What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You — Different

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” — Haruki Murakami

“People keep telling me what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger. I’ve come to hate that phrase.” Janie B. has been going through a tough time. She is overseeing the care of her elderly mother who has Alzheimer’s. Her husband lost his job, throwing them into financial difficulty. And Janie herself has had some health issues. Friends and family mean well. That chestnut of a phrase about finding strength through adversity is intended to encourage her. Instead it has become an annoyance and, worse for Janie, a pressure. “I mean, what if I don’t get stronger? What if I just manage to keep going? Isn’t that enough?”

Janie has a point. It’s hard for people who are in the midst of a traumatic experience or  cascade of life’s challenges to get on board with the idea that it will toughen them up. Why should they? It’s hard enough to get through the day without feeling like a failure if they don’t feel strengthened by the process.

Let’s give ourselves and others a break; we may or may not become “stronger.” It’s enough to acknowledge that tragedy can reset how we deal with many aspects of our life. Survivors may find themselves experiencing one or more of the following changes: 

Humor may become darker: It’s fortunate, for example, that Janie has always found and shared humor in life as a way to cope. Her jokes and puns are as frequent as ever, but they’ve taken a darker turn. How could they not? Her very proper mother who is in late stage Alzheimer’s has started spewing four letter words Janie didn’t even know she knew. And yet she jokes! “Listening to my mom is like listening to a chipmunk swearing,” she says. ”Kind of cute.”

She’s not being disrespectful. She is using her humor to keep smiling in spite of her sadness.

Priorities may change: One of my friends, Edith, suggested that major illness can change our priorities. She’s been dealing with breast cancer — first the surgery, then the chemo and radiation. Now nearing the end of treatment, she is able to reflect on it. “I’ve come out of this ordeal feeling so lucky — lucky that I responded to treatment, sure, but also lucky that it made me reconsider what I think is most important for me to do with my life.”

Edith isn’t about to give up her job or her family. Both give her life meaning and joy. What she is rethinking is how much of her time, energy, and creativity belong to each. She’s working on it.

“Stress” is redefined: Edith went on to say that having been through so much this past year has decidedly changed her idea of what is stressful. “I used to think meeting a deadline for a project at work was stressful,” she says. “Now? Well, that kind of stress is a piece of cake compared to what I’ve been through.”

She’s careful to note that she isn’t putting herself or anyone else down for how they experience stress in their lives. Rather, her personal meaning of “stress” and how much of it she can manage has been changed radically.

It brings us down to basics: You’ve heard it on the news countless times. People who have lost everything to fire, a tornado, a flood, or some other catastrophe say that they are grateful that they and their loved ones are safe; that the loss of their home is meaningless in comparison. Yes, they mourn the loss of prized possessions. Yes, they know that the days and months ahead will be terribly difficult as they try to rebuild their lives. But they also affirm that what matters most to them is very basic — the survival of family and friends, food and shelter, and some sense that they and their community will rebuild their lives.

Relationships change: When a crisis becomes chronic, some friends and family may fade away. “I always thought my good friends would be there for me if I had a hard time,” says Terry, a client who has been very sick for a very long time. He has felt abandoned by some of the people he thought were closest to him. 

His experience isn’t unusual. When a crisis is seemingly endless, the depth and commitment of relationships get tested. Some friends provide sustained comfort and help. Others may be unwilling or unable to manage it for a variety of reasons. It’s more than likely that at least some of his old friends will respond positively if Terry initiates reconnecting. But some relationships may no longer feel important to him.

Strengths surface: Although the notion that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger has permeated our culture for years, even though Kelly Clarkson sang a song about it, I don’t think it’s true. I do think that hard times prompt people to find the strengths they already have. 

Sometimes people are surprised by their own resilience. Faced with unimaginable tragedy or suffering or loss, they find ways to reaffirm what is most important, to turn to each other for comfort and support, and to embrace new perspectives as they work to move on. 

Challenges don’t necessarily make us stronger but they certainly have the power to make us different.

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