The “Abuse Made Them Stronger” Trope

Photo by Anete Lusina:

I have noticed a theme both in real life situations and in *some* stories where people expect survivors to become stronger because of the abuse that was done to them. “Bullying toughens you up” or “The abuse made me stronger” are among some of the toxic headlines you see floating around in pseudo-psychology spheres of the Internet. I have even spoke to a couple of people in the past who were serious when they said that predators make people stronger, as though we are all hapless, clueless beings who will never know our real worth until we’re duped, drugged, and assaulted.

The main issue I have with the “abuse/rape made them stronger” trope is that the credit is going to the abuser, not the survivor. It is saying “They were weak before, but this assault done by the assaulter has made them into a stronger person.” I find this to not only be wrong, but sick. Who is the person surviving the rape, the abuse, the assault? It’s not the perpetrator, it’s the survivor. Who is the one who has to heal then learn to trust again? It’s not the abuser, but the survivor. Who is the one who felt strong before the attack, but now feels distorted and lost on their recovery journey? It’s not the abuser, it’s the survivor.

The strength already existed inside of the person who was targeted for abuse/assault/rape. In fact, many times people are targeted because they are strong or have some quality that the abuser is jealous of or intimidated by. Regardless of the predator’s reasons for attacking or abusing, it is the survivor who gets themselves through the hardship.

In truth, traumatic situations knock you off your game. In many cases, you believe you’re fine and can shake it off only to realize months or years later that the trauma is still affecting you and your mind. Trauma can lead to other mood disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc. There is a lot of scientific research that shows the negative effects from PTSD. Sexual assault survivors, for example, must go through the same type of therapy as war veterans. Regardless of what the trauma is, the brain is still the brain. It reacts to trauma in very significant ways. Overcoming a traumatic event is so much more than posting “My trauma made me stronger!’ on Instagram and moving on with your life.

Some people have attempted or committed suicide due to the emotional affects of abuse or rape. So, no, trauma doesn’t necessarily make people “stronger”. However, many people do overcome their trauma and they still remain just as kind, soft, and spirited as they were prior to the traumatic events. There’s this belief that people are supposed to become all rough-edged and salty after surviving abuse, but what if the real strength is staying true to who you always were? That’s what survivors really want the most – to feel like themselves again.

Fiction can mislead people when it comes to the effects of trauma on a person. Some stories use rape, assault, or abuse as a character arc to make a previously “weak” character into a strong, bad ass, and no-nonsense figure. Of course, it’s very inspiring to watch a character grow and overcome challenges. We have all been through at least one situation that is heart-breaking. Not all of us have been physically abused, but we’ve certainly had our hardships at some point – and of course it’s inspiring to read of how someone found success after struggles.

However, creating a narrative where “The abuse/assault made you stronger” is all wrong. It’s giving the credit to the bad deeds done rather than to the person who pushed themselves to keep going after the bad event. People usually do rebuild and get their life back on track, but that’s the thing – the event disrupted their growth. Yes, we are resilient even after betrayal and hurt. That’s an amazing quality to have, however, it was already there. The predator certainly didn’t gift that quality to survivors – all they did was take away the survivor’s peace.

Speaking for myself, my past trauma was a giant pain in the ass. I’ve worked through it. I was very strong before the traumatic event happened. Because of that strength, I tried to brush it off, grateful that I survived, but I noticed the true effects as more time passed. It led me to make choices I wouldn’t have normally made. The assault itself knocked me completely off my feet and I had to crawl in the dark for a while before I looked inward into the strength that I always had inside of me. I had all the weapons I needed – the predator didn’t give it to me. I was already a strong and resilient and capable woman. He didn’t make me that way – I was already that way.

While I believe others can show us things and help teach us important lessons, abuse is not one of them. I admit that there are lessons I finally learned because a few people finally showed me why I shouldn’t accept certain treatment or why I shouldn’t believe empty promises. These lessons were given to me in the absence of assault even though they did hurt emotionally.

While assault/rape/abuse can often be misused as a character arc in stories, I don’t believe we should stop writing about traumatic stories. Rape is unfortunately a reality – many women have been assaulted at least once in their lifetime. It is also a reality for men. And children. It makes no sense to sanitize stories or movies of all bad things that happen to people. However, I think it’s important that we change the narrative from “the abuse made me a stronger person” to “I was always a strong person. The predator tried to take that away from me, but I found that strength from within to pull myself through it with the help of therapy/journaling/writing/etc.”

Let’s stop giving the credit of someone’s strength to those who went out of their way to knock them down and let’s stop acting like terrible deeds done to someone makes them a better person.

If we all became hard and bitter after surving trauma, what kind of world would we have? Instead, let’s encourage more survivors to stay true to themselves and give them the time they need to heal.

Thank you so much for reading today.


  1. Definitely spot on. You explained that very well. I think an overused quote from Friedrich Nietzsche “Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” is behind a lot of the bogus claims about abuse making you stronger. Quotes and memes aren’t truth.

  2. I wrote about an attempted rape. The rape was only attempted because the survivor was too strong for the attacker; he didn’t realise that until that incident.

      • Thanks. 💚
        And don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong in projecting. 😀 In fact, I was worried after posting that comment that I might’ve insulted or hurt you in some way.

      • Thanks for being honest. And no, it wasn’t my intent; just that the article reminded me of that incident I wrote.

      • Just curious, was there a certain technique she used to get away? I think in some situations, like outside close to the public it’s easier to get away, or if you have enough room to kick/elbow. If you’re cornered that’s a different story.

      • Okay, it took me a while to answer, because I had written this novel over two years ago. I revisited that scene and here is my answer:

        Yes, there was room to physically protect herself. There was also the added advantage of him being weaker minded than her; plus, the rumours of his vulgarity. My MC dismissed them because she just thought it was his bad teaching being exaggerated (this is set in undergrad college). But when he pulled her by the arm and started talking whispering seductively to her, her bells immediately rang to alert her. She yanked her arm back and ran off, without looking anywhere but the front.

        This instinct and the alarm bells – these I myself have experienced first-hand. I am glad I have such a sixth sense. Hence, it feels realistic to me.

        My MC was already a strong person. I don’t know if I was at her age. Just that sixth sense aspect is similar.

        I’m sorry about the assault you faced and the trauma you endured. How does it all feel now?

      • I think that’s awesome! Honestly I have strong intuition but I’ve ignored it sometimes. There’s been times I’ve escaped someone creepy, actually a few times like at night clubs or on dates, but other times I haven’t. I’ve been targeted more than I should be, I feel. I guess when youre single and adventurous you’re in those different situations more.
        There are situations when you can’t run or if you did, they’d catch you anyway
        We need to recognize that.
        I’m okay, but for some reason lately it’s been getting to me more. For a few reasons but none that I’ll share here.

      • Also, everyone talks so big about how they’d handle assault until they wake up with a big guy on their bed or a friend has spiked their drink so they can barely move. The situation you described was more of a grooming technique. Most rape cases are done by brute force. Thankfully I’m strong enough to survive multiple assaults.
        Those who see survivors as weak aren’t too bright. Good luck in this world, mate. You’re really going to need it.

      • Thank you.

        I’ve had my share of mild creepiness, both offline and online. I also have a tendency to ignore my instincts, but I learnt the hard way not to do it, not often, anyway.

        I made a gold ring to wear on normal days, mainly because I like wearing a ring (artificial I’d need to remove while eating). I realised I could use that ring to ward off people who approached me. I didn’t get the chance; I was able to mange with just my words and ignoring them. Online, I would tell them in passing that I had a boyfriend who just came home or nonsense like that.

        Then, I got married and my husband protects me. Like, positive protectiveness, not toxic.

      • I’m glad you were able to avoid it. Sometimes there is no warning (like I mentioned before). You can’t avoid a guy sitting on your bed in the dim. He’s going to do what he wants to. Like I also said, I have avoided many bad situations. Assuming that because someone was assaulted a few times, they haven’t also had the foresight to avoid creepy situations is a mistake. I have avoided many many bad situations in the past.
        I like your idea of wearing a ring that’s pretty funny. I thought of that, but its sad it’s come to that where a woman has to pretend she’s taken when she’s not. I suppose it always has been like that. 😅
        I’m glad you were able to find someone to protect you. I’ve wanted that for awhile. I’m seeing the value in that too. Most guys won’t bother if they know you have a bf who would kill them for touching you.
        I am glad you’re happy and protected.
        I totally get it – protecting you in a healthy way. I’ve always wanted a true protector type. 😊

      • I think it’s really important we differentiate between creepiness and rape/assault. You should certainly protect yourself as much as you can (Most women do), but when rape does happen, the rapist needs to be blamed. Evil remains when the good people refuse to call it out.

    • It’s funny I wrote about an attack once in a flash fiction piece where a girl got away from a guy who tried to rape her in an alleyway. Easier said than done, but I love that some women do get away.

  3. I admire you for sharing this post. The ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ mentality is empowering perpetrators. Trauma recovery is a journey and one only the survivor can embark on. Let’s acknowledge this journey and empower and respect those who are on it.
    This is such an important conversation to have, and important knowledge to share. Thank you.

    • Omg thank you so much for reading. You’re very right that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” does empower predators. And you’re right trauma recovery is a journey only the survivor can make but it sure makes it alot better when they have support and love.

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