Does Adversity Really Make Us Stronger?

For years, the universe has refused to respect my wishes. In particular, I often experience things which I didn’t want to happen. And it’s unclear who I’m supposed to complain to about this.

During bouts of unwanted adversity, I try to take solace in reassuring sentiments–comforting thoughts like:

This too shall pass,

We need bad times to make the good times sweeter,

And at least I have this cheesecake.

But I mainly console myself with the thought that at least I’ll grow. On some level I’ve absorbed the idea that difficulties will make me automatically better, as if sitting in a library makes me smarter, or thinking about gyms builds muscle. That’s right… right?

Unfortunately, it turns out that psychologists aren’t convinced. Adversity doesn’t automatically lead to growth.

It’s easy to see where my mistaken beliefs come from. The way we talk about difficulty is infused with moral judgement. From an early age, we’re told What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I’ve never liked that phrase. Even as a child, I felt that it left a LOT of room for things to almost kill you. Or leave you weaker. Or even just give you a very bad time.

After all, adversity’s whole thing is that it’s bad, potentially traumatic. Feeling pressured—even subconsciously—to grow during a horrendous experience can make it harder to deal with, loading guilt and shame on top of the initial difficulty. So there’s one important lesson: I’m not required to benefit from adverse circumstances. It’s okay for things to just suck.

The way we talk about difficulty is infused with moral judgement. From an early age, we’re told, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But I’ve never liked that phrase. Even as a child, I felt that it left a LOT of room for things to almost kill you.

Growth is possible

There’s a popular UK show in which celebrities volunteer to be locked in tiny coffins with snakes and scorpions so they can earn the right to eat. (That may sound harsh, particularly if you’re from a culture that reveres celebrities more than we do, but this show has been going for decades and celebs still want to go on it, for some reason.) 

Since Covid started, I’ve found myself with more spare time than usual, so I tuned in. In the very first episode, one celebrity—a pleasant-seeming man named Jordan—literally vomited on camera as he was forced to confront his fear of heights by climbing down a cliff to retrieve his evening meal. Immediately afterwards, he was nominated to be locked in a box with some snakes… which he then revealed was another of his deepest terrors. Poor guy.

A few weeks later I tuned into the show again, and I was surprised to find he’d made it to the final, and was striding around confidently and volunteering for every trial possible. In his case, what didn’t kill him had made him stronger.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising. Growth may not be automatic, but it does happen in the right circumstances.  And I know from experience that facing fears builds confidence. When I was nineteen I spent a sleepless night terrified in an airport hotel, hours before boarding a flight to a faraway continent where everything would be scary and different for months. After the trip—which was fantastic—I often thought back to that night. It was unpleasant, but I made it through, and I used that memory as fuel to trust my abilities more afterwards.

Of course, “being afraid of something new” isn’t exactly the worst thing that could happen. You could even argue that it’s not really adversity. (Although this is a hugely subjective call: one person’s comfort zone could be another person’s trauma.) But if we take a broad definition of adversity, including everything from outright crisis to facing a challenging experience, then psychologists have found that some adversity tends to be better than none. In other words, facing no adversity whatsoever tends to stifle personal growth.

Sometimes, life just sucks, and making it through is enough of a triumph.

The correct dose of adversity

The question then is, What is the right amount of adversity? To me, being locked in a box with my deepest fear sounds a bit extreme, but Jordan was in a safe, supportive, encouraging environment. He had enough resources around him to prove to himself that he could face that. Similarly, my solo trip across the world was scary, but it was ultimately safe and well-planned, allowing me to prove to myself I could handle new experiences.

In contrast, just months before that trip, my dad suddenly died. Even looking back, decades later, it’s not obvious to me that I grew from the experience. And that’s okay: sometimes, life just sucks, and making it through is enough of a triumph.

It’s impossible to ensure that everything that happens to us is within our range of adversity tolerance. At times, something sudden and awful will happen, or multiple problems will unfold at once. For some of us, the circumstances of daily life are adverse to an extent that it feels like the wrong amount way too often.

Using adversity to our benefit

How do we actually grow from these experiences, whether we’re within our limits or beyond them? 

While researching this article, I was surprised to learn that there is such a thing as Post-Traumatic Growth: the positive psychological change that some individuals experience after a crisis or traumatic event. 

Obviously, the existence of this growth doesn’t mean the trauma was in any way good. It simply indicates that even painful events—way beyond the “right” amount of adversity—can stimulate growth. The mechanism behind this is thought to be that crises force us to update our beliefs.

Updating our beliefs isn’t automatic. In fact, it’s the opposite: unless we consciously take time to reassess, we’re likely to go on believing whatever we already believe. This is one reason that it’s easy to keep repeating the same difficulties. It’s not that we’re too stubborn to learn lessons, it’s that we haven’t even noticed there are lessons we could have learned.

In short, we grow by consciously reflecting on a difficult experience and asking specific questions about what we’ve learned: about ourselves, the world, other people, and similar situations. (This article lays out a more detailed process which may be helpful.)

The lessons we take could be as simple as I’ve survived this, so I can survive it in future–increasing confidence in our own resilience. Or they may be more practical and specific. For example, one technique I use to update negative self-beliefs is to keep a tally chart of each time they’re wrong. In particular, each time I spend weeks living with anxiety about an upcoming performance, I mark a tally after the performance goes well, building up unarguable evidence that my belief that I can’t handle this is incorrect.

Embrace whatever happens, being gentle with ourselves

I’m not likely to ever be perfect at handling whatever the universe throws at me. Sometimes, I’m going to miss lessons I could have learned. And I’ll say it again: that’s okay. Sometimes just surviving is enough.

But next time new difficulties come my way, I will aim to at least consciously engage with them. I’ll try to take whatever I can from the experience, and without beating myself up for failing to do so perfectly.

I hope your year contains just the right amount of adversity for you.

(Or even none, honestly. Growth is great, but who needs to grow if life is already perfect?!)

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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