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#44: What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger

#44: What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger

Welcome to Mindf*ck Monthly, a newsletter that doesn’t suck. If you’re not already getting these in your inbox each month, well what the fuck?! Sign up below now.

Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that unironically wears a mullet. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being.

This week we’re talking about: 1) post-traumatic growth, 2) living in the age of entitlement, and 3) the world really has become smaller.

Let’s get into it. 

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – A few weeks ago, I wrote a newsletter discussing the expanding definitions of words such as “trauma,” “violence,” and “harm” and how these expansions of definition in our culture, at a certain point, begin to have adverse effects. 

Several readers were skeptical of this claim. They argued that trauma is always bad and that we should combat it regardless of how it arises. So I’d like to spend some time today discussing why this may not be totally true. As with most things in life (and especially in psychology), trauma is complicated. 

In its first century of existence, the field of psychology mostly studied what we loosely refer to as “trauma” today. 

Freud was obsessed with sexual traumas… in kind of a creepy way. 

After World War I, European militaries debated the existence and causes of “shell shock,” as if having two-ton bombs exploding over you every day for four years straight was supposed to have no effect on a person. 

In the ’40s and ’50s, B.F. Skinner tortured rats to see how it inspired and inhibited behaviors. In the ’60s, R.D. Laing proposed that much of what was assumed to be mental illness was actually people’s coping mechanisms to deal with their inner traumas. 

But it wasn’t until 1980 that “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” finally entered the official lexicon. It’s been a mainstay ever since. In the 80s and 90s, we discovered that PTSD symptoms don’t just occur in war veterans (although that’s where they are still most common). They can happen to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or even things such as bullying or divorce or a horrendous car accident. 

The world was just one big oyster of trauma and we could all have a piece of it. One study estimated that 75% of all people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Most of us will experience many more. 

But here’s the stat that you don’t hear as often. Most people who experience trauma later report benefitting from their traumatic experience. 

Yes, you read that right. Most of us, when asked later on, actually reported not only benefitting from our traumatic experience but being better because of it. For example, when researchers surveyed New Yorkers just two months after the 9/11 attacks, 58% of them reported benefits from the experience. You see these results everywhere, from shipwreck survivors to Holocaust survivors. From Maya Angelou to Christopher Reeves. Most people, in the long run, feel that they are better off for their traumatic experiences, not worse. 

This is why trauma is weird. On the one hand, we wish it didn’t happen. It was horribly painful. On the other hand, we’re kind of glad it did. It made us who we are today. It made us stronger, more resilient, more grateful for everything we have. 

This is the experience of what’s become known as “post-traumatic growth” (PTG), and despite being far less “popular” than PTSD, it turns out that PTG is far more common. One trauma researcher with fifty years of experience said that of all the people who experience trauma, he estimates 30% suffer from PTSD, and 70% experience some form of personal growth from the event. 

A minority of people who suffer a traumatic experience develop PTSD. Yet a majority of people experience PTG. It’s just that we don’t talk about it. It’s not cool to say, “Hey, you know what? I’m such a better person since my wife died.” No. That would be fucking horrible. 

But when researchers look at what leads people to experience PTG instead of PTSD, you know what one of the key factors is? Their beliefs about the traumatic event itself. People who believe their traumatic experience will be an opportunity for growth are generally the ones who grow from it. People who believe their traumatic experience will ruin their lives are the ones who feel stuck. 

(To learn more about post-traumatic growth, check out a post I wrote a while back called How to Grow from Your Pain. The book What Doesn’t Kill Usby Stephen Joseph, is a good read on the subject as well.) 

Obviously, there are more factors that determine PTG like emotional intelligence, social support, etc. But I’m focusing on the beliefs because this is where my point about definitions comes in. 

I worry that, as a culture, by expanding our definition of trauma, we are shifting away from seeing it as “a terrible and unfortunate thing that happened,” towards, “something that never should have happened to me and I’m ruined forever.” It’s a subtle and seductive shift in attitude—especially because it grants one a feeling of moral righteousness—but it has hugely negative repercussions. 

The fact is: our relationship to pain is largely determined by our beliefs about pain. And when we believe that pain is permanent and debilitating, then it becomes permanently debilitating. 

2. The Age of Entitlement – In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I defined entitlement as believing that one deserves to never suffer and/or be forced to overcome hardship. I also argued that more and more, we are living in a culture defined by entitlement. 

Knowing what we know about post-traumatic growth, one can see how an entitled mindset prevents any possibility of growth from one’s trauma or pain. If your traumatic experience is seen as something thrust upon you unfairly and the world should reconfigure itself to resolve it, then you’re essentially dooming yourself from ever overcoming that pain. 

I think we’ve all watched a prime case study of this play out publicly in the news and social media the past six months. Whether it’s the entitled idiots starting fistfights at Walmart because they don’t want to wear a mask, or the entitled idiots trying to take down a statue of Abraham Lincoln because, like, racism or something—I’m developing calluses on my palms from slamming them into my face so many times. 

One of Freud’s better ideas was that there is an inherent and constant tension between the individual and society. By living in large groups, we increase our survival and quality of life. But to live in large groups, Freud said, each individual must suppress parts of their own self-interests and desires. This suppression then gives us all a little bit of a complex and makes us neurotic about certain things (like sex, for one). 

Basically: living in a community has benefits, but those benefits require that each individual makes sacrifices. Politics is then the discussion of these individual sacrifices and whether they are worth it for everybody or not. Because this is a constant tension, politics is an infinite game, unwinnable and perpetual, defining and redefining the terms of our coexistence one bullshit, bloated piece of legislation at a time. 

In this arrangement, left-wingers tend to be more concerned with the distribution of benefits from everybody’s sacrifice. Lefties want to make sure that no one is getting completely hosed. Therefore, lefties tend to believe that making more individual sacrifices is worth it if it means the benefits become more evenly distributed throughout society. 

Right-wingers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with individuals giving up as little as possible. They intuitively recognize that, at some point, if you’re giving up so much to the collective, then it stops being worth it. Therefore, righties tend to believe that an imperfect system is worth it if it means guaranteeing individual liberty. 

We need both of these dispositions, of course. We need people checking to make sure our benefits are getting distributed fairly. We also need people checking to make sure that individuals aren’t being asked to give up too much. 

The problem is when entitlement comes in. It corrupts both of these attitudes. 

The entitled left-wing attitude is the belief that no inequality should exist anywhere—that everyone should receive the exact same benefits at all times. This is unreasonable because people are simply different. They have different talents, experiences, histories, and beliefs about the world. Therefore, different outcomes will be natural and expected.  

The entitled right-wing attitude is the belief that no individual freedom should ever be given up anywhere—that as long as I’m not overtly hurting somebody else, I should be free to do whatever the fuck I want. This is also unreasonable. Our actions affect each other indirectly and often in subtle and surprising ways. This could be something as complex as climate change or some other Tragedy of the Commons scenario. It could also be something as simple as being asked to wear a mask. 

My concern with the expansion of the definitions of words such as “trauma,” “violence,” “prejudice,” and “oppression” is that it opens a very wide door into promoting entitled political mindsets. 

If being asked to wear a mask in Walmart becomes an accepted definition of “oppression,” and being punished for destroying federal property is commonly interpreted as “fascism,” well… then, we’re in for a very, very long decade. 

3. The world really is getting smaller – On a lighter note, in the early 2000s, one of the hip, cool takes on the internet was that, by connecting everyone, it would make the world “smaller.” Well, it turns out that there’s some really interesting data that suggests this is true. 

You’ve probably heard the term “six degrees of separation.” The idea is that each person in the world is connected to every other person in the world by no more than six social connections. Researchers even tested this in the 1960s and found that it was roughly true.

But in the social media age, one would guess that since we are all acquainted with so many more people from so many different parts of the world, that there would be fewer links between any two random people. 

Facebook recently decided to analyze this. And who better? They already know what my wife and I talked about last night and what underwear I want to buy next January. Go for it, Zuck. 

Sure enough, after analyzing 721 million people and their connections, Facebook discovered that, as of 2016, on average, two people in the world are separated by 3.57 people. 

So, call it “Three-point-five-seven degrees of separation.” 

Err… not quite as catchy, is it? 

See you next week.