What Doesn't Kill You Can Make You StrongerThat is a paraphrase of a quote 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.

While, unfortunately, not everyone comes out stronger from hardship, studies have shown that some trauma survivors report positive changes and enhanced personal development, referred to as post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG is any beneficial change resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event. Most commonly, people experience a positive shift after trauma by having a renewed appreciation for life; adopting a new worldview with new possibilities for themselves; feeling more personal strength; being more satisfied spiritually, and/or their relationships improve.

In the years I spent recovering from a brain injury, the result of an attempt to end my life, I experienced every single one of these.

What Is Post-Traumatic Growth?

There’s no standard to determine what constitutes trauma or healthy growth. However, science has 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. 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 were not that transformed by the experience. Basically, the more room you have to grow, the more you can grow. 

Jerry Seinfeld’s PTG Experience

What Doesn't Kill You Can Make You StrongerIn an article interviewing comedian Jerry Seinfeld, he tells of being heckled and ignored as a struggling comedian in his early days. He remembered one particularly soul-crushing occasion where people at a New York disco went right on dancing through his act as though he weren’t even on stage. He feels that these challenges made him a stronger person and better performer.  “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 of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote:

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 suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience, much of it is self-induced by our own thoughts. You can dramatically reduce the pain you inflict on yourself by learning to be supportive and compassionate in your self-talk. Self-compassion is a skill we all can get better at. You can learn this through mindfulness practices and mental health tools.  By building these skills, you are actually making your brain more resilient.

Altering my thinking has drastically improved my life. To be able to work with the same types of challenges that used to cause me such as panic, anxiety, pain, and suffering has allowed me to find a consistent level of calm, joy, optimism, and trust in myself and the universe. It’s not that I don’t have challenges and “OMG!” moments anymore. I definitely do! It’s that I know how to calm and support myself through them now. I don’t let things traumatize me, hijack my brain, 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, eventually accept what’s before me, and figure out how to work with it.

What Doesn't Kill You Can Make You Stronger

Acceptance Ends Suffering

Accepting isn’t the same as condoning or approving. To accept means to stop resisting or struggling against what is because that causes pain and suffering. Acceptance means surrendering to the moment, the reality, as it is. It means not giving 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 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 accepting it. Surrendering to a situation isn’t going to make it magically go away, unfortunately. But it can make it less painful and allow the deeper meaning to which Frankl referred to surface. Promise.

Suggested further reading:

8 Things Hitting Rock Bottom Taught Me 

What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. I learned resilience and strength the hard way, but at least I learned! I’m a much better, healthier, and happier person because of the challenges and lessons I experienced.  I’ll tell you a few of the lessons I learned along the way. read more

What Is Mental Strength and How To Get It

Mental strength isn’t like having blue or brown eyes, where you’re either born with it or not. It’s a skill that you can learn and develop. Even if you’re not naturally inclined towards mental toughness, there’s still hope for you to become a heavyweight champ. read more


12 Strategies for Building Resilience

Resilience is not a trait that you are either born with or without. It’s a set of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed. When you break it down to the physical level in your brain, resilience is a neuroplastic process.  It’s really about how well your brain handles stress. read more


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  1. Debbie, You are the perfect example of someone who turned their life around after a difficult life event. To me it’s common sense that some people go up after difficult events and some people go down. Why do we need the term “Post Traumatic Growth?” It sets up the expectation that every will or should grow after trauma. And as you describe it here, and I’ve seen it described in the same way in other articles, it doesn’t differentiate between major life crisis or traumatic event (e.g. PTSD). In reality, recovering from PTSD can be very difficult. Think of the veteran’s that succumb to alcoholism and bouts of rage due to PTSD. This was an informative articles, but I still don’t like this terms. It shouldn’t include the word “trauma.”

  2. Debbie, I love the examples of Jerry Seinfeld and Victor Fankl!
    There is something to learn and grow from all the suffering we go through for sure. I think that my pains made me who I am today, and I am thankful to be this person. The traumas that life brings with it, are meant to make us stronger for sure. Yes, while in the eye of the storm, it can feel extremely hard….but there is hope and healing if we put one step in front of the other consistently. There is always hope. You are an inspiring example of just that❤️
    Love this article!

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