I’ve always hated the quote “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
It’s not always true. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but it can also make you weaker or have no impact at all. I want to challenge people who say that quote to lie in bed and watch The Price Is Right for a year straight. It probably won’t kill them, but I’m not sure the word they’ll use to describe the result will be “stronger.”
In real life, though, the difference lies in whether you are simply taking temporary damage from which you recover or if you are being permanently damaged.
And yes, some permanent damage can also cause gains elsewhere in your life, but the truth is that we want to find opportunities to become absolutely stronger. Becoming stronger in one way at the lasting expense of some other attribute is a slanted definition of superiority.
Let’s figure out where we should try to live so that we get stronger without injury.
You won’t get stronger without soreness
The important feature of the otherwise terrible quote above is that it acknowledges a hard truth: pain is required for growth.
We don’t get athletically stronger by sitting on our sofas. We don’t get smarter by consuming gossip. You have to expend some energy and overcome resistances.
When you do something challenging that will lead to growth, you’ll be sore physically or exhausted mentally.
So getting stronger means getting sore. But what’s the limit? What happens when you do too much?
Injuries immediately weaken us
An injury is what we’ll call it when you cannot recover from your damage quickly.
You’ll immediately drop in performance (you can’t lift as much with a broken bone) and you’ll have to stop exerting yourself at maximum capacity if you ever want to recover.
Being injured mentally can manifest itself in many ways. And while I’m not a psychologist, I’m lumping any lingering mental effect that reduces your ability in the injury category: trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, phobia, and others.
Disabilities can be permanent
Then, sometimes your injury is so complete that you never recover. If you lose your arm, then after a certain point you can’t put it back on. It’s just… gone. You have a physical disability.
And even though we are very resilient creatures in our minds, some mental injuries become disabilities. They never go away and always leave us weaker.
We may become strong in new ways in spite of the disability, physical or mental. This is its own kind of victory! But how can we ride the line between soreness, where we improve, and injury or disability, where we have permanent repercussions? How can we push ourselves to excel without reaching a dangerous breaking point?
Feeling out the difference between pain and injury
Experience: The easiest way to identify whether you are challenging yourself or wrecking yourself is to give yourself a wide range of experiences. The more you know about one part of your body or mind, the more you’ll hopefully know about your entire self.
Coaching: The second-best option is to use the experiences of others to your advantage. While this can come from peers and doctors as well, let’s call it coaching. It means that you don’t actually have to experience injury or push yourself to soreness because someone else will identify a safe range for you to work in.
Commitment and humility: It’s not enough to just know what your range is. You actually have to stay within those boundaries. But what makes us work too little or too much?
Commitment to our goals keeps us from pretending to be approaching injury too early. If we want the objective on the other side of our progress, we’ll push harder and more aggressively assess our ability level.
On the other end, humility gives us the power to stand down when we are approaching injury. Pride tells us to keep going, but humility has us weigh the costs against the benefits and admit our faults. After all, humility comes into play when we’re already in the zone of soreness and therefore progress.
Humility ensures that what doesn’t kill us actually does make us stronger, as long as it’s in our own hands.
Good luck seeking out a range of experiences to create a personal map of pain and injury, and may coaching, commitment, and humility help you see that map clearly.