3 Psychological Traits of People Who Become Stronger After Adversity
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that don’t break it kills.” — Ernest Hemingway
Ever since it existed, the world has been breaking living and non-living beings. This is not because it’s mean. “The universe is not hostile,” J. H. Holmes wrote, “nor yet is it friendly. It is simply indifferent.”
Stressful and traumatic situations occur, and will occur, in everyone’s lives.
The question is, will such events kill us? Or will they make us stronger, better, and ironically, increase our faith in ourselves?
If we want to become the latter, the traits of resilience, mature defense, and perseverance are essential.
It’s easy to think that some people are born with these traits while most are not so lucky. It’s easy to feel disheartened and resign ourselves to a state where we’re constantly bombarded by stray psychological meteorites, where we keep losing our mind rather than focusing it on what makes us happy.
But the good news is that resilience, perseverance, and mature defense can be learned.
In his book Flow, late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explained that people who emerge stronger from an ordeal have the ability to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that they can control.
By “flow,” he means:
“… [T]he state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
For people who can enter a state of flow, even something as drastic as getting fired could turn into a boon. It could lead them to discover alternate avenues that align with who they truly are. They enjoy life—and to an extent, control it—rather than passively staying at its mercy.
According to Csikszentmihalyi. the three steps that are involved in such a transformation are:
1. Unselfconscious Self-Assurance
In this state, a person no longer sees herself in opposition to the environment. She no longer prioritizes her goals and intentions over everything else.
Instead, she feels like a part of whatever is going on around her and tries to play the best hand with the cards she has been dealt.
When individuals who survived terrible physical ordeals (including polar explorers and concentration camp inmates) were studied, a common trait among them was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands.
“They did not doubt that their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time… they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”
A good racecar driver knows his car and what to do in case the track conditions get tricky. He’s confident in his ability to match the properties of the car to the conditions of the track. This, in turn, prepares him to cope with any situation.
The driver doesn’t assume he can force the car to obey his will. He admits that his goals are only possible if he obeys the rules of nature and the machine. This humility is another common trait among people who gain strength from adversity.
2. Focusing Attention on the World
In unpleasant situations, most of us spend all our energy trying to satisfy or worrying about our personal needs and desires.
In doing so, we lose the flexibility to respond. We increase our inner turmoil and probably get cut off from the world, left alone with our frustrations.
But the people who can transform stress into an enjoyable challenge divert their attention towards the surroundings and towards processing information from it. They still want to achieve their goals, but they can adapt to the environment if it doesn’t align with what they prepared for.
“Achieving this unity with one’s surroundings is not only an important component of an enjoyable flow experience but is also a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered… When the attention is focused away from self, the frustrations of one’s desires have less of a chance to disrupt one’s consciousness… Also, the person whose attention is immersed in the environment becomes part of it. This, in turn, makes it possible for her to understand the properties of the system so that she can find a better way to adapt to the problematic situation.”
The racecar driver who spends too much energy complaining about the conditions or trying to make the car do his bidding will miss information that may not just let him win the race, but also make the car safely cross the finish line.
But the driver who pays attention to the surrounding will be minutely conscious of the details in his car as well. The tires, the suspension, the aerodynamics, the balance—each of them become more important. In other words, he enters a state of flow when he works from awareness rather than memory.
He might be driving a complex machine, one made of tens of thousands of parts. But he will be free in his mind, as if nothing except him, the car, and the track exist.
3. The Discovery of New Solutions
Every situation in life, no matter how terrible, offers possibilities for growth. But focusing too heavily on our personal desires lands us in trouble. We don’t have enough attention to seek out opportunities and solutions. Instead, we always feel threatened.
On the other hand, an open mind combined with the ability to process information positively eventually leads to alternative solutions.
“We will never become aware of other possibilities unless… we pay attention to what is happening around us, and evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel, rather than evaluating them exclusively in terms of preconceived notions.”
A conventional racecar driver starts driving knowing what he wants to do and sticks to the plan. Meanwhile, a driver with similar technical competence but an open mind stays aligned with the goal, yet tweaks his driving in response to the environment and how the car functions.
As you might’ve guessed, the chances of the latter having a better race are really high.
“The integrity of the self depends on the ability to take neutral or destructive events and turn them into positive ones.”
If you can trust yourself to take charge of your destiny in stressful or traumatic situations, and focus less on your personal desires and more on your surrounding, you can turn even the most hopeless circumstances into ones where you thrive.
Once you can do this, you won’t just overcome the odds. You’ll also become stronger, better, and more resilient. You’ll discover more about yourself and build a robust sense of self. And you’ll experience true happiness and fulfillment in your life.
In the end, isn’t this what we all want?
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