Do We Need the Ordeals of ‘Building Character’?
When we have something bad happen to us or another we tend to say – half seriously – that it is character building; as if having building character is an inevitable outcome of something going wrong. Interestingly, we don't say that good experiences are character building. Do we actually learn from bad experiences – and what can be gained from good experiences?
We need to make sense of defeat
It can seem hard for us to look defeat in the eyes. It's hard to acknowledge that nothing good will come from some of the disasters that happen to us. It can be understandable that we would seek to salvage something from it; but in some cases this seems like wishful thinking. It seems optimistic to hope that, by default, we will learn things – and that our character will be built – from the negative things that happen to us.
Is there evidence that people learn best in this way, or that they even learn at all from bad experiences? Anecdotally, there seems truth in the contrary notion that we are worn down and destroyed by successive failures. Evidence tells us that being too stressed is a very poor state for learning much at all. On reflection, this notion seems like a hangover from a time when the predominant view was that we learned best through fear and punishment.
Are good experiences helpful for building character?
Further, what about good experiences – do they build character? Are we improved and developed by the positive, caring, loving and joyful experiences that we have? Much research has gone into the benefits of good maternal-infant relations and how this primary relationship is fundamental for human development. Despite this, it still seems as if we feel that these sorts of experiences somehow soften, weaken and eventually undo us. Do we somehow feel perhaps a little unworthy of the good things that have happened to us? Or are we ashamed that the things we enjoy could actually be good for us?
Good and bad events
The idea of coming to some sort of absolute truth about this is difficult. We don't always know the effect of events on us, and we can only guess at the effect of other potential outcomes we never experienced. But perhaps some reflection on where we have been in our lives and where we are now gives us some clue about the effect that good and bad events have had on us.
Psychotherapy does not have to be a hard ‘character building' experience. It contrast, an environment that is support, attentive and respectful is likely to be one that you find more effective for making changes in your life. This is the sort of environment I strive to provide. Such an environment is likely to be, for many people, one that they have not often experienced before.
Tell me what you think in the comments.
– Tim Hill
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