This well-meaning attempt at positive psychology really sums up my mistrust of it.
I’m sure that the person who created it is rightly proud of their post-trauma achievements in the world and wanted to demonstrate that although they have experienced many more wounds since childhood they are now an adult, strong and capable and no longer felled by suffering.
But look at what is actually there.
A puppy has been shot with an arrow. S/he is nearly killed and certainly horrifically injured by it.
Imagine a puppy being shot.
Next to the puppy is an adult wolf. There are 22 arrows in her back. Her tail is between her legs and there is blood pooling beneath her. The caption is the equivalent of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”
What that puppy and the adult wolf need is emergency expert care. A lot of time, money and attention need to be spent on both of them. They need to be removed from danger, forever. In the UK that’s what animal shelters do: we don’t offer that to traumatised children or to many adults.
Apart from the obvious skill of the artist, the only thing I find useful in this image is that the wolf is looking at the unconscious puppy with something like compassion. As adults, that’s what we need to try to emulate for ourselves.
Often in therapy a person will try to look on the bright side, comparing themselves to starving children in Africa or drowning refugees and say, “Well, at least my life is better than theirs.” Perhaps. We can go on for many months saying, “Things aren’t so bad. I don't know why I'm getting these panic attacks/ feel so unhappy/ get so angry.” When the relationship between us is trusting enough and deep enough a client might remember a childhood trauma or relive it beyond their cognition – beyond it all being a memory – and really feel it again. They become vulnerable.
At this point a person can feel desperate for me to solve their problem, a problem that responsible adults did not treat with the respect or attention that was as necessary as food at that time. It can be heart-breaking to help the client understand that I cannot stand in the place of those adults from the past. My aim is to help the client find their own resources, from a place of vulnerability rather than from steel in the spine, to offer the love, care and comfort to their younger selves.
It is painful.
It is painful to acknowledge that we have been waiting all our lives for someone to do the right thing 50 years ago. It is painful to give up on that hope. It can be god-awful to know that we will never be rescued. It seems necessary to go through a period of protective cynicism, to say “Well fuck the world, then. What a bunch of shits everyone is.” And whilst this may have an element of truth to it we also need to move beyond cynicism and into a place of deep self-care.
Some clients will have spent time already speaking with their younger selves and found it beneficial. But when that speaking becomes listening, when it becomes a relationship of compassion between a frightened, injured little child and an empathic, loving, gentle adult then real healing can begin.
What doesn’t kill us can weaken us nearly to death and sometimes beyond it. Nietzsche, who coined the original phrase, spent the last years of his life in a catatonic state collapsing after witnessing a horse being thrashed almost to death. Nietzsche was a sensitive human being who, in addition to suffering widely debated medical conditions, experienced maddening horror when he witnessed cruelty.
You don’t have to turn into a wolf or become psychotic after trauma though there’s no blame if you do. Remaining fully human takes incredible bravery and hard work. Sadly, this kind of hard work doesn’t make you respectable. It just makes you a decent, loving, thoughtful, whole human being.