What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger: Is It True?

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

In 1888, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said in his book, Twilight of the the Idols, "What does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Since this idea was brought into the world, it has been studied and explored heavily. A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, discovered that those who reported two to six major stressful events in life scored higher on measurements of resilience and overall well being than those that have not experienced adversity in recent years. This is a wonderful positive outcome of this study, but I wonder what made these people have a greater well-being? Can a major stressful event really do that?

Let's explore this more. Major stressful life events are what create trauma and pain in our lives. Health Status tells us the top 5 major stressful events in life are: death of a loved one, divorce, moving, chronic illness, and job loss. Health24 goes even further and provides a wonderful, eye-opening, detailed list on the top 41 major stressful life events including: financial struggles, imprisonment, marriage, and pregnancy. To see the entire list click here.

However, what these lists don't talk about is living with someone who has a mental health condition, and boy do they need to. According to the world health organization, 1 in 4 people worldwide have a mental health condition. Now think about all these people living with, caring for, and residing in close quarters with a family member or loved one with a mental illness. These people go through a lot of life stress, and I know it well.

Growing up with a schizophrenic/bipolar mother, my life went like this: At night, she paced around the house, spoke to the walls, or yelled at the ceilings. The days, were filled with sleep. So much sleep. When I begged mom to come to my basketball games, she slept instead. When I pleaded for her to go to the grocery and get us something else to eat besides Dinosaur Eggs oatmeal, she buried herself under the covers. When her family came over to visit, she went to take a nap and left me to entertain. On top of all of this, before I turned 13-years-old, I had lived through my parents divorce, a best friend dying from leukemia, moving from my childhood home into my grandpa's house, my mother and father both experiencing job loss, and financial turmoil through the roof - to the point that my mother began to receive notices from the government that she would go to jail if she continued to ignore her debt. Oh my gosh. Can we STRESS! Now let's get up close and personal with how these major stressful life events affected my thoughts. Below is a glimpse into a daily string of thoughts of mine as a result of these stressors.

My Thoughts Triggered By Major Stressful Life Events:

“Sarah, remember you have to be very wealthy so you have enough money to provide for you mother. Don’t’ stop working! Overwork, stay up late, write more, do more, work more! You're tired? Too bad. Get more caffeine, and work harder!”

“I wonder if mom got out of bed today? I hope she’s not feeding her cat that watered-down Folders coffee again. The cat needs water not coffee! The poor cat. I wonder how it's still alive? I'm so worried about mom's cat, but if I take the cat away she will have a major meltdown. Sometimes, I think the cat is the only thing giving her a will to live. If the cat is gone, I'm terrified mom would take her own life. Agh! I hate worrying so much about mom. I hate that I'm so consumed thinking about her cat too."

“Mom hasn’t called me today. She calls 3 times a day. Oh no! What if she attempted suicide? What if she's in the hospital? What if she's dead! She's always saying how life is meaningless and she's ready to 'kick the bucket.' Oh Lord, please let her be okay!"

“I hate my body. I hate looking at it, living in it, and thinking about it. I hate the zillions of thoughts that bombard me on ways to improve it. I think I hate my body because my mom hated hers. Also, I hate the word hate."

“Today I feel worthless. I invited mom to a storytelling show I’m going to be in to help raise money for an inner-city arts program for kids, and mom’s response was – ‘That’s so stupid. You don’t know what you’re doing with your life. Do you even know how to tell a story? Who told you to do that dumb show? Come home and stuff being weird.’ I hate that I got my hopes up and thought she would be proud of me."

“Today, I miss mom a lot. I miss the mom that used to garden, ride her bike and swim laps with me in the pool. I haven’t seen that mom in over a decade. Now mom can’t walk more than 10 steps without losing her breath. Today, I am so sad about who my mom used to be and what our relationship could have been."

"My mom won't take a picture or look in the mirror AT ALL anymore. She has so much self-loathing inside of her. This breaks my heart, and now I'm starting to feel like I don't deserve to have the privilege to stand in front of a mirror either. If my mom can't do it, then why should I? I'm now overcome with anxiety when I look in a mirror. I wish my mom could find love for herself so I could learn to love who I am too."

“Today is my 30th birthday! This is a big deal, a millstone! My dad sent me $200 dollars to treat myself. My best friend sent me two bottles of custom designed Merlot (our favorite), and my mother sent me an XXXL dress from Wal-Mart she actually bought for herself, but since it was too small for her, she gave it to me for my “big day.” This feels like a cruel joke. The dress wasn't even for me. It was an after thought. I was the after thought."


As you can see, these are certainly not pleasant thoughts, but I do have good news! That is that these sort of thoughts creep up less and less. Why? Because I learned the power in reshaping what I think. It's imperative to address our major stressors because horrific life experiences reshape our brain leading us to be more vulnerable to worry, depression, and anxiety Psychologist Karen Young explains. Young goes on to explain that the brain will build upon what it rests upon. So, if you focus on the negative parts of your life, along with the pain, trauma, and suffering you have experienced, then the brain will be shaped to attract more negative life experiences and relationships. But if you choose to focus on positive aspects in your life, your brain will take on a shape that strengthens connections around resilience, optimism, gratitude, positive emotion and self-esteem. I don't know about you, but I want to see life as a beautiful, adventure filled with lots of love and great people not an awful, painful, unfair journey. But in order to see life this way, we have to pay attention to what we think about.

So how do we change our thoughts?

Some great ways to start making steps to change what you think are by: eating healthy food, keeping a gratitude journal, spending more time in nature, surrounding ourselves with uplifting, encouraging people, praying, meditating, and saying positive affirmations. With these practices, the brain will find itself attracting more positive people and experiences.

So, the question still remains: does what doesn't kill you really make you stronger? Do stressful events truly lead to an overall well-being? I believe Sharon Greenthall, founder of EmtyHouseFullMind, said it best on HuffPost. When she asked her psychiatrist about Friedrich Nietzsche's quote, the psychiatrist responded, "Don’t believe that crap about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What doesn’t kill you hurts and makes you vulnerable and leaves you traumatized.” I love this response because it addresses exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche's failed to mention, and that is what doesn't kill you does make you stronger, but only AFTER you heal the trauma and hurt that nearly killed you.

I don't believe anymore what does not kill you makes you stronger. I believe what does not kill you makes you more compassionate. The major stressors I experienced are the reason I am the empathic person I am today, but I never would have developed this trait unless I first sought to heal the pain.

Do you think what doesn't kill you makes you stronger? I would love to hear your thoughts about this popular quote below!