Do We Actually Grow from Adversity?

Yves here. Since suffering is part of the human condition, people do their best to cope with it. However, I have considerable doubt as to whether individuals actually “grow” from it, if one means becoming more mature and balanced. Personal pain, like the death of a spouse, infidelity, betrayal, sexual abuse, debilitating injury, career failure…it’s hard to put these in the American self-help movement “no pain, no gain” framework. People may become wiser, as judges of their and other’s behavior, and perhaps more skilled at avoiding bad situations, but that is not the same as their character or coping mechanisms getting better or them somehow developing more tenacity. Systems like ACE for measuring childhood emotional trauma find a strong correlation between having a high score and behavioral problems as an adult. And even though I didn’t have anything truly terrible that is all too common, like a violent, substance-abusing or criminal parent, or serious childhood dislocation, like divorce or foreclosure, the more garden variety but ongoing stress of moving all the time and being subjected to a lot of bullying as a result was not good for me at all. Perhaps some readers have or know of people with better character than I have, but I see adversity as crippling,. Adapting to handicaps is necessary, but it should not be confused with “growth”.

By Eranda Jayawickreme, Associate Professor of Psychology, Wake Forest University and Frank J. Infurna, Associate Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University. Originally published at The Conversation

In our culture, there’s this idea that enduring a tragedy can be good for your personal growth. You’ll have a newfound appreciation for life. You’ll be grateful for your friends and family. You’ll learn from the experience. You’ll become more resilient.

This themeappears in media coverage, time and again, in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

But what does the science say?

Is there actually value in pain and suffering? Was philosopher Frederich Nietzsche onto something when he said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”?

A Powerful Narrative

As psychologists, we’ve been studying this questionf or the better part of the last decade.

We’re not the first to grapple with these questions. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about how, after experiencing loss or trauma, people reported feeling a greater appreciation for life, closer to their friends and family, stronger, more spiritual and more inspired. They dubbed this phenomenon “post-traumatic growth.”

The appeal of this finding is obvious. It shows there’s a silver lining to tragedy. It’s also consistent with the biblical theme of redemption, which says that all pain and suffering will ultimately lead to freedom.

The findings also help us make sense of our own lives. Psychologists have demonstratedthat we like to narrate our lives in terms of the challenges we’ve confronted and the setbacks we’ve overcome. We like to believe good things can emerge from a bad turn of events because it’s often a key element of the stories we tell about our own lives.

How Can You Predict a Traumatic Event?

The cultural narrative of “growth from adversity” might sound compelling.

But our own examination of the existing research on the topic identified some red flags.

For one, it’s difficult to collect data on people before and after they’ve experienced trauma. For example, there’s no way of knowing who’s going to lose their home in a hurricane.

For this reason, most research on post-traumatic growth has asked people to estimate how much they’ve changed as a result of their trauma. While this might seem like a sensible way to assess personal growth – you might ask this question of a friend or even yourself – there are significant problems with this approach.

Studieshavefound that people aren’t very good at accurately remembering what they were like before a traumatic event. Or participants will say they’ve grown from the event when, in fact, they’re still struggling. Their reports of growth don’t always match what their friends and family think and may not reflect actual changes in their behaviors.

Telling others that you’ve grown might actually be a way to cope with the pain you’re still experiencing. Western culture permits little time to grieve; eventually, the expectation is that people are supposed to “get over it and move on.”

That pressure may even be embedded in the test itself; the questions typically used by trauma researchers tend to ask only about positive changes – whether the person has a newfound appreciation for their life, has pursued new goals or has become more religious. An expectation of recovery and self-improvement is baked into this line of questioning. In other cases, people may simply report that they’ve become stronger because they’re in denial about the actual pain that they are experiencing.

Yet the best-designed studies examining growth have found that how much people believed they had changed following a traumatic experience was not associated with how much they actually changed over time.

In fact, those who reported that they had experienced the most personal growth in the wake of a tragedy were more likely to be still experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The Jury’s Still Out

In many ways, it’s problematic to embrace the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity.

Think about what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t.

But moving on from a tragedy isn’t easy. Sometimes, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse, never fully goes away.

And then there are those who are open about the fact that they’re struggling after a loss months, even years later. If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” were true, these people might be viewed as “weak,” or seen as having something “wrong” with them.

Here’s what we do know from the best science that’s been done: 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 nearly as often as most people and some researchers believe.

What’s more, not everyone will grow in the same way and at the same speed. People will continue to need the help and social support of their families, friends and communities in the wake of a traumatic event. The availability of these resources actually play a big rolein determining whether people do, in fact, grow.

Nor should growth be thought of as a goal for everyone. For many people, just getting back to where they were before the trauma may be an ambitious enough goal.

While it’s certainly possible for adversity to lead to new insights and wisdom, science is still unclear about the “when” and “how.”

Stories of growth stemming from trauma are certainly powerful. They can serve as inspiration for our own lives. But we need to do better research to know whether such stories are the norm or the exception.

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  1. Titus

    Suffering only produces tears. In grief we are overwhelmed. In my own family and those of others I have known quite well I have seen the same outcomes over and over. Mostly, very broken people, coping best as they can with a few that in this culture seem to succeed because they become wealthy or hold positions of power, thus envy. On the other hand ‘to struggle’ is a whole other thing. Struggling does not break us, but allows for growth, in a zen like way, if you can get past getting stuck. Something best described in “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintance”.

    1. jrs

      What about it producing more understanding and compassion for other people’s pain? It depends on the circumstance, but I think it can.

      1. Titus

        Sure it can, but truly mostly it produces hate, either for yourself or for those you made you suffer. I’m one of five and the oldest. At eight being put into the foster care system was like going to hell. I ran away and stayed away. The rest? 1 shot another dead. 1 was shot dead. 1 killed them self. 1 went crazy. My social worker years later said I was literally 1 in a 1000. 1 what? I always thought the people around me were crazy not me, and that is what ‘saved’ me. In the end all there is, is compassion.

        1. JeffK

          @ Titus: As another eldest child run-away, but one who came home defeated and spiritually worse for the ware, I would say that through adversity I’ve learned to question the internal narrative. Humans are genetically programmed to identify patterns and generate stories to communicate about resources and danger to others. It’s almost unavoidable to look back on ones personal history and not connect dots and summarize events into some kind of coherent narrative.

          The problem is those narratives are usually grossly incomplete, lacking in any analysis of chance and random things that led to the hurtful or successful outcome. We tend to lace together weak cause-effect relationships that are not grounded on facts or an assessment of possible outcomes. Sure, there are bullies and we got bullied, or we failed professionally once or twice, or we were injured by a cruel workplace hierarchy, or were physically inured by accident, or were born with no apparent artistic talent. These things don’t have to be compiled into the victim narrative that influences the rest of our lives. We need to ask ourselves who is the intended audience that will hear this sad story? Does anyone really care that much? Who is going to “save” you?

          I think that when we begin and end each day by observing things and events that make us feel grateful for being alive, and learn to distrust the internal victim narrative, we are on the road to transcendence. Life isn’t fair – but it’s still good.

    1. Valdo

      “what doesn’t kill you just makes you stranger” I believe it was the Joker in the dark knight movie that said it

  2. Samuel Conner

    I’ve read that there is an “inverted U-curve” for the stress response — a little stress can improve the stressed subject’s “performance” (for some definition thereof), but too much is counterproductive and even destructive. Perhaps a similar “principle” applies to personal adversity.

    I wish that when I was young there was more known about what is now called “sociopathy”. Learning to avoid people with that kind of personality has been costly in time, treasure and grief.

    1. hunkerdown

      Avoid? Pish. Inuit used to get rid of theirs in tragic hunting accidents. And, indeed, personal and social growth was gained.

    2. jefemt

      I’ll see that and raise it— not only avoid, but actively call it out, reject it, and move the goal posts to a more compassionate, just social order.

      My own journey has been one of an old white guy slipping from White Privilege to the Precariat Other.
      It’s been eye-opening–bolstering compassion, recognizing the miracle of what I have experienced and the material world I still retain- increased gratitude. Awakening?

      I navigate my remaining days- one day at a time, in a world that has become increasingly less tenable. Too much information at the speed of light, tyrants and bullies overtly rising to the fore, deepening and more widespread hurt— especially accelerating in the last three years.
      Our natural world, the world we are a part of and yet apart from… being destroyed as we foul the nest with our industrial existence.

      Speaking with friends and acquaintances, I know that I am not alone, this posting by Yves and the essay indicates and speaks to the ‘pandemic’ of hurt.

      I wish everyone here peace and grace: talk to each other, smile, help one another, learn the flowers

      The rising hills, the slopes,
      of statistics
      lie before us,
      the steep climb
      of everything, going up,
      up, as we all
      go down.

      In the next century
      or the one beyond that,
      they say,
      are valleys, pastures,
      we can meet there in peace
      if we make it.

      To climb these coming crests
      one word to you, to
      you and your children:

      stay together
      learn the flowers
      go light

      “For the Children” by Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island. © New Directions, 1974.


      1. Off The Street

        Down valley a smoke haze
        Three days heat, after five days rain

        So begins Gary Snyder’s Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout.

        I’ve remembered those lines ever since reading Snyder’s poems in high school decades ago. They help me reflect on whatever has been happening, good or not so good. That is one way to work through things while maintaining a longer view and a connection to the natural world from my little lookout. The heat and rain are there, acknowledged eventually.

      2. Lambert Strether

        > 1974!!!

        At the inflection point of the neoliberal turn. He saw it coming!

        “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” –Shelley

        I used to read a lot of poetry back then (I liked Snyder’s translations of Chinese poetry) and even tried writing it (I had nothing to say, not having lived enough) but it seemed to me that poetry turned to a very flattened, prosy diction and domestic, self-regarding topics. (Not Berryman, bless his heart for he was a drunk, but the sort of people who do workshops and have MFAs.) I wonder if that’s the sort of avoidance behavior Yves mentioned above.

        1. Susan the Other

          I always liked Gary Snyder back then. He was so understated. But relentlessly reminded us we have fouled the nest already. I didn’t know he was into Chinese poetry. I just skate. But I know something good when I read it.

    3. Krystyn Walentka

      You are right, it is a U curve. If there is no stress on a muscle it will atrophy, too much and it will tear. You see, no stress is stress as well, it is an apathy. There is a middle ground between poverty and greed, this is the Dao.

      They know that there is a genetic component that makes people more likely to have PTSD or other mental illnesses after a traumatic event, so me thinks this is people afraid they might not have the free will they think they have.

      Whenever I see these studies I get the creepy feeling that people do them because they want to find a reason not to care about people’s suffering.

  3. Jesper

    The saying of: If it does not kill you then it will make you stronger…. I’d say that the saying might be more complex than it seems.
    It is possible to kill off one part of a human and while the rest of the human is still alive it does not mean that the killed off part can and will be regenerated/resurrected and also come back as stronger. Humans are more than just meat, it is possible to kill off something such as self-confidence, trust in others etc
    Adversity might kill off so much that coming back from it is without help almost impossible and sometimes it might even be impossible. Giving advice on when it is possible and when it is not possible to overcome adversity is something that I’d try to avoid. The wrong advice can be very damaging.

    The survivorship bias can mess up many things:
    Possibly it messes up the understanding of adversity and personal growth.

    And this bit:

    While it’s certainly possible for adversity to lead to new insights and wisdom, science is still unclear about the “when” and “how.”

    science will (in my personal opinion) never be clear on the when and how. The healing of minds is (again in my personal opinion) more of an art than a science.

    1. jrs

      And help isn’t what people think it is either, professional help is mostly garbage (but hey anyone is free to try it themselves if they can afford it/insurance covers. But that’s my opinion of it, having tried plenty), but one can occasionally be helped unexpectedly by a friend etc. but one shouldn’t really expect that either.

  4. LawnDart

    This article seems like fuel for introspection– thanks for this.

    “Try to weep. Nothing relieves one like tears.”
    — Tolstoy

  5. Steve H.

    This is a trap subject that can get me ranting against Mother Teresa. Look up ‘transgenerational stress inheritance’ and tell me ill effects are outweighed by character whatever.

    Rather, here’s a quote about how a healthy environment can lead the heart back to delight:

    Sweet are the uses of adversity,
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
    And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

    1. jrs

      I went to a Japanese garden recently that was almost miraculously healing in putting things back into perspective. Healing all one’s childhood or more recent traumas? Lets not be ridiculous here. But for the more recent trauma it was actually more helpful than so much else.

      1. Steve H.

        Japanese gardens somehow create energy out of voids. A silence of space. A timeless moment.

        As I’ve aged, some traumas become clearer. I was left in the street in the Amsterdam red light district when I was thirteen, pawed over my an enormous robed Arab, speaking but not words I could understand. Once I had grandchildren, the magnitude of it flooded over me, how it hot-wired my threat assessment system.

        More recently, I’ve found practicing gratitudes has helped me dissolve some of the bitterness. To will to love. Completely pragmatic, started after reading one of Dilbert’s books. A line from “Wild District”, a Columbian fiction series about a former child soldier, stuck with me:

        “You have to learn to enjoy the little moments of happiness that suddenly appear. And appreciate what you have.”

        It’s not a cure, but it does seem to help rewire the feedback circuits.

  6. Amfortas the hippie

    πάθει μάθος
    “wisdom through suffering”, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

    or, more recently, “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”-Wm Blake, proverbs of Hell.

    i reckon it’s more of a method of coping with past suffering than an actual process.
    one wants an experience of trauma to mean something…rather than being some meaningless cruelty inflicted by a capricious and angry god.
    without the bruxist tenacity i developed through adversity, i don’t know that i’d be here, today…but surely there’s a better, less painful, method of obtaining a modicum of wisdom and fortitude.
    for much of our secular calvinism…punishing the poor, etc…it’s just an excuse…a way to justify the status quo.
    the story of my life is a story of one instance of bad luck compounding itself….a bounced paycheck leading to homelessness and jail….or one chivalric act leading to outlawry and persecution…
    or one attempt(sober) to pass a carload of drunk rednecks leading to a lifetime of pain.
    am i wiser for it?
    am i a better person for it?
    i guess so…it is due to those things that i have found compassion, even for my tormentors.(“forgive them, father…”)
    but that’s also merely the way i chose to respond to it…not something inherent in the suffering and adversity, itself.
    Amor Fati ( is by far the most difficult of Neitzsche’s prescriptions…and in the end, it,too, is merely a way to make meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence.

    “and Anfortas rode forth in adventure, and his battlecry was “Amor!!!””

  7. scoff

    I’d say adversity is equally likely to cause bitterness, frustration and distrust – nearly the opposite of personal growth. A lot of that might depend on the support of friends and family one has… or doesn’t have.

    Personally, the traumas of my childhood (there were quite a few) made me more cognizant of the traumas I know others experience and caused me to be, I hope, more empathetic. At the same time I have grown more aware that my sense of empathy often isn’t shared by those with whom I interact, and thereby I’ve become more guarded and less trusting.

    I am constantly reminded of the wisdom of Helen Keller:

    “I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

    1. kiwi

      Yes, I’ve always been empathetic, but have become moreso after bad life experiences.

      And I don’t trust anyone – not until I know them. I’ve had too many experiences being stabbed in the back.

  8. Wukchumni

    Early on when I started backpacking, adversity came with the territory especially so, as I went solo often, in not quite solitary confinement as there are always others on the trail in the Sierra. Things such as wondering if you made a mistake biting off more than you can chew halfway through a 70 mile 1-way hike, where it’s the same distance going back as going forward.

    I was on the university of hard knocks footfall team, and it greatly shaped me.

  9. The Rev Kev

    If going through adversity means having more empathy in other people’s sufferings, then yes, there is growth to be found. In the final analysis, every person’s sufferings are unique to that person and one persons way of coping may not work for another person. But there is still the obligation to help those in need of help if for no other reason than for reasons of self-respect.

  10. fdr-fan

    People are different, and each person is also different at different points in life. Some people are innately resilient and thick-skinned, immune to slings and arrows. Some are innately delicate. Most are in-between, varying with circumstances. When we feel supported and linked, we can take more adversity. When we’re already barraged and isolated, we’re more ready to surrender.

  11. DakotabornKansan

    “… adversity as crippling” and not to be “confused with growth”

    Death of my wife at the age of 42; life as single parent caring for my youngest son (end-stage neuromuscular disease) and his death at the age of 17; oldest son diagnosed with bipolar disorder; elderly mother’s cva and nursing home placement and eventual death; coping with the pain of my grief and losses overshadowed my own developing chronic illness.

    Suffering in and of itself is meaningless. However, I gave my suffering meaning by the way I responded to it.

    Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning, provided me this enduring insight:

    Forces beyond my control could take away everything I possessed except one thing, my freedom to choose how I would respond to my losses. I could not control what happened to me in my life, but I could always control what I felt and did about what happened to me. I was never left with nothing as long as I retained my freedom to choose how I would respond.

    Crippling? No. Growth? No.

    “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Nietzshe

    1. jrs

      I believe early childhood trauma can in some cases actually take away much of one’s “freedom to choose who they respond to their losses”

      1. ChiGal in Carolina

        Agree, notwithstanding my desire to validate DK for having found a way to persevere in the face of adversity worthy of Job.

        This post and discussion makes me think of the expression, which I despise, “Everything happens for a reason.”

        I too lost a son, my only child. What I believe is that “Everything happens.” Period. Then you deal. Some find acceptance, through faith or the existential belief that we determine our own fate.

        Others struggle, like in the film Manchester by the Sea. I’m still walking the planet but it is a work in progress for me to truly inhabit my life on these terms.

        Resilience has a lot to do with early attachment experiences I believe, whether one internalized the capacity to self-regulate through accurate attunement by another: I see it in patients all the time, and the therapeutic work is very different with those to whom later life delivered similar traumas and losses who did or did not experience a secure attachment.

  12. David

    I think there are two rather different things here, both called “adversity”.
    Major stress and trauma are not recommended for anyone, and most of their effects are very negative. There are individuals (Victor Frankl is a good example), who have risen above terrible suffering and done important things. There are others who, in a more modest way, have risen above great adversity by remembering that, whilst we can’t control our outer circumstances, we can control our reaction to those circumstances. But I can’t imagine any psychologist suggesting that being put in a prison camp or losing a beloved relative is actually good for you, whatever you make of the consequences.
    The real growth from adversity argument is to do with maturity and confronting the mundane challenges of life. When I was young, there was something called “growing up”, which was a series of stages you passed through that might involve some stress but that, once finished, left you a more mature person. These would include, for example, going to the shops on your own, successively higher schools and maybe university, your first night away from home, your first relationship, your first job, marriage, children etc. These little stressors might involve some unpleasant episodes (at school for example) but it was assumed that you would get through them and mature into adulthood. Many of these stages were punctuated by ceremonies of some kind and in a lot of so-called “primitive” cultures, they still are. Even in Europe, for a hundred years or more doing your military service was a stressful but ultimately maturing experience.
    We’ve lost most of that now. We protect children like babies, adolescents like children and young adults like adolescents. (This, more than anything else, explains the vacuousness and pettiness of much contemporary politics.) And when younger people do meet actual, real, unavoidable adversity, they aren’t necessarily mature enough to handle it.

    1. elissa3

      Very astute. Other than major trauma (need good definition please), adversity reveals and strengthens empathy. Sadly, it seems that somewhere around 4% of the population lack empathy receptors in their genetic makeup. More discouragingly still, many of these 4% gravitate, quite naturally in most “advanced” societies, to positions of great power.

      1. jrs

        You never are going to get a good definition of major trauma that will allow you to determine who was traumatized or not especially in childhood. Because most abusive families make it impossible to actually make sense of what is happening, they blame the victim (child) and make them feel they are defective rather than the family is dysfunctional, they isolate from the rest of society so the victim has no way to make sense of it in the context of how other human relationships/families work (and to avoid legal trouble sometimes), some victims of trauma blackout to such an extent they have complete amnesia of their whole childhood and wouldn’t no be able to recall anything that happened in it (at least consciously) etc, so they can’t tell you about the abuse,because the abuse was SO TRUAMATIC they forgot their entire childhood! So your never going to be able to determine deserving and undeserving (“just a bunch of whiners”) trauma victims, and people are born more or less sensitive as well.

        1. ChiGal in Carolina

          Very early preverbal traumatic “memories” are implicit, encoded in the body. They do not even exist as explicit memories to be recovered. The reactivity of the autonomic nervous system is the focus of therapeutic work, not the recovering and retelling of the details of the abuse.

          Possibly one of the most damaged people I ever worked with was a 5yo born to a teenage mother who was in prison at the time I saw him and living with his grandmother. She said when he was an infant she witnessed that when he started crying (signalling a need for comfort and connection) his mother would punch–not slap–him in the face.

          He could not possibly remember this, but still carried with him such an intense shock to the system he will probably work a lifetime to metabolize it, if indeed he is lucky enough to have relationships and experiences he can internalize to counter that early attachment failure.

          1. Susan the Other

            I’m certain from my own experience that early childhood trauma is lifelong and impossible to ever know for certain what happened. In my case my brother died from meningitis when I was 3 and he was 4. It devastated my parents. I became a virtual orphan but I somehow thought I still had a mother and a father. Both became serious alcoholics. In their more lucid moments they both had good senses of humor, they functioned at a pretty high level… but they were just never really there. It was such a vague misery I never identified it. Much later, after I was married and had a kid of my own, my aunts told me bits and pieces that were just enough for me to realize how awful it had been. But I know I will never have a complete report of my life. Nor do I think anyone else does, no matter how regular and happy. At least I had a roof over my head and enough food to eat. That was about the extent of my nurture. And I still grieve for their loss.

        2. ChiGal in Carolina

          Since my earlier comment seems to have been eaten, shorter version: Implicit preverbal memories are carried in the body; there is no explicit memory to recall. There is a shock to the autonomic nervous system and the capacity to self-regulate that if one is lucky can be mitigated later by corrective experience.

          See Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Tells the Story or Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger. Also do a search on polyvagal theory (Stephen Porges).

          1. Lambert Strether

            This is very interesting, thanks. I am mentally connecting this to epigenetics. We really know very little about what makes us who we are, individually or collectively.

            One could look, I suppose, at the #MedicareForAll movement as a collective howl for attachment, and why indeed not?

    2. jrs

      I never would have thought the 2nd is what the “growth from adversity” argument is about because I never would have considered those things adversity by any definition of adversity, nor was I aware that anyone would. And this is the first I have ever heard so.

      Aren’t those things supposed to be the good things in life? (relax I’m not saying anyone *has* to get married, have kids etc, but just in most people’s perspectives?). Whereas adversity is abuse, childhood neglect, times of poverty, precarity, unemployment, bullying etc..

      1. ChiGal in Carolina

        The second thing David is talking about is the development of frustration tolerance through the experience of manageable challenges being part of one’s childhood. If everything comes too easy one doesn’t develop discipline and perseverance.

        You are correct, this is not what is meant by ACES and not what this post is addressing. There could be some overlap though, for example depending on the circumstances, consequences, and handling by parents of a divorce, the experience might or might not rise to the level of a trauma and divorce is considered an adverse childhood experience.

        1. ChiGal in Carolina

          Or maybe David is on point and the muddling of the two categories is in the OP; would have to scan again to determine—no time now—I never have time to comment lately but this post is close to my heart, my life, my work.

          1. David

            I was commenting on the assertion that “it’s problematic to embrace the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity”, which is a point of view I would accept . The problem here is that there are levels and layers of adversity, and, whilst “personal growth” is certainly a consequence of the more mundane challenges that I mentioned, and can be a consequence of rather more serious challenges, which, nonetheless we all go through, there are obvious limits. The death of one’s parents, for example, especially relatively young, is a stage in life which has to be worked through. But I don’t think (or at least I hope) that reputable psychologists or even personal development writers would suggest that serious trauma is something you have to go through and are necessarily the better for having done so. Whilst people do go through terrible traumas and emerge stronger, such an outcome is not typical, so far as I know. My feeling is that the article mixed categories up too much: the death of a spouse, for example, no matter how tragic, is actually something that happens mathematically to 50% of those in lifelong relationships.

    3. ChiGal in Carolina

      For most of history children were thought to be little adults. They were put to work to support the family at an early age. The concept of the nuclear family only dates back to the 19th century.

      Now we know that myleination in the brain is not complete until the mid 20s, that is, the neural circuitry involved in executive functioning like planning, anticipating consequences, delaying gratification, reflection, insight, empathy–all kinds of connecting the dots–is not fully conductive until then.

      Whatever the law, 21 is not the magic age at which adolescents become adults.

  13. OIFVet

    In the military, drill sergeants are fond of making the trainees constantly repeat “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Then the soldier is exposed to the realities of modern American warfare, and the grand lie becomes very apparent. The lucky ones live with PTSD for the rest of their lives. The unlucky ones decide that this is no way to live life, 22 of them every single day.

    David makes some very fine distinctions and observations above, but I will quibble with his last paragraph. Just because these days children grow up overly protected compared to previous generations does not mean that older generations that were raised in less overprotective manner are any better in dealing with what modern stress entails. I am 42, raised in Eastern Europe, where being raised to be tough was definitely the cultural norm. When I had problems with an older boy and told my dad about it, he showed me how to properly punch and then sent me out to deal with my problem. Another time we saw an argument that turned into a fight. The smaller man punched the larger man and brought him to the ground, and then stopped punching. The larger man got up and beat the smaller guy into a pulp. My father’s take? “Don’t stop punching until they can’t get back up.”

    The point of this is that modern stress is far more insidious and harder to confront head-on. Student loan debt, life of being condemned to be part of the precariat, etc., all cause stress that is not only unrelenting, but the elite propaganda makes people feel like their problems are the result of a personal failure rather than living in a system that is designed to create just these results for the vast majority of people. Only sociopaths can possibly thrive in these conditions.

  14. Susan the Other

    I think the adage is a little twisted. We humans thrive in spite of adversity and in spite of the damage we incur. We attack it head on. Like cave men killing a mastodon. Like medical science. Yet there are plenty of people who thrive without any apparent extra adversity. So who is going to be the control group? We are tough. There is no question about it. But realistic enough to know that someday we’ll meet our match. Psychologically I think the adage is twisted as well, because the traumas we suffer interacting with each other do change us, our personalities expand to include them and from this growth whole families can come to have almost the same personalities. In my mother’s family, she and her sisters and all us kids, there is something I can only describe as “family speak”. Family humor. Family resilience. It has been demonstrated lately by careful epigenetic research that social hardship does indeed have an evolutionary effect. Clear examples of acquired characteristics being passed on. Taking it all into one adage is impossible but by and large I think adversity does make us grow and evolve. Maybe not become stronger as we are naturally resilient in spite of grief.

  15. Synoia

    UK Boarding schools; leaving hone at 8 or 9, and spending 33 weeks a year in a hostile environment is pretty Traumatic.

    The bullying was intense, and 7 x 24.

    This leads to Psychopathic behaviour, and for an example look no further than BoJo and the rest of the UK Conservatives.

    1. Off The Street

      Eton Voices, a book about survivors of that institution, included observations by some of the usual, and by some Tugs. The latter were more formally Togati, so visualize a young man in a toga, so-called to indicate a scholarship recipient. Brutalizations interspersed with the occasional thoughtful instruction beyond Punic Wars and amo, amas, amat.

  16. smoker

    I think, in part, it depends on the sort of adversity, its severity, and certainly the frequency of adversities experienced.

    If the adversity, such as say: ending up homeless; slaving in a brutal Amazon warehouse; or not being able to afford a vital medication in a country of vast wealth – particularly if the person had went out of their way in life to prevent such a horror story – is a societally unjust and immoral adversity, versus say being severely injured in an accident such as falling down stairs, the blow is crippling and lethal.

    But too many adversities of any sort, or even just one that was particularly devastating, can be permanently crippling.

    I really can’t stomach when some perpetrate the benefits of adversity to those who’ve just suffered a adversity, or other major trauma – stoicism in the face of another’s misery (from The Razor’s Edge) – particularly when the adversity was an unjust one and the perpetrators life is, and has been, flowing quite smoothly.

    My oprion is that societally unjust adversities are becoming more and more freuquent for those who refuse to be rapacious and resort to, or ignore (for their own benefit) corruption – with an absolute correlation tp the exploding Deaths of Despair.

  17. DJG

    Thanks for the many wonderful comments.

    I think that the heart of the article is here, after the header mid-page:

    In many ways, it’s problematic to embrace the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity.

    Think about what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t.

    But moving on from a tragedy isn’t easy. Sometimes, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse, never fully goes away.

    –Recently, we have had a spell of lousy weather here in Chicago. At the simplest level of suffering, my advice to newbies here has been, Dealing with the cold in Chicago doesn’t make you a better person or build character. So feel free to complain. And make soup.
    –I think that the biggest message for me in the last twenty or so years is that the purpose of being an adult, and the goal of adult behavior, should be to end or lessen suffering. I learned this from my participation in theater. What is the purpose of theater? It many respects it is to watch suffering on stage, let one’s compassion well up, and then shed tears. Then go out into “real” life with that lesson learned.
    –As many of the commenters have noted, the gratuitous cruelty of modern life is wearing. In Buddhism, and I’m a pretty bad Buddhist, we’d say that the opinions of the gratuitously cruel are pure illusion. We must break through illusion. As the perfect political for-instance, we had Dianne Feinstein pretending that she couldn’t leak the Senate Torture Report and get “nice” people in trouble, when she could have alleviated much suffering. But for good old Dianne, reliable centroid, it was better to live in delusion than free people from suffering. And for her to remain a kind of overgrown child.
    –In the case of sexual abuse, James Hillman, the distinguished Jungian analyst, pointed out that people had to dissolve that suffering and move on. Yet in the U S of A, puritanism, that double-edged sword, has made sexual misbehavior an industry for the victims and an industry for law enforcement. The prescription should truly be: Accuse. Refuse to forgive. Tend to the scar. Then move on to other things. {Yes, I know that I am not giving the authorized version as approved by current culture.]

    Thanks to Yves Smith for the insightful head note: But I will repeat. What we learn from suffering is not to let others–people, the tree in front of the house, that butterfly, those hard-working bees–have to suffer.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Keats called the world “a vale of soul-making.” Letters:

      “–The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven–What a little circumscribed straightened notion! call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making’ Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul making” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence– There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God–how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystain religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation–This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years–These Materials are the Intelligence–the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive–and yet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible–I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, it is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence–

      I suppose another way of thinking about the same world would be as one of Gibson’s stubs — a parallel world accessible through a server, in our case with a sociopath for an administrator. Sigh. These views perhaps helped Keats, who died young of tuberculosis.

  18. Louis Fyne

    — Adapting to handicaps is necessary, but it should not be confused with “growth”—

    the mere presentation of the question as a matter of “growth” irks me to no end.

    as a psych layman, it’s mind-boggling how pervasive the post-WWII Californian school of “self-actualization” pervades American psychology, American pop psychology, American media and American zeitgeist.

    I’d label self-actualization as one of the worst things to come out of California but I also have the soul of a grumpy old man. So get off my lawn!

  19. Synoia

    Is self-actualization the opposite of “Do unto other as you would be done by?” and also appears to be the personification of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Envy, and Pride.

    Leaving Sloth and Wrath as adjunct behaviors.

    Let’s apply these tests to our beloved leaders.

  20. Cripes

    Adversity and Suffering Makes You Stronger + Other People Have it Worse Than You = Shut the Hell Up.

    It also dovetails nicely with the American delusion that all systemic abuses has will be fixed by personal Solutions and heroic efforts.

    Although, for me, empathy for the suffering of others and avoidance of catastrophic events to the extent possible, has been my response to random and systemic life disasters.

    In Human Services work, I learned to point out that people surviving years of constant adversity, in the absence of social support and some successes, rarely turned out well.

    Unsurprisingly, the patina of social service theory practitioners are exposed to in their training often does not overcome a core of deep bias against the undeserving poor.

    So shut the hell up.

  21. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    The itinerant childhood of mine resulting in 9 schools was tough until I learned a way to deal with the bullies, which was to get it over straight away, by making picking on me more trouble than it was worth, & later as I got older to become a member of the bad boys club. My sister had it worse once she reached adolescence, particularly as due to her looks, she was very popular with boys which led to some awful forms of female viciousness.

    I don’t regret it as I have done pretty well considering that I basically stopped lessons at age 12, which is the full extent of my formal education. I was pretty wild but fortunately learned from some hard lessons, then a beautiful baby girl turned up & so I knuckled down. I was very lucky that all of this occurred when you could screw up, bum around for a couple of years & get away with it -I don’t think that kids today would be so fortunate.I do think that these circumstance caused me to feel as though I never really belonged anywhere, which is why I feel OK somewhere where I do not belong. I don’t know about you Yves but I strongly believe that the above makes one more adaptable & quite happy to often be alone.

    Life passed everything more or less going to plan, then lost my wife of 23 years to a gliablastoma multiforme as a metastasis from earlier breast cancer. I was her carer for 16 mths, mainly held up by her amazing example, brilliant if often shoddy looking Irish healthcare & the many women she had befriended during her short time in Ireland, who she had taught assertiveness, coping with stress etc, which was all very new to them in that largely rural area.

    I fell apart after she had gone & ended up for a weekend in part of an old Victorian asylum, which was for the main part a drunk tank. It wasn’t long before I realised my mistake in booking myself in, but had to put up with 2 nights while realising that in comparison to the lost souls therein, I would be OK. About 8 mths after that I fell in love with a very beautiful but troubled woman, bought a dream house, lost that after losing work contracts & it has been very tough since, hitting bottom being a 6mth spell on ” Universal Credit “, which is neither of those things.

    I don’t know whether any of this has made me grow, but I do know that I had to do things as a carer that I would not have thought I was capable of & in relation to my subsequent partner I have been to a lesser extent her carer until due to a combination of circumstances lead to her needing professional help, which was also a sort of bereavement for me, as she had to leave to obtain it I know that both women made me love more & it did affect my value system in the sense of what might be referred to as what really matters in life.

    I look on my life as if it were a painting, one that makes full use of chiaroscuru with over the latter part of my life the dark part of the picture intensifying which has had the effect of further illuminating the bright & colouful parts. I now spend as much time & effort as I can adding to those bright dabs, which is perhaps something that the darkness taught me.

    1. norm de plume

      You have certainly been thru a lot more than me. I’m sure all of that has played a role in making you the sort of person who makes such thoughtful comments here. ‘Though much is taken, much abides…’

  22. norm de plume

    One size doesn’t fit all. We are all genetically different for one thing, and have inbuilt propensities many others don’t have, so that the experience of the same adversity in two different people may strengthen one and weaken the other.

    Some plants need the limited water supply of a desert to truly bloom, others need a hothouse. For some depression is a chemical imbalance (often leading to untoward events or situations) and for some it is event or situation-driven, leading to chemical imbalance.

    Hence I am wary of any schema that says ‘this or that is god or bad for us’ when we are all different. Sure, general observations and population wide results from studies and surveys can point to commonalities, but
    that basic template of difference needs to be incorporated somehow.

  23. Janie

    Yves, thank you for this posting. I am in awe of those contributing here today, as well as La Ruse and Jeremy Grimm a couple of days ago, and others. I have nothing to say except i admire you all and am humbled by what you have endured and overcome. Blessings to all…

  24. meeps

    What constitutes growth in this capacity? A move away from some unfavorable state, toward a more successful state of some kind?

    Suppose someone harms me in such a way as to cause physical injury, emotional trauma, even financial ruin. Do I forgive the person the transgression and continue relations as before in the hope that I will suffer no further victimization? Do I discontinue relations with the person (with or without forgiving them) on the assumption that continued relations will likely result in further victimization? Which response indicates that I’ve grown from the adversity? One person says that to forgive and to treat tomorrow as a new day is the ideal growth response. Another would say that having the self-respect to forswear relations with an abusive person is the more successful strategy.

    There are infinite adversities and I don’t know that there are such things as correct responses to them, but I think there are cultural inheritances that can be toxic in that they impose notions of goodness that undermine strength against abuses of power.

  25. GlassHammer

    People will find a source of pride/self-worth even if all they have to be proud of is surviving their own suffering.

    The fundamental reason for this is that a total loss of pride/self-worth is a very short road to death.

    You can share the “suffering = strength/growth” message with those who are only holding onto this world through their suffering (because you/they run out of any chances to improve their situation if they are dead) but unleashing a “suffering = strength/growth” message on a prosperous person/people is evil (especially if you would not subject yourself to the suffering you encourage others to pursue).

  26. McKillop

    I have had good and bad both happen to me – and learned that all others experienced similar events and consequences. When I use my intellect, after the events have receded further and further into the past. I find that my behaviour has changed towards being somewhat more compassianate and kind towards others, including those who harmed me. And sometimes, brave enough to admit the harm I have caused others. At one time I had damned good reasons for hurting others; now, I work a bit harder to be more merciful, recognizing my own need for mercy and understanding both given and received.

    Mind, it’s an on-going challenge, It helps that I don’t consider ‘character’ to be fixed nor easily defined, Behaviour, action or patience, counts more, to my mind.

    And I’d like to recommend that people listen to the ideas of Gabor Mate on you tube. I found that his ideas are helpful to understanding trauma.

  27. Sarah Henry

    This reminded me of Corey Robin’s analysis of the roots of Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence: “under conditions of the most abject adversity, there will be a summoning of more heroic spirits.”

    It seems Thomas takes this embedded cultural idea even further, implying not only that suffering begets strength and resilience, but moral virtue as well.

  28. SAKMAN

    This article asks the hypothetical question. . .did I grow from the early death of my father? Or does it?

    What would have been good for these professors to do is to explain in layman’s terms how growth happens. Here, layman’s terms: Growth is created by interaction with your environment. It’s very simple, high activity is one critical element of growth. The next critical piece is exposure to new environments. Sit on your butt in a single environment, and you aren’t going to grow much. Be active and expose yourself to many environments and you will grow. This is a fairly straightforward way to explain it.

    Adversity often FORCES activity, and exposure to new environments. Therefore, it should not be a surprise to anyone that people have observed that adversity can lead to growth.

    The hypothetical death of my father forced me to do many things I would not have done, it forced us to move to a much lower-class neighborhood interacting with a new type of person. I was very active, and in turn I grew an enormous amount. I have seen, done, and overcome things that others many not ever have a chance to overcome. I grew.

    I really did not like this article. I do not think that “Adversity” can be used as a starting point for a conversation. It’s not definable, or consistent from person to person. It is the type of thing that people can argue about endlessly. The term itself has very little utility because of the complexity.

    A failure to have a well-defined starting point means you can’t hit the mark. It’s just like darts or a tennis serve, you need a well-defined starting point, or you are lost. The article is more about the diversity of adversity than anything else.

  29. notabanktoadie

    Americans in particular like to reframe hardship as an opportunity to grow… Yves

    It may or may not be so but woe to those who cause unjust hardship to others or support a system that does so.

    1. Sol

      Indeed. It’s about the only thing I’m certain of after witnessing decades of America’s pleasurable wallowing in cruelty and sadism against the vulnerable: there is little one can do against another that will not rebound in the long term. We should be careful what we wish for. Getting our way is no guarantee we shall enjoy the eventual outcome.

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