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Are We Shortchanging Ourselves? Viewing Adversity Through an Adaptive Lens

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Today’s post is an excerpt from my book, Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards.

Today there is no shortage of adversity. In fact, recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health reports that six out of ten women and five out of ten men will face one or more major crises in their lifetime. And when they do, there will be plenty of resources—from self-help books to websites, podcasts, and “coaches”—to help them quickly move past it.

Yet, the question remains, is moving past adversity quickly really the best approach? Self-help gurus, sports coaches, and the media tell us that we should minimize our setbacks, overcome adversity, and quickly bounce back from failure. That should we miss our mark, make a mistake, say the wrong thing, wear the wrong clothes, or show up to the wrong meeting—all things quite possible—we should not waste any time getting right back on track. These mishaps should be reframed, filed away, overcome, or—whatever self-help lingo we may want to insert here—moved past. Even catastrophic events—the kind that shatter our very fundamental beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, the world, and everything we know—should be quickly overcome. Our resilience depends on it, or so we are told.

Yet for all of this talk about bouncing back from our setbacks, are we shortchanging ourselves? Is there something we can learn from adversity, struggle, or strife? Is it possible that struggling with what ails, confuses, derails, and even shatters us offers us something? In searching for new meaning in the aftermath of trauma, can we also find a way to cope that goes much further than providing us protection—known as resilience—against further setbacks? Maybe in the struggle, and not necessarily the victory, there is something to be learned, a strength to be gained, skills to be perfected, and confidence to be reinforced. Should the victory come too quickly, perhaps we also become too focused on simply getting past the struggle and miss the opportunity that the good fight offers us. We may also place value on the very thing that causes us to lose focus. Perhaps in concentrating too intently on the victory, we are forgetting the journey.

Because the journey is not the victory and, in fact, may be nothing like victory. Instead, the journey may be rife with misses, failures, setbacks, disappointments, and defeats. It may also include tremendous joy, exultation, and reverie. The journey, like anything else, will include both highs and lows, and sometimes one will come right after the other. The hope is that for all of life’s challenges and moments of glory, there will also be growth.

And this growth is dependent on the struggle, not the victory. Surprising new research in the field of posttraumatic growth has evidenced that it is not the absence of negative outcomes in the aftermath of trauma that marks the path of growth but rather that both positive and negative symptoms signify the very cognitive processes that characterize growth. It is when we can see both the good and the bad—called dialectical thinking—that we also recognize that growth is paradoxical. That we may be more vulnerable, and yet stronger, in ways we never knew possible. We may be more wary in relationships and yet develop deep connections with those closest to us. We may feel as if our path is blocked, but we may also find new, more meaningful paths.

The victory may or may not be won. But the struggle persists. It persists because there is something more meaningful than gold medals, new records, fame, or glory—and that is the pursuit of something much larger than any material gain. It is the search for meaning and purpose in the face of adversity. It is the deep human drive to challenge ourselves, perfect our skills, and to fight the good fight. It is knowing that, right or wrong, we gave it our all. It is continuing on, when the path seems blocked, to carve new paths. It is facing our vulnerabilities in the hope that we will come out stronger. It is the relationships we form along the way that will sustain us, forever unshakeable. And it is the relentless forward push, even when the odds seem insurmountable and victory seems impossible. Because, in the end, the victory is uncertain, but the journey will go on. Because, in the end, it is not the end, but the path we take, the choices we make, and the desire to face the struggle for the promise of growth.

Surprisingly, there are some people who appear to embrace the struggle, perfecting their skills against the twists and turns life deals them. Becoming adept, these people engage in the challenge because they know it will lead to mastery, and not necessarily mastery in overcoming the struggle, but mastery in facing the struggle. They don’t fear failure, because the game is not being played to win or lose, it is being played to get better. Because they are not dependent on winning, they are open to any new opportunities life presents, and they are also not afraid to take on a challenge, as it is a rich source of mastery. Those in the field of positive psychology would say these people are “flourishing,” while those who study trauma might say they have experienced posttraumatic growth. In either case, the data present the same story; that is, these people defy everything we know about the way adversity and trauma are supposed to affect a person.

But look more closely. Studies of posttraumatic growth show that people who experience growth after a traumatic event outweigh those who experience PTSD. As these studies demonstrate, more people experience trauma as a trigger that sets off a cascade of growth across several life domains than those who experience it in just the opposite way—as a trigger for a cascade of distressing symptoms. This suggests that it’s not simply that some people can grow through facing challenge but rather that the way we look at challenge—as well as trauma, setbacks, and failures—is flawed. It is flawed because those who are trained in psychology and treating trauma are trained in a model that simply doesn’t fit the data anymore.

I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as PTSD, as it is a very real and distressing condition. However, studies on posttraumatic growth also show something very interesting when it comes to trauma-related distress symptoms, like those in PTSD. Many trauma survivors report growth outcomes while still reporting distress symptoms. This means that growth begins before distress ends. In fact, the paradoxical nature of growth is consistently demonstrated in the research on posttraumatic growth. That is to say that a person can feel stronger and yet more vulnerable, or as if life is more fragile but also appreciated much more. And yet what is focused on in the therapist’s office, as well as in society, is the victory. Overcoming the setback, minimizing the failure, and quickly bouncing back all insinuate the same message: overcoming is more important than learning. Because the learning comes in the challenge, the enhancement of skill, the atonement of mastery, and the engagement itself—that is, the willingness to take on the challenge even when success seems out of reach.

When we seek to only treat distress symptoms, we suppress the deep human drive to master challenge and grow as a result. And when we focus on overcoming setbacks, bouncing back, and winning the game, we also suppress the intrinsic human need to engage. Quite possibly, the process of struggling with the adversity—and not necessarily overcoming it, as evidenced by the data on the paradoxical nature of growth—is more growth enhancing than the victory itself.


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Tunring Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit

Are We Shortchanging Ourselves? Viewing Adversity Through an Adaptive Lens

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2015). Are We Shortchanging Ourselves? Viewing Adversity Through an Adaptive Lens. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Sep 2015
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