Who Bounces Back from Hard Times?

We’ve all had a worst day of our life. Perhaps many of us have just experienced our worst year. Life can be hard. Life is hard. But we can bounce back. How do prepare for a worst day, a worst year? How do we bounce back?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Do you find that to be true? Maybe sometimes.

Victims are defined by the tragedy and become stuck.

A variety of factors, conditions, choices, and behaviors contribute to the fact that for some people, a major life stressor or series of stressors can produce a victimhood that severely limits their lives. These individuals do not get stronger. They remain stuck in an identity tied to the stressor, which may be a traumatic event, diagnosis, disability, or other hardship. It often remains difficult for them to see themselves as more than that stressor. For example: “I am a victim of military trauma, abuse, a bad boss, an assault, the economic downturn, the pandemic, etc.”

These events ARE difficult but when a person allows such events to solely define the rest of their life, they become perpetually, irrevocably victimized.

The resilient acknowledge the impact and move forward.

Another group of people seems to rebound quickly to a life-status seemingly similar to their prior lives. These resilient people are more likely to identify themselves as survivors than as victims. Their focus is more upon the future than the past. They acknowledge the impact of the stressor and move forward with the help of social support and survival tactics.

“SurThrivors” lean into the pain and grow from it.

A third category suffered deeply and really hurt, but they dig in and ask themselves the existential questions that make them better. I call them “SurThrivors.” They don’t just move forward, they actually become stronger. Growth and distress co-exist and lead to meaningful positive life changes.

This group was also noted to make intentional, brave choices; to lean into the pain rather than either wallow in it or sprint blindly away from it. For example, when families lose a loved one there is a risk of fragmenting the family. Some will grieve by talking prolongingly about their loss and being reluctant to move on with life. Others wish to move on quickly to avoid pain and to re-establish some control.

SurThrivors move forward, though not without sadness for what’s been lost never to be regained (i.e., innocence, naivety, carefreeness).

Numerous studies on Post Traumatic Growth have identified five domains that differentiate those who not only bounce back but bounce forward. Again, SurThrivors intentionally focus upon these domains and thereby grow.

The Five Domains of Post Traumatic Growth:

  1. Greater appreciation of life and a changed sense of priorities.
    Perspective changed including an increased appreciation for life in general, and many smaller aspects of it, along with a changed sense of what is important.
    • As you have gone through hardship, have you noted appreciating things or people that were easily taken for granted before?
    • Have you changed priorities and perhaps discarded some things that had been too important?
  2. Warmer, deeper relationships with others.
    These relationships tend to be deeper, characterized by less superficial conversations and by greater compassion for others going through hardship. SurThrivors were more generous, volunteered and donated more.
    • Have you deepened important relationships?
    • Edited your social circle?
  3. A greater sense of personal strength from making it through the stressor.
    SurThrivors were able to look back at the hardship, integrate it as part of but not all of who they are, and gain confidence from it in anticipation of present and future challenges. It served as a “monument” to survival.
    • Have you identified personal or family triumphs over hardships?
    • What did you do in these circumstances that worked?
    • Have you studied challenges met and overcome by ancestors or other historical figures?
  4. Recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life.
    When life is proceeding routinely it is easy to fall into the rut of “this is how we have always done it.” Life stressors sometimes make those thoughts and actions unavailable and ineffective. Necessity is the mother of invention.
    • Have you learned something new in your professional and personal life?
    • Do you now have new skills that you may not have developed when operating “inside the box?”
  5. Spiritual development.
    SurThrivors leaned into their pain and asked the tough existential questions about their Faith, world view, and things they had always trusted. They reported gaining greater meaning in their lives, connection with that which was most important to them, and the likelihood of leaving a greater legacy.
    • Do difficult circumstances cause you to search out and reflect upon deeper issues?
    • What have you read, listened to, or with whom have you had these conversations?

Life is not fair. Sometimes life is really, really difficult. There are many factors and circumstances over which we do not have control. SurThrivors seize that over which they do have some control and produce growth which positively impacts not just themselves but those around them.

Who Bounces Back? | Bob VandePol | TEDxMacatawa
This talk was filmed and uploaded by the volunteers who organized this TEDx event; speakers and topics are selected independently of TED.

Bob VandePol, MSW, serves as Executive Director of the Pine Rest Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Prior to joining Pine Rest, he was president of the world’s largest provider of critical incident response services to the workplace. Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7549 or


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