According to psychologists, you must embrace pain and trauma in order to open the gateway to massive growth. The adversity hypothesis states that in order to grow, people must endure adversity.
It, further adds that sky-high levels of growth and development are only open to those who have undergone great adversity and triumphed out of it.
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent.
A transition through trauma
Not long ago, I underwent the darkest and gloomiest days of my life. My chronic anxiety reached a point where it caused me ulcers. I was in such a depressed mood that I had not even the courage or the will to get out of my bed.
Now, four years later, looking back at those days, I smile with utmost delight.
I can now firmly attest that this era and embracing the pain that came with it, has been the blessing of my life. It’s altered me in such a way that now, whenever anxiety or frustration kicks in, it makes me happy.
Of course, you might think it sounds crazy, but let me first elaborate on how a traumatic event can unleash your untapped potential and mark a significant turning point in your life.
Back to four years ago, my only escape from anxiety was to just go outside and run. When I was running and running, I felt like my rapid heart rate is pumping out some poison which was a momentary relief.
One of those days, before I went for running, I thought to myself, maybe I could listen to an audiobook along the way. So I surfed the web and stumble upon an audiobook. This book was the beginning of an end. An end to a torturous era and a nudge towards a transformation. (I will elaborate more on this.)
The adversity hypothesis
Any traditions have some notion of fate. Hindus believe that upon the day of birth, God writes the destiny of the child on his or her forehead.
Now, suppose, on the day your child is born, the angles give you two gifts: the first gift is a pair of glasses through which you can read this written faith, the second gift, is a magic pen with which you can alter this fate in any way you desire.
Now, imagine wearing the glasses and glancing over this written fate; this is the list you see: At eighteen: graduates high school top of the class, At twenty: car accident while driving drunk which leads to amputation of the left leg. At twenty-four: becomes a single parent. At twenty-nine: marries. At thirty-two: publishes a best-selling novel. At thirty-three: divorces; and so on.
As a parent, what would you change on that list? Which parent, after all, would stand such harsh events in his or her child’s life? And who would hesitate to lessen the misery?
Regardless of your intuition and inclinations though, you must be very careful with what you change with this magic pen.
Your good will might just turn into a curse for the child. If Nietzsche is right that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” then removing the adversity from your child’s fortune would leave him weak and underdeveloped.
The Adversity Hypothesis has two versions. Weak and strong. In the weak version, it posits that adversity can lead to growth, strength, joy, and self-improvement. This weak version is well-supported by research.
The strong version of the hypothesis is more unsettling: It states that in order to grow, people must endure adversity. It, further adds that sky-high levels of growth and development are only open to those who have undergone great adversity and triumphed out of it.
Scientific research has shed light on how adversity can spark massive growth.
Embrace the Pain: Post Traumatic Growth
A large body of research shows that although traumas, crises, and tragedies come in different forms and shapes, people can benefit from them in three primary ways.
The first is that rising up to the challenge, reveals your hidden abilities and untapped potential. Often times if we are not forced out of our comfort zones, we do not know how capable we are.
You might say no, I will die if X happens or I can’t continue if I lose Y. But in reality, upon facing X or Y, your heart would not stop beating and you have to face the world as you find it.
The common lesson people derive from trauma is that they are much stronger than they realized, and this new appreciation of their strength provides them with a greater sense of confidence.
People who have suffered severely through battle, rape, concentration camps or traumatic personal losses often seem to be inoculated against future stress: they recover more quickly because they now know they can cope.
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
The second class of benefit involves relationships. Adversity is a filter. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, or a couple loses a child, some friends and family members rise to the occasion and strive to support them in any way they can.
Adversity does not just separate the fair-weather friends from the true; it strengthens relationships and it opens people’s heart to one another. We often develop love for those we care for, and we usually feel love and gratitude toward those who cared for us in the time of need.
The third benefit is that Trauma changes priorities and philosophies toward the present (“live each day to the fullest”) and toward other people. We are all familiar with stories of rich and powerful people who had a moral conversion when faced with death. This is how Jonathan Haidt recounts this in his book “The happiness hypothesis”:
A great many people facing death report changes in values and perspectives. A diagnosis of cancer is often described, in retrospect, as a wake-up call, a reality check, or a turning point. Many people consider changing careers or reducing the time they spend at work. The reality that people often wake up to is that life is a gift they have been taking for granted, and that people matter more than money.
On That Running Day
The audiobook that I mentioned earlier was “How to stop worrying, and start living,” by Dale Carnegie.
I never forget that day; even though I was running, my anxiety was so severe that I felt like the whole world was spinning around my head.
Meanwhile, as I was listening to the first chapter of the book, I resonated a lot with what the narrator was reading. I sat on a bench and listened attentively. It hooked me so much that I purchased a copy of the book the very same day.
My anxiety at the time was rooted in several issues. I was suffering from a poisonous relationship that had lasted for two years and had ended with a traumatic discovery about her affairs!
I was under huge pressure for finishing my master’s thesis. I also had a project with a company that was on the brink of failure.
I was also putting an extra burden on me by projecting myself too far into the future and kept torturing myself about how distant I am from my ideals.
In retrospect, I feel embarrassed to have been traumatized by such trivialities (these trivialities literally caused me ulcers).
When I read the book, applied the techniques on how to manage stress, learned how to live in the present and how to build time-walls around the past and the future, my stress level plummeted from a boiling 100 to a bearable 10.
That day, that book, that 100 to 10 reduction of stress was the turning point in my life. I learned that all of our sufferings are rooted in our ignorance whether the suffering is financial, emotional to health-related or it’s our relationship.
From that day on, I became a voracious reader. Ever since I never skipped a day without reading at least one hour.
Confidence, high self-esteem, tranquil and happy spirit, being financially comfortable are just a few fruits of triumphing out of those “traumatic” days.
To those “traumatic” days I owe, whatever I’ve achieved and whatever I am to achieve. Those days plowed my soil and made me ready.
I don’t want to celebrate suffering, prescribe embracing pain for everyone, or down-play its soul-piercing torture. Drawing upon my own experience with long stretches of suffering and chronic anxiety, I merely want to make the point that suffering is a mixture of good and bad, and those who manage to find and carve out the good will end up with something precious: A key to moral and spiritual development. As Shakespeare wrote:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
If the strong version of the hypothesis is correct (sky-high growth requires undergoing adversity and triumphing out it), it has a striking implication as to how we must pursue our lives. It means that we should take more chances and suffer more defeats. It means that overprotecting children and depriving them of tasting the bitter events of life condemn them to a life of mediocrity at best.
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.