“Life is a best teacher”, is often said to indicate that the teachings we learn from experiences make us wiser. But it’s not always like this. Or at least not for everyone. There are people who go through life experiences, without those experiences going through them. And to learn from painful experiences, it is not enough to live them.
Learning comes from meaning, not from experiences
Adversity does not necessarily imply learning. It is not some kind of epiphany. In many people, adversity generates such great frustration that it prevents them from seeing the positive or learning from mistakes. When we focus solely on suffering and make complaints our coping strategy, it is difficult for adversity to leave us something positive.
Learning, transformative change, and inner growth come from meaning, not from experiences themselves. The experiences are mere events, it is the adversity that knocks at our door or the misfortune that sinks us.
Instead, the meaning is an active construction, it is the way in which we face that adversity. It is the bricks that we build on top of suffering, the broken pieces that we rebuild after the storm and that allow us to make sense of what happens to us and incorporate these traumatic events into our life history.
Experiences are impersonal. Many people can be victims of a tsunami or an earthquake, they can suffer cancer or a couple breakup. In contrast, the meaning is deeply personal and unique. It is the meaning we give to those painful experiences. And it is that sense that allows us to learn and move forward, being more resilient or at least more aware of our strength. As Viktor Frankl said, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning.”
Why do some people fail to learn from painful experiences?
Many people assume a passive role when faced with adversity. They automatically become victims and simply regret what happened. They develop a kind of learned helplessness that becomes a shield so they don’t have to change.
Of course, there are painful events that can knock us out, robbing us of our ability to react. It’s also perfectly understandable that we don’t always put a good face on bad weather. And that we even regret our bad luck since complaints have a cathartic power. However, that’s just one phase – or at least it should be.
People who don’t learn by going through experiences get stuck in denial, blaming, and victimization. They do not go on to the next stage, but are left lamenting their bad luck. They do not make the emotional and cognitive effort necessary to process the painful experience and turn the page, so they end up being their hostages. So they can spend a large part of their lives lamenting how badly life has treated them.
The 3 basic conditions for learning from painful experiences
1. Experiential coping
Going through painful experiences is not easy, but avoiding them is even worse. Psychologists at George Mason University evaluated the role of experiential avoidance in post-traumatic growth. The main traumas analyzed were the sudden death of a loved one, car accidents, domestic violence and natural disasters.
They found that the greater the distress, the greater the post-traumatic growth, but only when people had low levels of experiential avoidance. Those who experienced more distress but coped with the traumatic experience had higher levels of growth and meaning in life. That means that, while in the early stages after a trauma we may avoid talking or thinking about the painful experience because we are unable to manage it without hurting ourselves, in the long run being able to cope with it can lead to greater resilience.
2. Positive disintegration
Viktor Frankl said that “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” In fact, psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski was convinced that “positive disintegration” is a valuable experience that fosters growth after trauma.
Dabrowski concluded that the healthy development of the personality often requires the disintegration of its own structure. This usually generates deep psychological tension, as well as self-doubt and anxiety, but in the long run this process leads to introspection, in a way that ends up stimulating the development of a more resilient personality. It is, therefore, a process of reconstructing the positive and developing “self”.
In fact, another study conducted at the University of Nottingham found that thes people who grew the most after suffering a mental disorder, were those who reported having learned more about themselves and rediscovered a new sense of their “self”, which allowed them to appreciate life more.
3. Cognitive exploration
Another key factor that allows us to learn from painful experiences and emerge stronger from them is cognitive exploration. It is not limited to thought or reflection but is a general curiosity for the search for information and a tendency to process data in a flexible and complex way, so that we can form a general and quite complete picture of what happens to us.
This ability allows us to be curious about uncertain and complex situations, instead of feeling fear and rejecting them or withdrawing, which increases the chances that we will find new meaning in the seemingly incomprehensible. That curiosity allows us to shed our defense mechanisms and approach discomfort or even pain from a more open perspective, seeing it as food for growth and resilience. It allows us to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life, the uncertainty of the world, and develop a more complex view of reality.
Slade, M. et. Al. (2019) Post-traumatic growth in mental health recovery: qualitative study of narratives. BMJ Open; 9: e029342.
Kashdan, T. B. & Kane, J. Q. (2011) Post-traumatic distress and the presence of post-traumatic growth and meaning in life experiential avoidance as a moderator. Personality and Individual Differences; 50(1): 84-89.
Dabrowski, K. (1964) Positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown.