That which does not kill us makes us stronger...

This quote we all know, originally credited to the philosopher and writer Nietzsche, is often referenced as a powerful way to describe resiliency, from the fun and perhaps inconsequential anecdote of an overcome mishap told amongst friends, all the way to significant and life-changing stories of real consequence.

What happens when people truly suffer the unfathomable 

In life, many of us will, or have already, gone through things that truly test our character and resiliency, make us question ourselves, challenge our support structures and seek to topple the stability of our personalities and traits. The concept of resiliency speaks to our ability to bounce back or overcome the setbacks life throws at all of us.

But what happens when people truly suffer the unfathomable, drive through and overcome things that are beyond the realms of ‘normality’, that are on the extremes of what most people would even be able to contemplate. What happens when something so bad, so traumatic, breaks down a person’s resiliency, knocking them to ground zero of despair?

Understandably, and with empathy, we recognise how hard it would be to get up off the ground.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 

People experiencing this level of trauma can experience a range of symptoms, and important work has been done to understand phenomena like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, particularly with military veterans who report much higher rates of PTSD than general civilian populations.

But there is a more emergent body of work that changes tack on traumatic experiences. What if a person is able to work through the trauma to find their feet, is able to get up from ground zero to feel a sense of growth or heightened positivity once as they come out the other side again? That is Post Traumatic Growth.

We seem attuned to examples of Post Traumatic Growth at the moment, not because we delight in the suffering of others but rather because these stories of the strength of the human condition are inspiring and give hope. In addition, if we fully understood Post Traumatic Growth, we may well be able to better support people in the same or similar situations. We may be able to unravel why two people, experiencing identical trauma, will land in such different places on the other side.

Stories of Trauma

In the Sydney Morning Herald recently we read the story of Cynthia Banham, a journalist, who suffered great trauma in a plane crash in Indonesia that killed 21. This experience was extremely physically traumatic – Cynthia underwent multiple amputations and horrific burns, and we can only begin to imagine the psychological trauma an experience like that brings. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s well worth a read, yet, the quote from her book A Certain Light referenced in the article sums it up perfectly.

“It kind of astounds me that something so awful can happen, that you can lose so much, and yet be happy”.

Or what about the moving repost from friend of mwah., Phil Hayes St Clair, who shared the message of Dan Pronk, ex-Army Special Forces Doctor, who lost 3 friends and colleagues in Afghanistan, and experienced PTSD before evolving through that trauma to in his words emerge .

“out the other side, not damaged, but having grown as a person”.

The HR Side

As HR professionals, many of us go into the profession with inherent optimism and positivity – we are ‘people people’ that love the aspiration of unlocking the best of people’s talents to help them achieve their goals and collectively support organisational success. When it comes to the topic of human potential, the glass is most definitely half full.

If HR people are optimists, perhaps that helps explain the increasing and sustained momentum shift towards positivity in organisational psychology research and therefore the HR world. Post Traumatic Growth certainly falls into the positive psychology sphere.

For a really long time within the field of psychology, clinical psychology was placed at the pinnacle. And understanding the clinical is extremely worthwhile and of unquestionable importance to help those suffering from a psychological condition, that is, something that is considered ‘abnormal’.

But what about the whopping great proportion of people that are not experiencing the abnormal?


This realisation won’t be astonishing to the HR people of today. One of the founding figures of psychology, that dominates the hearts and minds of many an HR practitioner or leader of people to this day, is Martin Seligman. He is seen as the pioneer of the positive psychology movement, despite spending much of his career studying clinical/mental health disorders like depression (which he explained using the infamous ‘Seligman’s Dogs’ study to unearth the phenomena of ‘Learned Helplessness’). Then he observed dogs that did in fact not ‘learn helplessness’ – and this is where he started to refocus his energy on understanding the factors like virtues and strengths that help give us authentic happiness and remain positive.

At mwah. and for many of the HR and business professionals reading along, we know we deal with ‘the abnormal’ at work and we will continue to do so to help people going through psychological or physical difficulty with care, respect, confidentiality and empathy. And we will seek help from other professionals as needed, and to protect our own psychological safety.

But we sure can draw inspiration from positive psychology and specific phenomena like Post Traumatic Growth to understand that the human condition and psyche is an amazingly strong system – and whilst difficult to crack it is a great privilege to be able to even in some small part be able to influence it through our work in organisations every day.