You’ve surely heard the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” either from Kelly Clarkson or Nietzsche. In both versions, and as the phrase is now generally used, it essentially means that you become stronger in the face of adversity.
“It’s become almost like a cultural touchstone,” Eranda Jayawickreme, a psychologist who has researched “post-traumatic growth,” told Hidden Brain. “It’s almost like a default attitude toward trauma that we think when bad things happen we’re going to use it as an opportunity to get better.”
But is there any truth behind the phrase? Well, it’s complicated, and even if there’s some truth behind it, it might not be useful as an idea, according to Jayawickreme.
Some research has suggested that growth (and more relationship satisfaction), as well as improved self-esteem, can occur after traumatic events.
“A positive trend was found for self-esteem, positive relationships, and mastery in prospective studies following positive and negative events,” wrote the authors of a paper published in the American Psychological Association.
“We found no general evidence for the widespread belief that negative life events have a stronger impact than positive ones. No genuine growth was found for meaning and spirituality. In the majority of studies with control groups, results did not differ significantly between event and control group, indicating that changes in outcome variables cannot simply be attributed to the occurrence of the life events investigated.”
One of the problems with area research is that you can’t (unless you go back to the early 1900s and continue) traumatize your subjects. This means that you rely on your subjects’ memories of their lives before the trauma to get your data, asking them to self-assess how they are now compared to how they were before.
One group of researchers overcame this, essentially holding the study long enough to cause trauma. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers asked 1,200 undergraduate students – selected because they were “at a peak age for trauma exposure” – to complete a series of questionnaires designed to measure satisfaction in areas of life believed to be affected from traumatic events. .
They then waited two months before giving the students the same questionnaires, as well as a questionnaire about life events that had happened in the interim, and a standard post-traumatic growth questionnaire that asked participants about changes in themselves after the traumatic experiences. This latter questionnaire included rating statements such as “I have a greater sense of self-reliance” and “I have a greater sense of closeness to others.”
In the months between study stages, 122 of the students had experienced a highly traumatic event (an example given by the researchers is “a close friend killed by a drunk driver”) and had rated these events as causing extreme anguish .
“It would be inappropriate to conclude from our findings that people cannot change in positive ways after threatening life experiences,” the team wrote in their discussion. “Indeed, a relatively small percentage of our participants showed real change, although we have no way of knowing whether that change can be attributed to their traumatic experience.”
However, looking at life satisfaction measures collected at both stages of the study, there was little correlation between participants’ perceived growth and improvement in these psychological measures.
“All of this suggests that retrospective reports of growth are measuring something different from actual pre- and post-trauma change,” they added.
In addition to being unclear, it’s possible that the concept of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” can be harmful to people who have recently experienced trauma.
“Consider what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t,” Jayawickreme and fellow psychologist Frank J Infurna wrote in an article on the topic for The Conversation . Those still struggling months or years after a traumatic event may feel “weak” if they haven’t experienced the same “growth,” they add.
“People can indeed grow from adversity. They can become stronger, improve the quality of their relationships, and increase their self-esteem. But it probably doesn’t happen as often as most people and some researchers think.”
“Nor should growth be seen as a goal for everyone. For many people, getting back to where they were before the trauma can be quite an ambitious goal.”