"Life is a good teacher" is often said to indicate that the lessons we learn from experience make us wiser people. But that's not always the case, or at least not for everyone. There are people who go through life experiences, without those experiences going through them. This is because to learn from painful experiences it is not enough to live them.
Learning comes from meaning, not from experiences
Adversity doesn't necessarily involve learning. It is not some kind of epiphany. For many people, adversity creates such frustration that it prevents them from seeing the positive or learning from mistakes. When we focus solely on suffering and make complaining our preferred coping strategy, adversity is unlikely to leave us with anything positive.
Learning, transformative change, and inner growth come from meaning, not from experiences themselves. Experiences are simple events, it is adversity that knocks on our door or bad luck that sinks us.
Meaning, on the other hand, is an active construction, it is the way we face adversity. They are the bricks we build on suffering, the shards that we collect and reassemble after the storm and that allow us to make sense of what happens to us and to incorporate these traumatic events into our life story.
Experiences are impersonal. Many people can be victims of a tsunami or an earthquake, they can get cancer or suffer a breakup. On the contrary, the meaning is deeply personal and unique. It is the meaning we give to those painful experiences. And it is that sense that allows us to learn and move forward, being more resilient or at least more aware of our strength. As Viktor Frankl said, "In a sense, suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning."
Why do some people fail to learn from painful experiences?
Many people take a passive role in the face of adversity. They automatically become victims and just complain about what happened. They develop a kind of learned helplessness that becomes a shield so they don't have to change.
Of course, there are painful events that can knock us out, depriving us of our ability to react. It's also perfectly understandable that we don't always show the best of luck. And that we complain about our bad luck because complaints have a cathartic power. But this is only a phase, or so it should be.
People who don't learn by going through experiences get stuck in denial, guilt, and victimization. They don't move on to the next stage, but they complain about their bad luck. They don't make the emotional and cognitive effort needed to process the painful experience and move on, so they end up being hostages to themselves. So they can spend a large part of their life complaining about how life has treated them badly.
The 3 basic conditions for learning from painful experiences
1. Experiential coping
Having painful experiences isn't easy, but avoiding them is even worse. Psychologists at George Mason University have evaluated the role of experiential avoidance in post-traumatic growth. The main traumas analyzed were the sudden death of a loved one, traffic accidents, domestic violence and natural disasters.
They found that the greater the discomfort, the greater the post-traumatic growth, but only when people had low levels of experiential avoidance. Those who experienced more distress but dealt with the traumatic experience experienced higher levels of growth and meaning in life. This means that while in the early stages after the trauma we may avoid talking or thinking about the painful experience because we are unable to manage it without hurting ourselves, in the long run being able to deal with it can lead to greater resilience.
2. Positive disintegration
Viktor Frankl said that "when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves". Indeed, psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski was convinced that "positive disintegration" was a valuable experience that promotes growth after trauma.
Dabrowski concluded that healthy personality development often requires the disintegration of one's structure. This usually generates profound psychological tension, as well as insecurity and anxiety, but in the long run this process leads to introspection, in a way that ends up stimulating the development of a more resilient personality. It is therefore a process of reconstruction of the positive self and of development.
In fact, another study conducted at the University of Nottingham found that the people who grew up the most after suffering from a mental disorder were the ones who reported learning more about themselves and rediscovering a new sense of their "I", which has allowed them to appreciate life more.
3. Cognitive exploration
Another key factor that allows us to learn from painful experiences and come out stronger is cognitive exploration. It is not limited to thought or reflection but it is a general curiosity for the search for information and a tendency to process data in a flexible and complex way, in order to be able to form a general and fairly complete picture of what happens to us.
This ability allows us to be curious about uncertain and complex situations, instead of feeling fear and rejecting or withdrawing them, which increases the chances that we will find new meaning in the seemingly incomprehensible. This curiosity allows us to free ourselves of our defense mechanisms and to face discomfort or even pain from a more open perspective, considering them "fuel" for growth and resilience. It allows us to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life, the uncertainty of the world and develop a more complex view of reality.