What Doesn’t Kill You Does Not Make You Stronger.
…and we need to stop telling our children, friends, co-workers and ourselves that it does.
False Positivity and Trauma
We have long clung to the idea of silver linings as a way to persevere in otherwise difficult and traumatic situations. But at which point do we distinguish maintaining hope, belief and will in ourselves from compensatory self-talk passed off as wisdom to survive rather than thrive?
Unfortunately, the misalignment of cause and effect to flip trauma into a positive occurrence has become widespread in how we think and perceive trauma at a glance.
It has become the bulwark on how many continue to believe resilience is born and greatest made.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” which is ironic, his having been a relatively short and miserable life — how our brain works, however, might better shed light on a few things.
Contrary to Nietzsche’s philosophy on trauma, modern psychological research confirms — that which does not kill us does not make us stronger. In fact, it makes us weaker, and we must stop telling our children, friends, co-workers and ourselves that it does. Your abusive spouse, toxic boss, fearful childhood and any other infliction of trauma over your mental, physical and emotional state of being are not blessings, silver linings, and they most certainly are not the reason for your strength or success story.
This is what false positivity in coping after trauma really does:
- Builds a false sense of resilience, hope and strength into one’s self-image.
- Wires false ideals that become how we, in turn, interact, teach, care and lead.
- Hardens our perspective of the world to keep us on high alert over unresolved fear, anger, guilt, neglect, pain and judgement.
- Seeks to recreate an earlier version of ourselves, lacking clarity on who we are without the drama.
- Justify trauma as a means to an end.
So why do we do it? Why do we constantly associate trauma with what builds resilience and strength when it clearly does not?
The Brain, Storytelling, Cause and Effect
The intriguing thing about the human brain is that it loves a good story and one that comes to quick rational conclusions based on the most obvious narrative: this happened, which led to that, which ended up so and just like that, we have combined them into a quite unholy “cause-and-effect” matrimony.
The reality, though, is quite different.
We tend to see the before and after in most situations but little else. Constructing premature conclusions is why many may see their trauma or the trauma of others as the reason behind a great leap of change after a hard-knock life.
Paul J. Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a Professor of Economics, Psychology, and Management at Claremont Graduate University, says it best in — Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling: “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts — by first attracting their brains.”
Similar stories are all around us. A New York Times piece chronicles the life of an American Soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan sent home after being diagnosed with P.T.S.D., having tried to commit suicide thirteen times. Later he says — ‘‘The bombing, the P.T.S.D. and the challenges faced changed him for the better.’’ Having become more open-minded with a newly found appreciation for spirituality — Another depiction of how the brain’s narrative of cause and effect can quite easily flip trauma as positive. Yet, if you read his story in-depth, you would begin to gauge his resolve and courage in responding to an otherwise traumatic situation.
So while it may be tempting to think that somehow getting beat down in the worst possible way will force our most inspiring selves forth, this is not how the brain works.
When we go through trauma, our brains don’t function like they normally do. Instead, we shift into survival mode. As a result, we make decisions out of low-frequency vibrations, fear, greed, anger, shame, guilt, and regret, which can greatly influence how we think, feel and act long after.
According to a piece published by Whole Wellness Therapy, for many people, this could mean flashbacks or nightmares, a constant feeling of being on edge, loneliness, anger, intrusive thoughts and memories, self-destructive actions, and more.
Although quite normal responses to trauma, seeking extra help may be the only path to healing.
Healing, the Art of Kintsugi and Unleashing Your Inner Power
When dealing with trauma, if you were to think and look beyond the cause and effect dichotomy, you would realise that you are not stronger because of the trauma but in spite of it.
You may even be surprised to learn that while, at first glance, someone writing a book or sharing their most horrific experience on a Ted Talk stage wouldn’t have been able to do so without the trauma they experienced, the difference is — none of these people hid in their trauma or sees their trauma as their resolve or reason for being.
There is limitlessness in all of us; irrespective of your situation, it is there, deep within you and ready to be unleashed.
Recognising this delicate shift in balance unleashes incredible inner power in how we choose to look at ourselves and the world around us. To understand ourselves and own our struggles rather than see our trauma as something to be concealed and masquerade through life.
In the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the philosophy teaches us to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than something to disguise. The 15th-century technique beautifies the breakage by restoring broken pottery with lacquer and decorating the cracks with dusted gold, silver or platinum instead of covering them up to hide away signs of prior chips or cracks.
The powdered gold highlights fracture as an important part of the object’s history.
The lacquered cracks are covered in gold to transform the pot into a special object which will be used and preserved for a very long time.
The restored ceramic becomes a symbol of fragility, strength and beauty.
Today, many see Kintsugi as a powerful metaphor for life where nothing is ever truly broken. But people are not pottery. Yet there is a great lesson to be learned from the Kintsugi philosophy as we think about the fractures and scars developed from trauma endured.
Accepting that our scars needn’t be hidden, we can begin to see our imperfections as the birth of something new. Perhaps the parts of us that have always been there, but just resting, quietly, waiting to be awakened. We can begin to talk openly about our trauma and release trauma’s false hold over us. We can begin to reverse in our brain what was predominantly occupied by shame, guilt, judgement and fear with more of us in our most phenomenal sense. Profoundly joy, courage, dreams, play and hope — Like the art of Kintsugi, embracing the beauty of our whole selves, healing and becomming without hiding the parts of our history that once tried to become us.
So in closing, if no one has ever said this to you, know now: your trauma is not your hope; it is not your self-belief or willpower, and it is most certainly not how you manifest your strengths. Your trauma is not you. You are more than the trauma you have endured, carried or may be carrying. And another thing, you are not stronger because of your trauma; you are stronger in spite of it.
About — Nerissa J. Persaud has made it her life’s work to help people, companies and organisations across continents create better systems and processes to boost productivity, performance, community and happiness. A leader in culture strategy and alignment coaching, she has founded the initiative Ignite The Human Spark, — a member of the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health and powers initiatives on a global scale to promote conversations and cultures that foster a greater sense of self, thought and compassion in a changing world.