. (See Pauline’s comment and my response.) We all know the adage, Too little, too late. But there’s a corresponding adage: Too much, too soon; and that’s what frequently happens.
      Besides, whoever said “You’ll become such a better person, etc. ” was completely off the mark! It’s not about “better.” Tragedy doesn’t make anyone “better.” But it can make them stronger, which is where we began. (Maybe it also makes people more compassionate, but not necessarily, it can simply make them bitter.) But to say such things at the time of fresh loss — Horrible.
      I’ve long thought that one of the most comforting possibilities uses no words at all; is simply a hug, a pat, a touch, a look. A “not turning away.” No, I don’t just think that. I know it.


      • Margie Clark says:

        A friend of mine told me that after her husband died unexpectedly, she would see people she knew in the grocery store turn their carts away from her and rush down a different aisle so as to avoid having to talk to her. While I am sure that the wisdom of the ages has proved these cliches more true than not, the real gift is, as you say, not turning away but instead accompanying someone as they walk in pain and sorrow.


        • Touch2Touch says:

          Yet another example, I guess, of the need to get ourselves out of the way and allow the spirit to flow through us. Amazing how hard it is to do, even though we know with our heads and feel in our guts that it’s what’s needed. A simple, “I’m so sorry — ” But we don’t trust it to be sufficient. (P.S. Clichés usually get to be clichés by being mostly true.)


  4. Stef says:

    The study you reference reminds me of “the middle way” – that the place we usually find the most strength, power, depth, etc. is not at either end of the extremes, but instead more in the middle. Too little makes us weak or insecure; too much overwhelms or wears us down. (I’m not only speaking of hardship here, but of “good” things and necessary things too, like food, sex, sleep, work, etc.) Usually “the middle” is a good place to be.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      The ancient Greeks certainly thought so. They called it the Golden Mean, and made it their ideal. (It’s mine, too, but I always thought that made me boring.)
      But I’m thinking of renaming it The Goldilocks Concept — you remember, the chair not too little, not too big, JUST RIGHT; the oatmeal not too hot, not too cold, but JUST RIGHT—
      In the dieting world, it could be The Goldilocks Diet. Wanna collaborate? It would sell like hotcakes (not too many, not too few, just a good amount). ‘-)


  5. fb says:

    I realize that I am not on message when I write this but your answer to Stef really started a frenzy of remembering for me. It’s been a bunch of years since I retired from Wall Street, but whenever we were concerned about a new issue of stock we tried to invoke what we called the Goldilocks principle. It was to be priced not too high and not too low…but just right.


  6. pauline says:

    Julia’s comment (when people are in pain, you don’t throw cliches at them, however true they may be to those with the freedom of a little distance) and Margie’s recounting of avoidance after a death illustrate two of our culture’s standard responses to someone else’s grief – either dodge it or minimize by trying to explain it in universal, good-for-you-somehow terms.
    I caught – and fought – both and it made me realize that aside from weeping with the grief-stricken, helping out in some physical way, or simply being there in silence, there is little one can do in the face of another’s grief. I remember one friend writing her phone number down with the words, “Call me, even if it’s 2 in the morning” and though I never did, the thought of it being okay was enough to comfort me.
    When I went through an intense, year-long grieving process my sister called every single evening just to say hello and talk a bit about normal, every day things. That kind of selfless attention made me feel less crazy, less alone, less abandoned. When my own son went through an awful period of his own, I did the same, letting him know I was there and that there was nothing he could say or do to alter the fact that I loved him.
    It’s the selflessness, the setting aside of self to let the spirit flow through us, as you describe it, that allows us to become stronger as we travel through the land of grief.


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