What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I can remember three events that impacted my life the most.
The first was a difficult phase for my family where it felt like everything was falling apart. The next was when I fell deeply in love with a woman who initially responded positively but suddenly stopped talking to me. And the third was a relationship that sucked out my soul and left an empty void in its place.
I’ve been through tough times, but these events felt traumatizing. Each time, I felt like I would never be the same again, like I would never be normal.
Turns out I was both right and wrong. I eventually became normal but I didn’t stay the same; I became better.
The difficult phase for my family accelerated my emotional maturity. People who complained that I behaved like a ten-year-old until then said that I began to behave like I was twenty-five within a year, though I was still a teen.
When the woman I loved spurned me, I learned to become comfortable in my own skin so that I could accept others for who they are. She never spoke to me again, but I thank her for the lessons I learned. It’s been 17 years and I still love her.
The soul-sucking relationship made me realize the importance of self-esteem. I learned to put my esteem ahead of others’ selfish motives, to say no, and to be careful while choosing friends.
Each of these events also helped me develop new interests, reach out to people and accept their help, and prioritize my needs.
I wondered whether there were others like me — people who emerged stronger after going through difficult experiences. I didn’t have to strain myself to find them. There are tons of examples of people who thrived in circumstances that even jeopardized their lives.
Lance Armstrong was thankful for his cancer because he met his wife and learned tremendously from his experience. Winifred Gallagher recovered from cancer to study the concept of focus and write one of the best books on the subject. Steve Jobs turned NeXT and Pixar around after Apple screwed him, and returned to revolutionize the tech industry.
These and many other people didn’t just display resilience. Resilience is one’s ability to recover from or resist stressful circumstances — like a phoenix that rises from the ashes to regain its original shape.
The people displayed a phenomenon called Posttraumatic Growth (PTG).
What is Posttraumatic Growth?
We prepare ourselves for ordinary events that we foresee. But events we don’t foresee — ones that often cause high levels of stress or even emotional trauma — are the ones that change us, forge our character, and make us stronger.
Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is a concept developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., in the mid-’90s. It refers to the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances and crises. It holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth.
“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life,” Tedeschi wrote. According to research, such people benefit in multiple ways, some of which are:
1. The recognition of one’s own vulnerabilities can lead to more emotional expressiveness, willingness to accept help, and therefore utilizing social support that had previously been ignored. In other words, we start connecting better with people who matter.
2. An increased appreciation of our own existence, taking life easier and enjoying it more, and no longer taking things for granted.
3. Recognizing meaning in the midst of trauma and its aftermath makes us experience emotional relief, which leads to a new philosophy of life that alters the basic assumption people hold about life and what meaning it may have.
The crises that reportedly produced PTG include huge failures or loss, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV infection, cancer, transportation accidents (airplanes and major vehicle crashes), medical problems of children, heart attacks, being taken hostage, sexual abuse and assault, and more.
But we don’t need trauma to experience PTG. Highly stressful situations work fine. Then again, just experiencing trauma or adverse conditions doesn’t guarantee PTG either. It’s like expecting yourself to become fit just because you’ve taken a gym membership, or becoming an entrepreneur just because you decided to put a startup.
What PTG Demands
Most people romanticize the idea of suffering and severe psychological stress that accompany stressful situations. They act like philosophers. They think they understand more about life. They spend their time talking about how they SHOULD act to overcome the suffering.
But instead of translating their own words into actions, they look for the easy way out. They act as their own advice does not (and cannot) apply to them. They expect that the hours spent talking about the situation should account for something. (It doesn’t.) Or they resort to relentless entertainment, meaningless sex, or shrinks and antidepressants to numb the feeling. (This doesn’t include severe pathological cases where medication is necessary.)
Those who experience PTG follow a different approach. Rather than escaping negative feelings, they wrestle with them and turn their turmoil into something beautiful.
My emotional growth didn’t occur because of the traumatic events. It occurred because I struggled with the realities that emerged in the aftermath of the trauma. I used my moods, sadness, and bouts of anxiety as a source of intelligence. I diverted the excess energy from my overreactions to turn my life around.
When I worked as a business consultant, I was often left to fend for myself during the initial days. When I stopped trying to prove myself and instead grappled with the challenges on my own — trying, failing, facing rebuke, figuring out what worked — week after week, I went from being called “unreliable” to becoming a source of support for clients and colleagues alike.
The greatest work of art comes from wrestling with the void; facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away. — Ryan Holiday
People who thrive after trauma earn the right to talk about their victories. But you’ll rarely hear them do so. Because rather than living on the laurels of yesterday, they keep grappling with new challenges to push their limits today. Their work kills their chatter.
So PTG is Easy, Right?
No traumatic or stressful experience is easy. No experience that shocks you will make you think, “Let’s look at the silver lining behind the black-as-night clouds.”
Each situation feels like the world is crashing, like the pit you’re falling in has no bottom, like it’s the end of life.
But there comes a point when you must stop wallowing in self-pity, acknowledge the pain and embarrassment of your current state (your state, not yourself), and resolve to bounce back. You have to ask for help. You will feel shrouded in doubt, and you have to make space for it.
If you’re irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished? — Rumi
Romanticizing suffering and tragedy is good in movies and fictional books. In the real world, things don’t happen by themselves. Nor do they lead to happy endings. In the real world, your ship sails in the direction you steer it in.
Accept suffering, study it, learn from it, struggle with it. Bend, break, crash, and burn. Then repair, rebuild and grow in ways you would never have if you hadn’t suffered.
Do this to amaze yourself, to discover what you’re capable of doing and becoming.
(I first came across the mention of this concept in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s remarkable book Antifragile.)