I wrote a post about phrases I wish people wouldn’t say when talking to me about illness, and maybe I should have included the phrase what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The song with the same name by Kelly Clarkson came on my iPhone music this morning on shuffle and for some reason I thought ‘yeah, if you’ve been shot in the chest but didn’t die you’re hardly going to be stronger are you?!’ (god knows why!). Which got me thinking about how silly a phrase it is.
It’s one of those phrases where no-one actually knows where it comes from but people say it anyway in specific contexts, mostly when they’re trying to be positive but can’t think of anything to say. In most cases, it’s not said maliciously, but with good intentions, which is what makes it even more strange. If you have a car accident, you’re not going to be stronger if you broke some bones, you’re going to have a lot of rehab and then weaker bone areas when you’re healed. If you have a heart transplant, you might have a new heart, but someone still cut into you to put it there, so you’ve got a scar and scar tissue and whatever else comes with heart surgery. If you have a long term chronic illness like me where you go to hospital to avoid dying, it takes weeks or months to recover, and the more tiring it gets to keep going- imagine putting up with a cold 24/7, it would wear down your immune system, your pain threshold, your ability to look after yourself so you don’t feel remotely ‘stronger’ for having not been killed because of it. That’s what chronic illness is like. Whichever way you look at it, the injury, surgery, accident, illness wears you down immediately after the event and then causes some kind of weakness or sensitivity even after healed in most cases. But, hey, at least it didn’t kill you.
Even if you think of it in terms of experiences, crises or tragedies that some people have to face in life, like an attack, an assault or something traumatic, it’s still a stupid way of looking at it. Yes, the person survived it and will have ‘learnt’ something from it. They will rebuild their lives and make positive steps despite it. But it doesn’t mean it’s gone and they’re suddenly stronger. It means it’s left its mark which you can’t see anymore, and it’ll come back at random, unexpected or inconvenient times. And at the point where someone might try to explain why they’re behaving or feeling in a specific way, someone with good intentions will try to help and say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
The intentions might be good, but the problem is you don’t feel strong when the person is saying it. You feel pretty beaten up and broken, either metaphorically or literally. So hearing it doesn’t always come as the rousing, drawing on strength, morale boosting thing it’s intended to be. It makes you feel like you’re not fighting hard enough or you should be trying more because you have to live up to the ‘strength’ of the phrase. I think the other problem is that unless you’ve actually been in a situation where you’ve come out of it and thought ‘crap, that nearly killed me’, whether it be because of an accident, A&E trip or mental health illness or whatever, you can’t actually fully relate to it. Because one thing that does go round in your mind after something like that is ‘why didn’t it kill me, and how can I make sure that it doesn’t kill me again?’. So part of the response to the phrase is a panic of ‘I have no idea how it didn’t kill me and I need to know so that I can make sure it doesn’t happen again!’. There’s an implication that you have control over accidents, illnesses, emotional responses… , which you don’t (always anyway).
To be completely fair to the phrase, it’s also used when people experience things like divorce or bereavements in the family. These things also leave their mark, but lots of people draw strength from the people they become afterwards. And that’s great. But, unless you’re in an abusive marriage, a divorce isn’t going to realistically kill you anyway 😉
People have stopped saying this phrase to me, partly, I think, because I don’t have any issue joking about my near death experiences or hospital trips and that tends to make people uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean I’m not bothered by them, it just means I don’t dwell on them in normal conversation. I completely get that it’s a phrase people say, but even if the person’s problem is (seemingly) really trivial, if they think carefully about the meaning behind it, it might do more harm than good.
Plus I’m removing Kelly Clarkson from my iPhone temporarily. Apparently her music has some deep lyrics! 😉