We rarely see adversity in a positive light. No one wants to go through life faced with hardship after hardship, challenge after challenge.
Too much of it, and it can really break your spirit.
Fortunately, we can take inspiration from notable figures in history who have pretty much faced huge adversity in their lives and stared it down. Powered through with sheer effort and emerged on the other side with a ton of valuable insights.
One of those is Viktor Frankl – a psychiatrist who went through the horrors of World War II in various concentration camps. I’m hard pressed to think of anything more traumatic than that.
What set Frankl apart is that he was able to find meaning in the hardships he endured. Then, he put all of the lessons he learned into one slim yet powerful book – “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
It sits on my bookshelf now. And even if I’ve read it many times, I still turn to it for inspiration when the going gets tough.
Here are 7 lessons we can learn from Viktor Frankl that will help us overcome adversity:
1) Find your purpose
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
I must begin with a brief mention of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy focused on helping people find personal meaning in life.
More specifically, it dwells on how a sense of purpose can help us endure hardship and suffering.
That’s the whole premise of Frankl’s book; it’s about man’s search for meaning, after all.
That search was the driving force behind his fortitude.
As a psychiatrist, he chose to approach the concentration camp experience with almost a clinical eye, observing not just the atrocities happening but also the choices his fellow prisoners made in response.
In doing so, he found his “why”, and it provided the way for him to transcend his circumstances, to find meaning even in the bleak reality he faced.
If you’re going through a tough time, it might be helpful to tackle adversity through this lens. Find your “why” so that the “how” becomes somewhat more bearable.
2) Your reaction to adversity is your choice
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If you noticed in the section above, I mentioned that Frankl chose how to view the insufferable environment he was in.
I repeat: CHOSE. Because ultimately, no matter what you’re going through, you’re still free to choose how to respond to your suffering.
I can practically hear you saying, “But that’s impossible! How can I feel anything but despair with all these problems I have?”
I understand. It’s hard to think of anything but pain when you’re almost out of hope.
But take it from Frankl, who, mind you, was trapped in hell on earth – it is possible.
You can either let your hardships define you and drag you down to rock bottom. Or you can use them as leverage to grow emotionally and spiritually.
Frankl adds, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
It’s tough to do the inner work, for sure. But the fact remains that you still have that choice, that “last of the human freedoms.”
Choose wisely, and you will overcome. I have absolutely no doubt about that. After all…
3) Tough times bring out the best version of yourself
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
As hard as it is to hear, sometimes you have to go through tough stuff to become the best version of yourself.
Not to be a complete nerd here, but I liken the human spirit to the most powerful sword in Lord of the Rings lore – the Andúril.
You know what’s special about this sword? It was actually re-forged from the pieces of a broken sword, the Narsil. Which, even when it was broken, still managed to cut off the One Ring from the evil Sauron’s finger.
And then, once it was refashioned into its version 2.0, it went on to help Aragorn claim his final, elusive victory.
Your spirit is very much like that. You might indeed feel broken right now, but those bits and pieces of you will all come together again to be brighter, stronger, and more powerful.
But while you’re in the midst of this painful re-forging, remember to…
4) Give yourself grace
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
To give you some context, Frankl was talking here about how the prisoners would react differently than they would if they were in a normal environment.
For instance, they would watch unmoved while someone was being tortured or was dying.
It’s pretty grim and perhaps unthinkable for us who have been fortunate enough to not experience that.
But they did it because it was the only way to cope.
The point is, when we’re going through tough times, we may behave in ways that don’t seem normal. And then beat ourselves up for it, making ourselves feel even more miserable.
Look, if you’re in an unusual or extreme situation, you can’t be expected to act as if everything is business as usual.
Your behavior or reactions might seem out of character or extreme, but given the extraordinary circumstances, that’s to be expected and is, in fact, normal.
So give yourself some grace for not coping “well enough”. Your feelings are valid, and it’s okay to react differently than you normally would.
That said, you can get yourself back on solid ground by doing this next thing…
5) Practice mindfulness and intentionality
“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”
If you had a do-over, how would you live your life differently?
This was a question I asked myself when I was going through a dark time. I’d lost my dad suddenly and I was consumed with regret over so many unresolved issues between us prior to his death.
Upon reading this quote in Frankl’s book, it dawned on me: I could go on wallowing in self-blame and sorrow, or –
I could learn from my mistake and resolve to do better going forward.
The idea here is to be conscious of your choices and actions, especially when dealing with adversity. It’s all about being mindful and intentional so that you can go on and live a life full of meaning.
When you can see the lessons and the meaning in your suffering, it then ceases to be suffering. Which, by the way, is another lesson from Frankl.
6) Don’t chase happiness or success
Doesn’t this sound weird? Isn’t being happy and successful the point of overcoming adversity?
Well, it’s not that straightforward. Here’s how the sequence of events should occur, according to Frankl:
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
Oh boy. That’s a heavy thought to consider, especially for those who are hell-bent on pursuing happiness and success.
I mean, it’s kind of a brain-twister, isn’t it? You become happy by not caring about it, really?
Well, it only makes sense if you stop and consider that Frankl was a logotherapist. He believed that our main motivation in life is not to find happiness, but to find meaning.
That we are driven to find purpose in what we do and why we do it. And once we satisfy that, that’s when we become happy.
This brings me to the final lesson…
7) Surrender to a higher cause
“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.”
Strangely, shifting your focus away from your own problems and towards helping others might just be exactly what you need.
See, the act of giving and loving other people can serve as a remarkable form of self-healing.
Instead of staying all up in the dark and scary room in your head, you’re pulled out into a space where you’re contributing positively to the larger world.
And that in itself is empowering and uplifting.
Plus, it offers you perspective. You realize that your problems, as overwhelming as they may seem, are ultimately just a small part of the entirety of human experience.
I know that leaning into suffering and striving to see meaning in it sounds impossible. Pain clouds our judgment and may even render us bitter at the unfairness of life.
But I hope Viktor Frankl’s words may give you some hope and direction, as they have given me. The human spirit – YOUR spirit – is strong beyond words.
You just have to choose to believe it.