No, Really! Whatever Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

12/27/2011 09:16 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012
  • Barbara & Shannon Kelley Speakers; Coauthors, "Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career--and Life--That's Right For You"

That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Crisis is just opportunity in disguise. The universe/god/buddha doesn't give us more than we can handle. It's always darkest just before the dawn. Scar tissue is stronger. The cracks are where the light gets in.

Blah blah blah.

Here's an interesting question: Which is worse, coming up against one of life's Epically Awful Moments only to find all of your nearest and dearest spewing some tired old cliche, or attempting to comfort a friend who has just endured an Epically Awful Moment of her own using the only thing you can come up with -- which happens to be the very same tired old cliche? Even when you really really mean it, even when you know whoever's saying it to you has only the best intentions, the line -- "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" -- just feels kinda lame.

Interestingly enough, however, it turns out to be true.

According to the University of Buffalo's Mark D. Seery's paper in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, small amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. Here's the gist:

Indeed, a lot of solid psychology research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you. Serious events, like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from your family, can cause psychological problems. In fact, some research has suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you. But not only is that unrealistic, it's not necessarily healthy, Seery says.

In one study, Seery and his colleagues found that people who experienced many traumatic life events were more distressed in general -- but they also found that people who had experienced no negative life events had similar problems. The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events ...

One possibility for this pattern is that people who have been through difficult experiences have had a chance to develop their ability to cope. 'The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties,' Seery says. In addition, people who get through bad events may have tested out their social network, learning how to get help when they need it.

One of my clients informed me during our session last week that it was the one year anniversary of her filing for divorce. "It's been the worst and the best year of my life," she said. It was the worst for obvious reasons, but she's also found that she's stronger and more blessed than she ever thought. She recalled the day one year ago, remembering how sad, angry, and scared she was. I asked her if that her, the one from a year ago, could ever have imagined the her of today. "No way!" she said with a laugh.

A divorce is a big deal, obviously. So is illness, death, job loss, foreclosure, injury. But that doesn't stop people from forming relationships, taking jobs, buying homes, or snowboarding. The potential for disaster is there, and yet: We're willing to take the risks.

So maybe the question is, what are we missing out on when we refuse to take a chance? And I'm not just talking about marriage, I'm talking about everything: You don't want to make a fool of yourself, so you never audition for the community theater. You don't want to be rejected, so you don't ask the guy out. You don't know if you can handle the job, so you don't throw your hat in the ring for the promotion. You don't want to look ugly, so you go for decades without ever changing your hairstyle.

I guess the real question is: What are we missing out on when we let the fear of failure determine what we choose to do (or not do) with our lives -- and is it worth it?

As Ramini Durvasula, Ph.D. (a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles) tells us in Undecided:

I always say to my students, 'You'll get over a failure, but you will never recover from regret. That's not recoverable. Go ahead and try a job you might fail at. Go ahead and take some chances.' Because where these women often get frustrated is with the paths not taken. And what I tell them is that I want them to try a lot of things -- and then report back. And that's frightening, because they still feel very programmed: They want the marriage, the house, the kids, the job -- but have absolutely no sense how to get all those things at the same time. And I just don't think it's gettable in a single package. Women need to live lives where they're willing to rule things out. Like I ruled out marriage. But I had to do it to rule it out. What ends up happening is that if you don't have the realization, you wonder.

And it's that wondering that's the killer, not least because it saps the joy out of the life you're living today. So give that thing you're wondering about a try. What's the worst that could happen? Sure, you might fail spectacularly -- and you might then be forced to endure some well-intentioned folks and their tired old cliches. But at least this time you'll know they're right.