I’ve been a therapist for over 30 years and heard people say all sorts of things about their issues – ‘I prefer to keep things to myself’;’Talking solves nothing’; ‘If you have to think about your relationship it’s not romantic’ – all good examples of unhelpful ways of dealing with personal and relationship problems, but the worst is the extremely common ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I’ve heard this many, many times and find it to be a lie that people often say when they are finding the concern someone is telling them too hard to hear.
If you unpick the saying it’s clearly meant to reassure. Possibly something about survival and coming through the other side of an adverse event. There may be some help in this if you fall off your bike and graze your knee. You’ve probably learnt a lesson about steering better! But the saying is often not used in this type of situation. I’ve heard it deployed towards men and women with PTSD, those recovering from abuse of all kinds and complicated relationship breakdown. These people often find that they do not feel stronger once they’ve come through these events, whether the problems occurred recently or years ago. Many suffer mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, bouts of unexplained anger and flashbacks. These are usually debilitating, interfering with relationships and work. Far from feeling stronger, they feel weaker and find life very complex and difficult. Of course, loving partners and families can help with these feelings, but after dealing with these difficulties many describe feeling isolated and unable to connect with others. If the saying was true the people returning from war zones would feel no effects, those who were abused in childhood would shrug off the effect and difficult divorces would not return to court over and over again.
I know because I’ve lived through it in therapy with hundreds of hurt and abused people that sometimes the struggle to recover from these issues is long and hard. They may not come out of it stronger in the sense that they feel nothing about what happened to them, but maybe emotionally more resilient and finally able to talk about what happened to them. This is the crucial need – to find someone to offer non-judgemental attention to their story, allowing individuals to let go of the pain of the past. Counselling can offer this and support rather than just offer a simplistic, unhelpful, saying.