“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We’ve probably all heard that saying before. But, what does it mean and is it true? If it is true, how can you use it to your advantage?
Where Does The Saying Come From? What Does It Mean?
The saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is largely believed to have originated with the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Unfortunately, the sentence appears as a single line presented in a section of the book that's primarily individual thoughts rather than any kind of cohesive essay. As a result, what exactly the saying is supposed to have meant to or from its potential author isn't strengthened by context.
The saying is widely taken to mean that if you undergo a difficult trial, you're more able to face trials in the future. The two potential ways that this could be true are through acclimation or adaptation.
The first route, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger because you acclimate to the situation, does make some sense and have some precedent. When a person first hears a bad word or is called a bad name, it can be shocking and emotionally traumatic.
With repeated exposure, however, the shock wears off. After a while, these terms may even enter the individual’s own vocabulary. We often see this as the case when social or ethnic groups adopt slurs or slang words that had been used against them and use them instead as social identifiers within their own group.
In this way, repeated exposure to something difficult can not only remove the sting of that concept, but it can even strengthen social bonds and sense of identity of individuals that have shared past difficult experiences.
We also see that this is also sometimes the case with biology. The human immune system develops antibodies to defeat an illness only after the body has been exposed to the antigen in question. This is how immunity is built to potentially dangerous things like viruses. If you contract a virus and it doesn’t kill you, your body will be more able to defend yourself from the virus on repeat exposure.
There's also some room to argue that this rule applies for physical pain tolerance. In terms of temperature, people who are used to extreme conditions like extreme hot or extreme cold are more able to tolerate those temperatures than people who aren't used to them.
However, these people are still subject to physical injury from those extreme conditions. People who live on the equator can still suffer from heat stroke and people who live in the arctic circle can still get frost bite. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it doesn’t make you invincible.
The second way that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is through adaptation. In this explanation, rather than becoming used to something harmful, an individual finds new ways to avoid that thing.
To return to the example of the individual who is regularly exposed to hurtful language, rather than becoming used to the language or adopting it themselves, the individual may develop ways help themselves to overcome the emotional trauma, or to ignore it.
Adaptation in a biological sense takes a very long time, but it does work. To look at the antigens rather than the affected, bacteria are widely known to be able to mutate in order to adapt to changing antibiotics, making it more difficult for them to be sanitized away.
Physically speaking, humans are adept at adapting to extreme situations. People who live on the equator learn how to dress to protect themselves from the sun or maximize water. People who live in the arctic circle learn how to protect themselves from the cold through shelter and clothing.
In many cases, it does appear that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This doesn’t mean that what doesn’t kill you is pleasant. Reminding yourself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger may help you to find meaning in suffering, and offers a silver lining to challenges even if it doesn’t always make that suffering go away.