The Kelly Clarkson song Stronger (What doesn’t kill you) is the story of a woman left by some man “she” thinks has had the last laugh. The song demonstrates the folly of that mistake.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Footsteps even lighter
And while the song is another of many hymns to feminist strength, it has many other applications. Demonstrating forebearance under the weight of the inevitable, predictable and often deeply penetrating wounds that “life” dishes out is something we all have an opportunity to nurture.
As a psychic antidote to emotional pain and a testament to emotional strength, the meme has some legitimacy. As a permission “ticket” to hurt others, however, it is reprehensible and intolerable. The question underlying the meme is which insults, wounds, character assassinations and betrayals are to be withstood as “growing” experiences, and which are to be challenged, rejected and considered legitimate cause for withdrawal or worse? And the question haunts each of us every day. Through the lens of this question we view the outside world, the workplace, the community in which we live, and the nation we call home.
Our personal biographical experience, in our childhood and adolescence, plays a significant role in shaping, colouring, and even in fogging the lens through which we continue to perceive “the world”….forming our “world view”. If we have been abused (and who has not been abused somewhat) that abuse informs our “sense” of how the world works. If the abuse is perpetrated by a family member, our capacity to trust the “outside” world is weakened, if not actually depleted. If our early pain comes from a serious illness, through the fault of no person, including the patient, the world will be seen as caring, supportive, mostly kind and populated by reasonable admirable people.
If our teachers demonstrate a kind of fear in the manner of their “relationships” with their students, those students will assimilate a perception, along with an attitude, that adults are not role models to whom to look and to emulate. If the principals in our schools, themselves, are primarily politically motivated and career-resume-building, their “interest” (or the lack thereof) in their students and teachers will be part of the atmosphere and ethos in which we are “learning” more than what is contained in the text books. Discipline, detentions, and the reasons for them, personal greetings, and the kind of extra-curricular activities ‘licensed’ as well as how free those activities are permitted to operate….these are the kind of cultural signals that almost imperceptibly and unconsciously contribute to a sense of ‘safety’ and security and trust that deepens one’s perception of “authority” for many years. Discipline, (read punishment) that clearly does not ‘fit’ the offence, is a red flag in the interior “justice” system that dwells inside each of us. Naturally, adolescents are hard-wired to challenge whatever authority they face, including their parents; however, in that challenge, including their legitimate need to establish boundaries, identity, and perspective, they also know, without having read it in a book, which persons in their circle are trustworthy, which are not and which simply do not warrant their time and rating.
Hopefully, some reasonable balance of perspective, including a mature “take” on what constitutes the reasonable, fair, just and measured dispensation of power/authority emerges and the end of some eighteen or nineteen years of home and school environments. Mistakes, in the administration of “punishment” will have been made at both levels, and the degree to which each of us is able and willing to tolerate, forgive and learn from those misjudgements is also an significant ingredient in our unique “cake” of character.
One of the important “gaps” in understanding and thereby tolerance and forgiveness, however, is the child and adolescent’s depth of learning about motivation of the adult role models in their circle. If they see power being “delivered” in a wanton display of hurtfulness, vindictiveness, mean-spiritedness and in the exclusive pursuit of narcissistic needs or private unreasonable fears, even if they do not comprehend why that dynamic is on display, they grow wary and sceptical of how trustworthy those “power brokers:” really are. If young people witness a “talking through” of tensions, compromise, and relatively equal respect among the adults in the room, they will quickly learn to emulate that behaviour; the reverse is also true: constant bullying and open verbal warfare and character assassination will be their “model” for their own disputes. And there seems to be a natural inclination to lean in the direction of the former, over the latter, if that option is available in their experience.
The tension, however, between the two “extremes,” one easily dubbed “collaborative” with the other being dubbed “confrontative” will be options with varying “value” in their future. At the core of this tension, too, will be their “sense of self” or “their self-respect” or their self-confidence and capacity to be assertive, aggressive, passive aggressive or worse, self-sabotaging. Is there anyone who has not vacillated between trying collaboration and falling into the trap of aggression, anger, revenge, or passive aggression.
Cognitive behaviour therapy posits the notion that if our “thinking” is healthy, unencumbered by distortions, catastrophizing, projections, and unwarranted premises, we are more likely to inhabit a place where assertiveness is plausible, feasible and generating its own rewards. If the CBT intervention takes place early in a traumatized life, there is a greater likelihood that the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that sabotage the self (and often relationships with others as well) can be replaced with “assertive” propositions.
However, deeply embedded insecurities, wounds, and the concomitant beliefs and perceptions are more difficult to erase and replace. The Clarkson song is an exemplary social comment to summon a hidden courage, strength and determination to come up “stronger” than before the betrayal. If, however, the single betrayal, about which the song ‘sings’ is part of a series of betrayals, abandonments, alienations, separations and deep and profound losses, then the proposition of “making one stronger” while still appropriate, may take a lot longer.
And while there is an agreed linkage between how we “think” (cognition) and how we behave, there is another significant component to the equation: our unique character, and our adaptability and openness to change. And to the extent that we pull the strings on our own development, depending on the influences, persons, beliefs, and cultural traditions of our family, community, formal learning and occupational background, we are never really beyond some degree of transformation. (Research is still inconclusive about some kinds of sociopaths, psychopaths and sex offenders.)
For example, if we hold (as many writers like Thomas Hardy) do that happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain, then we have already imposed a limit on what we expect, in the form of happiness. On the other hand, if we hold, (as Joel Osteen and others) do that God wants everyone to be rich, then we have a “sacred” option to put our hands, and minds and hearts and relationships to the “plow” of making that “richness” become a reality, regardless of the means necessary for that outcome. If we hold, (as Shakespeare has been noted to) that character is destiny, then our dominant traits will have a significant role to play in the drama that details our biography. Strong dominant characteristics like hubris, for example, or greed, or altruism, or ambition or revenge will inevitably play an important role in the resolving equation of the narrative of our life.
And then there is the unstoppable force of the unconscious, the Shadow, from Jung’s perspective, that sack of memories, traumas, and painful experiences literally too “painful” to absorb and to countenance at the time of their occurrence, that will have an impact on how we feel, think and act. Another question waiting in the wings of our beings, inviting our exploration is how deep and penetrating is our own consciousness of who we are, including how we are “seen” be others. If, as is quite likely in contemporary culture, we have been “reduced” to a short list of adjectives, a caricature or Matisse line drawing, and have hung some “tapestry” of a “personality” on that “objective co-relative” then, although the carpet is unfinished, it will take on a kind of “stability” in our mind-perception that seeks, unconsciously, to repeat and duplicate itself. The source of these ‘line drawings’ too will be important in our self-definition given a parent’s import as compared to a storekeeper’s pleasantries, or a doctor’s assessment as compared with a peer’s.
And if all of this “psychobabble” is off limits given how profoundly occupied we are at “making a living” and making the decisions around that “task” and objective, then our conscious awareness of how we think and feel and act will be so limited and defined by those acts that require unambiguous decisions on our part. And by those decisions we are writing our signature in the sands of the consciousnesses of those in our circle, by which we will come to be defined, without much regard for the nuances in different situations that would clearly elicit very different decisions on our part.
So, we are complex to ourselves, and to some of our intimates, while being at the same time, reduced to something much more simple, predictable and eminently controllable (especially from the perspective of a parent, teacher, doctor, lawyer, and law enforcement). In most cases, the picture that we leave in the minds of others will come out of some one or two encounters, neither of which will adequately portray who we are.
And so, our response(s) to trauma, depending on our history, our character and our self-concept, will vary. At times we will withdraw, cocoon, and take a period to reflect, and to recoup both strength and perspective. At other times, we will be tempted, (both ‘successfully’ and not so much) to retaliate, if we have been unduly and unjustly injured. And, while the song hints that our “will” will eventually and inevitably triumph, no matter the blow we have suffered, and the strength of our will is a factor in our recovery, willing ourselves to health, recovery, well-being and a new kind of strength is certainly not guaranteed.
One of the most glaring examples of “willing” a recovery (in this case from a lethal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer) came in a conversation with a colleague, on a waterfront a few years back. “I am going to beat this thing!” he declared, and then added, ‘The doctor was extremely insensitive and debilitating in the way he treated me when he told me of the diagnosis and that makes me even more determined to beat this thing!” Sadly, he died within a few months of this conversation. Similarly, we all know of people who have been abandoned by others, including parents, spouses, children and close friends, who have really never fully recovered from their loss.
And their lives have been a heroic and monumental effort to get back to what they considered their “equilibrium” from the time prior to the trauma.
And perhaps in an archetypal way, we have all been traumatized through deep and profound loss, and are deeply engaged in a life-long commitment to “return” to the “garden of our soul” where we can breathe deeply again, and love and be loved deeply again.
And that return, notwithstanding all of the honourable work of therapists in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will need more than a shift in our thought patterns, and a commitment to behave differently. It will entail a radical transformation in how we accept what is really our identity.