Have you ever felt so exhausted, torn, disillusioned or helpless that you thought you couldn’t move on? Have you felt on the edge of the cliff with no choice but to surrender or hit bottom emotionally?
It happens to all of us: sometimes life gets hard. As much as we fight, we do not glimpse the exit, we feel trapped. However, when we go through these extreme situations, it is when we discover our true strength. A popular saying has already said: a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
The force that comes from adversity
Maurice Vanderpol, former president of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute, analyzed one of the darkest chapters in human history: the Holocaust. He discovered that the victims who managed to get out of the concentration camps mentally healthy, had something in common that he called a “plastic shield.”
That shield was composed of several pieces, including sense of humor, often a black humor that, however, helped them to adopt a critical sense of perspective. Other central characteristics that helped these people to go through adversity were their ability to establish significant interpersonal bonds and the construction of an internal psychological space that protected them from abusive intrusions.
Obviously, nobody wants adversity to knock at their door. But sooner or later it will, so it is better to be prepared to face problems and setbacks in the best possible way. In fact, when we try to avoid adversity, we also eliminate one of the most important ingredients to cultivate our resilience.
“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself”, according to the American writer Walter Anderson.
That is why, instead of avoiding adversity, we need to embrace it, understand that it is a kind of essential fuel to cultivate inner strength. We don’t have to like it. We do not have to enjoy it. But we have to rely on its potential to transform a storm into a source of strength. The learning that comes from adversity is the ideal breeding ground to make a qualitative leap in our lives.
When we believe that we can’t go on, but still keep moving forward, we give ourselves a great lesson in courage that will become a solid column to underpin our lives. Not throwing in the towel today strengthens us for future battles.
5 benefits that you can get from adversity
We need to stop seeing adversity as an enemy and start seeing it simply as a situation. Situations are not simply a place where we are or a circumstance we are going through, but they imply the way we assume those facts, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come to our mind at that moment.
That means that each situation is a microcosm that includes, on the one hand, the facts and, on the other, our reaction to what happens to us. Therefore, a change in one of these variables will lead us to a different situation, to another microcosm. Sometimes we can’t change the facts, but we can change the way we react. And that is usually enough to get out of the distressing situation that takes away our psychological oxygen.
A good starting point is assuming adversity as an opportunity to get to know each other better and enrich our backpack with new psychological tools for life. To do this, we must understand that adversity:
1. It helps us to build resilience. Resilience is not the product of a simple life but is forged in the toughest circumstances, when we stretch our forces to move forward, despite everything and everyone. Every challenge we face and overcome strengthens our will and develops our ability to overcome obstacles that will appear in the future.
2. It strengthens self-confidence. Overcoming adversity helps us underpin inner strength. We are what we are because of the experiences we lived and the way we have dealt with them. Facing adversity successfully gives us the necessary self-confidence to overcome new problems without falling apart, with the certainty that we will succeed, whatever it may be.
3. We learn to feel more comfortable in uncertainty. Adversity takes us out of our comfort zone, putting us face to face with uncertainty. This allows us to learn dealing with the discomfort generated by the uncertain and the unknown, so that in the end, our comfort zone will be increasingly wide.
4. It allows us to discover our strengths. Borderline situations can bring to light our best skills and strengths, qualities that would otherwise remained in the shadow. Adversity encourages us to overcome our limits and discover a new “ego”. It is no accident that a study conducted at McGill University will reveals a close relationship between resilience and self-awareness.
5. It simulates unconditional acceptance. Adversity is inevitable, it is part of life. Resisting or denying it will only make it come back with increasing destructive force. That is why problems are an excellent opportunity to practice radical acceptance, assuming that there are things that we cannot change but still, we can continue to live and enjoy life.
We must not forget that adversity is one of life’s most powerful forces. It can bring out the best or the worst of us. The decision is ours.
Oshio, A. et. Al. (2018) Resilience and Big Five Personality Traits: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences; 127: 54–60.
Vanderpol M. (2002) Resilience: A missing link in our understanding of survival. Harv Rev Psychiatry; 10: 302–306.