Updated: Sep 30, 2022
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”
This is a quote I first hear in the movie Steel Magnolias. Olivia Dukakis’ character was trying to comfort Sally Field’s character when her daughter was gravely ill and unconscious. The quote actually comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher. It refers to adversity in life. In the book, What happened to You, Dr Bruce Perry says this about life challenges and adversity: “Adversity, challenges, disappointment, loss, trauma–all contribute to the capacity to be broadly empathic to become wise” (page 285).
In this book, Dr. Perry along with Oprah Winfrey talk about trauma and its impact on children and adults. It’s an excellent resource for understanding trauma. The book emphasizes two important strategies: awareness and connection.
When we can connect with other safe, supportive, and loving people, this helps reduce the effect of the trauma. This connection helps our brain feel safe so we can have more perspective on what has happened or is happening to us.
Perspective helps us become more aware. Awareness is being able to respond to a situation rather than react, which comes from a trauma response. Gaining awareness and perspective helps transform adversity into wisdom.
Post-traumatic wisdom comes when we have gone through the adversity and are now in a safe place. We can then reflect on what happened to us. Even though the emotional pain likely continues, it no longer overpowers the situation as it once did. This is when we can learn from the struggle and transform it into wisdom.
This does not mean we will never feel extreme pain from the trauma again. Trauma is a persistent little bugger, and it will pop up when we least expect it. But if we gain some perspective about what happened to us, these trauma triggers will topically not last as long and be as intense. We will have more control over the trauma rather than the trauma controlling us.
Triggering will still happen. However, this doesn’t mean that we haven’t gained wisdom. Post-traumatic wisdom doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain from the trauma again. It means that we have learned and gained wisdom. And that wisdom primarily guides our life rather than the trauma response.
This wisdom we’ve gained becomes the core of who we are and how we live our life. It is no longer the trauma that defines us. This process is not quick or easy. We do not bypass the trauma to get to the wisdom. As Dr. Perry and Oprah discuss in the book, we need awareness and connection to gain understanding about what happened to us.
Connection and awareness about our trauma can be scary. We may not want to look at it because we fear it will be too painful and that pain may never stop. Likewise, trauma often erodes our trust in others. This can make connecting with other difficult.
In an interview, Dr. Perry stated this about transforming trauma: “Take what you've learned and use that to see the world differently. You use your pain and transform it into power and help other people. I think of the most transformative people I've ever known. Every single one of them had personal pain and traumatic experience that was a core element of who they became."
To make this transformation, working with a trauma counselor or coach and incorporating somatic therapies can help. There are differences between coaching and counseling. To figure what might be best for you check out the “What is Coaching” page on my website.
Post-traumatic wisdom is possible. It takes time. On this journey, it’s important to care for yourself, seek support, and know that you are enough.