Why Trauma Doesn’t Always Make Us Stronger (and What Does)

“Literally every person is messed up, so pick your favorite train wreck and roll with it.” ~Hannah Marbach

You’ve probably heard this before: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A beautiful saying, based on what Nietzsche wrote in one of his books (Twilight of the Idols). It always makes me feel like life can’t go anywhere but up. Forward and up.

According to Nietzsche, suffering can be taken as an opportunity to build strength. No matter the pain, sickness, or trauma you experience, you will come out stronger for itas long as you take the opportunity to grow.

But what if you fail to seize that opportunity? What if suffering and emotional trauma don’t result in strength but instead make us weaker?

I lost my dad to suicide a bit over twenty years ago. His disease and death left their marks on me. Even now, on some days, I feel insecure, not good enough, weak. This usually happens when I’ve been way too stressed.

On those days, I forget that all I need to do is relax. To deal with that insecurity, I activate my survival mechanisms—and subsequently stress out even more. I keep people out and worry frantically about all sorts of things.

Workwise, it makes me stick to ‘safe’ jobs, like working for clients I don’t really enjoy working for (I’m a content writer).

I’d much rather be doing something truly creative, something that comes from my heart. Like writing this article or writing another book. Or reaching out to people to collaborate on projects.

That’s scary, though! So when I’m stressed out, I put all of that to the side and choose safety.

Self-Protection or Self-Destruction?

Doesn’t that mean that trauma then stops us from growing?

Because if you look at it, if you look at how most of us adults react after suffering trauma in our childhood, what do you notice?

It makes us more protective. It strengthens our survival mode. Our walls. It stops us from living fully because to live fully means to live fearlessly.

And I don’t mean without fear; I mean “fearless” as in not being controlled by fear. Because fears are always there. Fears are part of existence.

When you experience trauma, especially in your younger years, it’s more likely that you will develop a sensitive stress system and become a self-protective adult.

Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner for Physiology, has researched this topic by watching slugs react after getting their tails slapped. He found that they retreat faster if the first slap is the strongest, even when the slaps after that are softer.

If the first slap is gentle, though, they retreat less quickly. So the trauma of the initial, stronger slap makes the slugs react more violently to neutral stimuli (the softer slaps).

Humans show similar hypersensitivity. Childhood trauma can make you react more violently to certain situations as an adult. You can have difficulty dealing with rejection, worry about what others think of you, and might be less likely to trust others—or yourself.

You can do all the work, read all the self-growth and self-help books, and do all the inner child therapy in the world to mend the cracks in the vase that houses your soul.

But you will forever have this hurt little you inside that enters the stage when you least expect it. It stops you from being your unique, vulnerable self, without you realizing it.

Your self-defense mechanisms have become so strong that you can’t see how they’re digging your own grave. A grave for your ambitions, your dreams, your expressions, your creativity, your youniqueness.

Embracing Your Trauma

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not if we realize that it’s not the cracks that make us vulnerable. It’s not the trauma.

It’s our desire to be crack-free, trauma-free, that does. We tend to ignore the cracks, not wanting to see—nor show—these imperfect parts of our pretty little vase.

And then one day, something bad happens again and it all falls apart. You pick up the pieces and try to glue them together with transparent glue so other people won’t notice it’s broken.

But it’s no use. The original strength of your vase, your soul’s home, is gone. It will forever remain sensitive and in need of protection.

What if you would do the opposite? What if, instead of using glue that you hope nobody notices, you use gold?

A beautiful, eye-catching gold that not only gives your vase incredible strength but also makes the cracks the most beautiful and unique part of the whole structure.

This is called kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It teaches us to celebrate flaws and imperfections instead of hiding them. The broken parts are what make the pottery more valuable!

This perspective doesn’t only free us from the constrictions we place upon ourselves: of always wanting to be perfect, avoiding anything that causes fear, and never being our true selves. It also helps us to connect with others as they see they’re not the only ones who are broken.

Maybe, for us to truly shine and live a colorful, connected life, we need to embrace our trauma, our cracks. I know it’s hard. And it may take a long time before you reach that point and feel able to let go of the pain, the broken bits, the story.

But when you do, you’ll see that what remains shines brighter than ever before.

You’ll be able to use your story and help others deal with theirs.

That’s when trauma can actually make all of us stronger.


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