At Some Point, You Were Broken
Trauma is a part of life. No doubt, you’ve most likely experienced something traumatic, something you never thought you’d overcome.
Yet, you’re still here reading this — moving forward, trying to find a way to overcome the obstacles you’ve faced or are facing.
It could be a breakup, a death in a family, poverty, an abusive relationship, a house fire, a broken leg, a lost game, or whatever past experience it might be that made you feel some instance of pain or struggle.
For me, when I was 17, I lost my father to throat cancer.
Now, I look back and smile.
I’ve now realized that the immense amount of grief and pain I experienced in those harrowing moments leading up to his death, has in large part transformed me into a better, more fulfilled human being.
Like a phoenix, I’ve risen from the ashes of my emotional struggle and was reborn into a self-reliant and strengthened man. As if I was a spartan who’s just emerged from the fog of war with nothing but the scars of battle. The very scars that would shape me.
But not everyone is this way. Not everyone can emerge from a tragic life event more Stoic and improved than they were before. Sometimes that pain and grief can crumble a person into either depression or giving up altogether.
It all depends on how you manage your response to said event.
But that’s a lot easier said than done. Maybe you don’t know how to properly do that when you’re being overwhelmed with emotion or if you constantly feel like you’re knee-deep in a pit of quicksand that you just can’t crawl your way out of. That’s okay.
It’s for that very reason why I’ve curated a step-by-step list based on what has worked for me, is grounded in psychology and what I believe can work effectively for you in your journey from transforming adversity into strength.
I. Understand Amor Fati and the Art of Radical Acceptance
The Stoics had this proverb, Amor Fati, which translates to a love of fate. Fully accept that which you cannot change and instead learn to love everything, good or bad, that happens in your life. Like it or not, every single event shapes who you’ll become by subconsciously influencing your behavior according to a study from MIT published in Science Daily.
Ryan Holiday illuminates the perfect example of what Amor Fati truly means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he describes this inspiring story about Thomas Edison’s composed response to an unforeseen business tragedy:
Thomas Edison, at an age at which most of us would wish to retire, came home one late evening to eat dinner. A man burst into his home, interrupting him. He had dire news: there was a fire at his research facility.
At age sixty-seven, Edison arrived on the scene to see his campus ablaze.
One would imagine this is the point when Edison drops to his knees and screams out “Why me?” or some other exclamation.
However, Edison searched out his son and requested he go get his mother. Edison excitedly told his son, “They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Naturally, Edison’s son thought he had lost his mind, and rightfully so. All of his experiments, things that could likely never be replicated, were burning to the ground.
“Don’t worry. It’s all right,” Edison said with calm, “We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
Edison’s reaction serves to be a great lesson of how we should respond to events that are outside of our control.
He displays what it truly means to radically accept an adverse event calmly and maturely. He knew that there was nothing that could be done, so he merely found enjoyment in the tragedy and used it as fuel to revitalize his creative muscles to bounce back better than he was before.
Parallelly, I could’ve allowed my father’s death to crumble me into a pit of depression. I could have spent my teenage and early college years looking up to the sky and screaming, “Why me?”. But that’s not what I did.
If I allowed myself to be overcome by such tragedy, then I would never have been able to move forward and find the good that emerged out of the event. It doesn’t matter what the measure of the adversity it is that you face, there always exists a token of power, growth, and good in such situations.
For me, accepting this event objectively for what it was and moving on is exactly what allowed me to foster an extreme amount of self-reliance and personal drive to live life to its absolute fullest.
This is the best justice you can do for yourself and your long term mental well-being. To take that first step and simply accept what has happened to you and learn to love it.
After all, the act of practicing radical acceptance has been shown to significantly decrease shame, guilt, disgust, distress, and fear among patients suffering from emotions from trauma according to a study conducted by psychology researchers.
Therefore, Don’t complain. Don’t point fingers. Don’t pity yourself. Just accept whatever it is for what it is and feel yourself become empowered and more resilient as a result of doing so.
“You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it.” — Cheryl Strayed
II. Allow yourself to feel the full weight of your emotions — do not suppress them
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you should avoid and bottle up your emotions. According to research conducted by psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin and the Harvard School of Public Health, suppressing how you feel actually amplifies those emotions leading to problems with memory, aggression, anxiety, depression and even suggests that your risk of mortality increases due to varying effects emotional suppression has on the physical body.
Rather, be honest with how you feel and allow yourself to feel the full effect of your emotions instead of suppressing them. An article published in BBC suggests that recognizing and learning to manage your emotions is one of the most important skills that you can have as people who are good at doing so “are more likely to do well in life, have healthy relationships, and manage difficulties and setbacks.”
Emotions can serve to be a great mentor in teaching you more about yourself and your life.
But that doesn’t mean you should be a slave to emotions and allow emotion to drive your actions. There exists a great danger in both the suppression of emotions and the victimization of them.
What you should recognize though is that other people have either been in the same position as you or may have even led a life far more challenging than yours equipped with their own set of unique obstacles. Still, many of these people manage to flourish and live great lives full of happiness.
That alone should bring great comfort and hope in whatever obstacle you may face.
Take Viktor Frankl for example who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning as a memoir of how he found happiness and meaning inside a Jewish concentration camp during World War II — an unimaginably horrific situation to be in.
What you should know is that internal strength isn’t defined by your ability to control your emotions but rather your ability to find pleasure and good in the pain. Emotional intelligence isn’t the means of managing your emotions but rather that of understanding your emotions and using them as ways to bolster the long-term growth of your character. An article published in Inc reinforces this notion by saying that mentally strong people are not people who act tough, but rather are able to feel, recognize, understand, and learn from their emotions.
Feel both the pain and the struggle you have to the fullest. Understand it. Come to terms with it. Make peace with it.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
III. Use meditation as a tool to manage your thoughts and your psychological well-being
Growing up, I always thought meditation was kind of woo-woo if you had asked me — something only monks and Buddhists do.
From my ignorant standpoint, it was nothing more than a mythical practice of crossing your legs and chanting Om in a long dragged out kind of way. With that mindset, it’s clear that I limited myself to the belief that it’d be a practice I could never be able to benefit from nor practice regularly.
All of that changed when I turned towards secular spirituality to deal with the emotional weight of what I was going through. To my surprise, I found meditation was actually a healthy habit grounded in science that I could use to effectively manage the thoughts constantly bubbling up in my mind. Unwanted and intrusive thoughts, after all, are the precursor to depression and anxiety according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
It just so happens, focusing entirely on the breath does wonders for your mind and your body. Not only did publications like Psychology Today and Mayo Clinic publish pieces about the exhaustive list of benefits that mediation brings, but neuroscience researchers from Harvard found that the act of mindfulness meditation literally changes the brain. What should be noted in this study is not just the thickening of several regions of the brain, but that meditation actually reduced the size of the amygdala which is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response which is important for anxiety, fear, and stress.
Essentially, meditation literally makes your brain less prone to stress, fear, and anxiety.
This science itself was enough to convince me that I should consider seriously making meditation a regular habit. Upon trying it out, I’d have to say that meditation was one of the most effective things I did for myself in helping me move forward and become mentally stronger. Not only did it help me overcome my feelings of anxiety and depression, but it also made me more confident and all-around a happier human being.
It made me realize that my thoughts are nothing more than just thoughts. I can either choose to react and act upon a thought or simply just recognize it and move past it.
Maybe you think meditation is difficult, that it’s immensely hard to sit down and force thoughts out of your mind. I get it, I’ve been there. But meditation in itself is supposed to be easy.
You don’t have to drown out your thoughts — eliminating them completely is impossible and is a commonly misconceived goal of meditation. Rather, you just close your eyes, try to focus on your breath, and observe your thoughts — as if you were laying on the grass just watching the clouds slowly pass by in the sky above.
Don’t worry about practicing for a prolonged period of time when first starting either. A good way to start is just by simply doing a minute a day. One minute of meditation is still way better than none at all.
“Touch your inner space, which is nothingness, as silent and empty as the sky; it is your inner sky. Once you settle down in your inner sky, you have come home, and a great maturity arises in your actions, in your behavior. Then whatever you do has grace in it. Then whatever you do is a poetry in itself. You live poetry; your walking becomes dancing, your silence becomes music.”– Osho
IV. Run a deep analysis of the full effect of the situation and transform that into purpose
I remember amidst heartbreak, my mom’s depression, my feelings of isolation, and the constant condolences being thrown in my direction by everyone around me, I failed to really look and analyze what my father's death really meant for me and my future for a long time. Understandably so..it’s hard to really face those facts and see any extractable growth from such negative situations.
The important thing to remember is that the greatest lessons about life can often be found in our most difficult moments. As stated in Inc. Magazine, adversity is the fuel of greatness and is the catalyzing principle behind long term personal growth. But it is impossible to see that growth unless you take a deep dive and turn a wide eye towards any potential value of a specific situation. You have to force yourself to look at adversity objectively and ask yourself questions.
For me, I had to ask myself:
What could I possibly gain from this?
What does this mean for me and my future?
How is this moment going to define me and my actions?
How am I going to let this drive me?
By asking myself these questions, I was able to see beyond the pain and divert my focus on the impact.
When you focus on the impact, you can use those things to elevate yourself by saying, “This is what made me. This is the reason why I’m stronger.”
Forcing myself to analyze my situation allowed me to come to terms with the reality of what I needed to do. I looked at my mom, left in poverty and depression, and knew that I had to become a man resiliently relying on myself to provide her with the care, comfortability, and happiness that she deserves. I looked at my own life and realize that I could as well die at any moment and need to live urgently and fully.
This became a huge part of my purpose.
Psychology Today published an article regarding this type of response to adversity stating how malevolence and suffering can be purposefully used to create goodness in the world. This explains why many of the greatest people in the world are birthed from dark pasts fueled with the purpose to make positive change.
That’s why you should aim to understand your pain and transform that into purpose — be it actionably helping others to overcome similar situations or by internally using it to create a better and more fulfilled life for yourself and everyone else.
Keep Pressing Onward
Life isn’t easy. But it’s exactly that uneasiness and toughness of life that makes it worth living and valuable.
It’s in adversity that we find ourselves. It allows us to have mistakes to learn from and in turn become more grateful for what we do have and how much progress we personally make.
You can’t allow yourself to feel beaten down from the obstacles of life — if you think about it, there’s nothing you can really do but manage your response. The only thing you can control is your future and the future is beautiful if you allow it to be.
You have the choice to piece together your future and your well-being with the fragments of your past. Using pain as fuel to ignite your inner strength.
Just keep moving forward. Life is much too short to be overcome by the black swans of life — best to be strengthened by them. One step at a time. Scars take time to heal.
“Stand up and walk. Keep moving forward. You’ve got two good legs. So get up and use them. You’re strong enough to make your own path.” -Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist