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If it doesn't kill us, does it really make us stronger?

As a counsellor, I get to hear a lot of philosophical catch-phrases. They often sum up how a person tries (and very, very often) fails to 'own' their life experiences. All of these viewpoints are very common, but they seem to me to be destructive. They all seem to have at their core a determination to deny the impact of difficult experiences and ‘pretend yourself happy’! For me, they become barriers to feeling better, not keys to a happier life…

“Fake it till you make it”

Isn’t the clue in the first word? One of the most common reasons for people to end up sitting opposite a mental health professional is that they have squeezed themselves into a life that isn’t for them. I can’t begin to tell you how often people sit in a therapy room for the first time, smile and tell me things are good. They never are.

If we look at mental health through the lens of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) we may believe that changing thoughts can change feelings. Even if this is true (and like everything therapy-ish, it’s debated), changing thought patterns over a series of weeks with specialist guidance is a far cry from painting on a smile. I do wonder whether this is one of the many phrases in this post that say more about the needs of the observer than the person in pain. Would we rather be with people who are pretending they are fine or honestly struggling?

“I choose to surround myself with positive people”

This is often conflated with ‘I surround myself with good people’, or even ‘I surround myself with successful people’. This ‘I surround myself’ nexus makes a very dubious connection between positivity, success and goodness which implies that those who are finding things hard are less good, maybe less deserving, certainly more ‘needy’ than the go-getters we hang out with.

So, if I’m feeling down, I assume I’d better ‘do one’, as I wouldn’t want to upset your Utopia. In a way, this is saying ‘I choose to surround myself with people who say what I want to hear.’ None of us wants to spend our entire time surrounded by sadness, but it is part of life.

‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’

And finally, something from a real philosopher. I used to work with a woman who decided to present her leaving speech as a grand valedictory address. The highpoint was this quote, which she attributed to Kanye West. Her use of the aphorism was of course telling. As you can imagine, in pretty much everything she did she liked to present herself as a scarred but unbowed warrior. Unfortunately my memory is of someone who started most of the battles she ended up involved in! On this occasion I chose not to be smug and point out that Kanye was in fact quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. So, before I start to even discuss the saying you can probably guess my view of it. If this was a product of the pure wisdom of Kanye West it would be bad enough, but Kanye’s take on an aphorism from the favoured philosopher of the Third Reich… At this point a number of my friends who are philosophers fling up their hands and shout ‘it was Nietzsche’s sister, who was in charge of his estate after he died, who rearranged his remaining notes to produce a final book, The Will to Power, which embraced Nazi ideology. Nietzsche was not a Nazi!’ The thing is that the story of how Nietzsche’s sister got control of his ideas is the bit which makes a nonsense of the phrase. Nietzsche, who has plagued by health problems throughout his notably short life suffered a dreadful breakdown at the age of 44. It didn’t kill him, but it didn’t make him stronger either. He ‘lost his mental faculties’ and spent his remaining 12 years being cared for by his mother and then his unprincipled and racist sister. So, here’s the thing; what is the purpose of a quote when the person saying it then goes on to prove it isn’t true? Generally, quotes are most useful when they give us insight into the thoughts of someone who is an expert in the field, such as Football Manager Brian Clough saying of an offside forward ‘If he isn’t interfering with play, what’s he doing on the bloody pitch?’ But, and I feel a little cruel pointing this out, Nietzsche wasn’t very good at surviving and getting stronger. He was clearly a very clever man, regardless of some of his ideas, but he was not exactly a world authority on resilience.

I suspect it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche popularised the concept of a Superman. There is something in this statement that feels like a blanket denial of vulnerability. It feels critical of ‘weakness’ and I think people who see themselves as weak or vulnerable have a tough enough time without wisdom like this. On the other hand, I do, of course, appreciate that people draw strength from aphorisms and, as John Lennon said ‘Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.

Oh, and by the way, ‘If it don’t kill you, just makes you stronger.’ was also the name of a Bruce Willis album in the 1980s…enough said?

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