The myth of falling down
Failure, trauma, recovery and resilience
Do failure and trauma really toughen you up? Not without a process of healing, argues social psycholgist Dr. Helen Street.
Sayings as pick-me-ups
When I was a child, my father was a huge believer in the power of quotes and sayings as teachers of life skills. Forever ingrained in me is the pseudo – Latin quote: ‘noli illegitimi carborundum’. Loosely ‘translated’ this means ‘don’t let the ‘bad people’ grind you down.’ It was often used as a means of suggesting I mentally rise above the criticisms of those I do not respect. It helped . . . . sometimes.
Then there was ‘laugh and the whole world laughs with you… cry and you cry alone’. This was a quote I despised. It was designed to encourage me to cheer up when obviously upset about something. In reality, it felt like salt in the wound.
One popular quote that never made it into my father’s repertoire was ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger’. This well-known saying attempts to reassure us of the positive possibilities arising from negative situations. It asks us to consider our failures as opportunities to learn and become more resilient.
I get the intention but, I strongly challenge the sweeping use of this statement in everyday life. The quote is so popular, I fear it has led to the false belief that failure is in fact, success in disguise.
It is not.
I can see that it is important to embrace mistakes as a means to mastery. It is vital that we are prepared to experience the lows, so that we can climb to the highs. Progress is indeed rarely linear (to paraphrase another saying), and no success ever arrived without some healthy failing along the way.
How we really ‘move on’
I also think it incredibly naïve, and even dangerous, to reframe all trauma and struggle as somehow, always nurturing strength and growth. There is an enormous difference between a set back and a calamity. And an enormous difference in ‘moving on’ when healed versus ‘moving on’ when still in pain.
Born in 1930, my father spent the first half of his adolescence amid World War II, and the second half dealing with the grief of so much life lost, food rationing and economic chaos. In his twenties he battled polio and became the only member of his ward to walk out of hospital alive. Years later, in his forties, despite being supremely fit, he caught a near-fatal heart virus which led to years of rehabilitation. The hospital doctors told him he had six months to live but once again, my father defied infection. I am glad to say, he went on to enjoy a rich meaningful life into his mid-eighties.
I look back on my father’s life and consider that it was a life filled with resilient moments. He certainly demonstrated a staggering degree of physical resiliency. His continual zest for life, insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure also highlighted a great deal of psychological resilience. At its most simple and basic level, resilience is about hope, and my father was always interested in life, and generally hopeful.
Yet, it was not the tragedies and the traumas that created this resilience, even though they certainly tested it to the limit. Rather, my father’s resilience came from the successes of his life and his ability to be interested in the adventure, no matter where it took him. He revelled in the connections he made, the relationships he built, the things that he learned and the wonder of the world around him.
His significant health issues held him back, zapped his energy, and created an avalanche of other issues financially, socially and personally. My father developed depth from his experiences of trauma, but showed resilience in spite of falling down badly, not because of it.
What trauma does
There is no research that I can find that demonstrates the power of tragedy to build psychological strength UNLESS sufficient time and care is put into recovery. Significant trauma wounds people. It creates vulnerability and results in emotional scars that can last a lifetime. Children and adults who have survived trauma need a calm, caring and nurturing environment more than ever, not less than before.
Trying to minimalize the impact of falling down badly can lead to far reaching negative outcomes. As such, a well-meaning ‘hey, if it doesn’t kill you…’ can be so damaging if delivered before healing has occurred.
Children who live with unprocessed trauma, live with unmet needs.
Traumatized children who are not given space and time to heal are more likely to become angry, unforgiving, unhappy and unwelcome in their world. They are more likely to feel alienated, misunderstood and alone. It is vital that we do not try to ‘cheer’ someone to recovery, without letting them take time to experience the pain of their situation, and then to heal.
It is vital that we do not attempt to restore hope with misplaced beliefs in the power of the destructive to be creative. When bad things happen, they need acknowledgement. Skills need to be relearned, perceptions slowly shifted, and then gently, kindly, willingly; hope needs to be rekindled.
Trauma + healing = . . . .
This undeniable truth does not mean that every impact of trauma is bad. Suffering significant trauma often leads to humility and a greater compassion for others. Recovery can bring a greater appreciation for life and a sense of gratitude for all that is well in the world. When given the time and guidanceneeded for healing, young people who have experienced trauma, often grow up with a notable sense of purpose and passion. Significant trauma can incite a desire to change the world for the better, when healing has happened well.
‘If it doesn’t kill you, it can indeed make you stronger… if it was minor and manageable, or healing has been careful and successful.’ When handled with care, disruption can lead to reflection, which in turn can lead to a more creative way forward. But let us not forget that when significant, trauma can be painfully destructive and damaging. Successful recovery from a bad fall takes time, considerable support and gentle understanding.
Many of my father’s quotes come from World War II or earlier in history. Personally, I like to recount a more recent quote from Havelock Ellis: ‘the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on’.
I think my father would have approved.
Dr Helen Street is a social psychologist, author and educator. She has worked extensively in Australian schools since 1999. Her work focuses on Positive Education, wellbeing, goal setting and motivation. She is the author of ‘Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools from the Inside Out’
Helen Street is a Keynote Speaker at the Outstanding Schools Asia conference, being held online November 30th – December 2, 2021.