The Eventual, Unexpected Upside of Pain & Adversity
Updated: Jun 18
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Call it adversity or trauma, challenging times or a plain old raw deal.
In general, the harder one has it in life, the more negative the impact on mental health and well-being.
Social scientists have long-studied how social factors such as poverty, powerlessness and discrimination of all kinds can help or hinder people in their ability to rebound and cope with chronic, adverse conditions.
Dr. Robert Carter, psychologist and Colombia University professor, is an expert on how racial discrimination specifically, causes long-term stress and trauma. He developed a way to measure the impact of what he calls “avoidant racism” on one end of the spectrum to clear, overt “hostile racism practices” on the other.
Beyond intolerance and injustice based on race, there’s no shortage of all kinds of trauma and challenges to go around. Generational, individual. Chronic abuse or one-time tragedies. One form or another, one degree or another.
Then there’s the run-of-the-mill hardships that come with just having your human card: job loss, illness, being a victim of violence or a disaster, grief, financial hardship. Life is long and at points, is guaranteed to be rough.
It’s rare anyone can avoid hard times and tragedy and some have had way more than their fair share.
Research efforts have tried to help understand how the life difficulties we experience can either hold us back, or serve to make us stronger and more resilient.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people, for an extraordinary destiny…” – C.S. Lewis
Adversity promotes future resilience
Resilience is having the mental and physical tools to deal with, and rebound from, bad things that inevitably happen. Resiliency can protect us from the long-term negative effects of the tragic events in our lives.
You can’t learn to be swim without swimming. Or to be brave without experiencing actual fear. It is only by living through some really bad times, that we can hope to develop resiliency. A video or a podcast can’t teach resilience. For that, we need to be thrown into the deep end.
“What ought one say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing for this; I was training for this.” – Epictetus
Living through hardships can boost our fortitude and play an important role in training for subsequent inevitable valleys in life. When we are forced to figure out how to get back up after being knocked down, we develop the psychological tools to rebound more easily after the next difficulty.
Psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi have been studying the impact of trauma and adversity for thirty years. Beyond building strength and resiliency, their research indicated a number of ways that the crises we experience in life can ultimately lead to personal development or post-traumatic growth.
They found that having experienced trying times can inspire and create a sense of new possibilities or opportunities that had not existed, or been recognized, before the adversity. Calhoun and Tedeschi also discovered that having experienced hardships is associated with closer relationships, and a greater appreciation for both the people in our lives, as well as life in general.
“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” – Madeline L’Engle
A study by researchers Croft, et al. (2013) found that living through trauma or adverse times can promote our recognition and gratitude for the good in life. The study found experiencing turbulent times can increase the ability to enjoy positive events and life’s small pleasures.
Other studies have connected overcoming adversity or traumatic events to increased feelings of personal power, confidence and self-esteem.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” – Cynthia Occelli
Moderate adversity better than no adversity for well-being
Research has found that adversity in life does bring benefits.
In fact, a comparative study by Seery et al. (2010) found that experiencing moderate difficulty in life predicted better mental health and well-being than not only those with a lot of life adversity but also more than those with no history of adversity at all.
Consider that. People that experience no adversity show more overall stress and lower levels of life satisfaction. Overcoming moderate challenges increases happiness.
The verdict is in: there’s a definite upside to a downside – but not for all.
Not everyone grows from adversity
It’s not as simple as: get beat up by life, come out better and stronger. If that were the case, our world would probably look very different.
Coming out the other side and being able to use the difficulty for betterment doesn’t just happen. There are important conditions that can make the difference between pain making us stronger vs. pain that takes us down and leaves us there.
Emotional resolution, social support are prerequisites for growth
Studies have found that in order to generate the benefits and use the pain in our life, we first must work through the trauma or adversity on an emotional level.
Croft and team’s study showed that increased appreciation for life and the people in it required that one was no longer struggling with what happened. This takes uncomfortable work, time and real reflection.
Often, people would rather expend great energy and resources to avoid, numb and run from pain instead.
Definitions, expectations have power
Our own thoughts and behaviors can be a real asset or an enemy when it comes to coping with adversity.
Author and researcher, Brene’ Brown has studied the power our stories have in how we move through adversity. Brown emphasizes that the first story we tell ourselves and the meaning we give the negative event is fundamental and dictates how we move forward.
Seeing a negative event as a temporary circumstance rather than a permanent situation is key. No matter how bad it is, a circumstance is not who we are and it doesn’t have to be where we stay. Whether or not we expect to make it through adversity drives the choices we make in response.
“There’s a difference between the event and everything that follows the event…whether a feeling is going to paralyze you or not paralyze you. You have absolute control now.” – Rabbi Irwin Kula
Adversity as teacher, catalyst for growth
Like it or not, we gain more from pain than success. Sometimes adversity creates the motivation to make necessary changes in our lives.
In Cradles of Eminence (1962), Victor and Mildred Goertzal outlined their classic study into the childhoods of hundreds of greatly esteemed and accomplished men and women. They found that 75% of these individuals came from troubled backgrounds.
In addition to adversity, these childhood homes had other building blocks for future success in common: a love of learning and encouraged goal-setting. A troubled background or hard times can also contain building blocks necessary for future triumph.
“It does help to have something to push against – whether it’s an injury or perhaps, poverty – but something to rail against, to motivate you, to mobilize your energies, to push against, to fight for.” - Dr. BJ Miller
Difficult times are a part of our larger story
People love a good story.
One of the oldest, is that of redemption: the hero’s journey and the overcoming.
In his book, The Redemptive Self (2006), psychologist Dan McAdams focuses on how people create their own personal myths and “narrative identity”. Like any good story, ours include major plot points, villains, and heroes that win out in the end. Big life events, good and bad, help us weave together and make sense of our lives.
McAdams found that people tend towards redemptive or contaminated stories.
In the former, life stories go from bad to good. Redemptive storytellers tend to be motivated to contribute to the future of their communities. They see their lives as more meaningful, growth-oriented, love-filled, positive and under their control. They also report greater psychological well-being.
He found those with contaminated narratives were just the opposite: they go from good to bad or bad to worse. People with contaminated stories tend towards low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and feel less coherence in their life.
“We’ve all been through horrendous events in our lives, one way or another. We learn how to stand on the back of it and go forward.” – Jerry Gardner
The story is more powerful than therapy, medication
Studies have shown that changing and reinterpreting the story of our life in a way that serves us, has proven just as effective as other therapeutic interventions or even antidepressants.
Turns out, it’s not the adversity we experience that determines how well the end of our story turns out. Instead, it’s the story we tell ourselves about what the adversity means, and most importantly, what comes next.
Looking back over a lifetime, even a chaotic, unexpected time involving a pandemic, job loss and financial hardship - could turn out to be just a chapter or two before the heroine or hero makes some big moves and emerges victorious.
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