The Gift of Adversity: An Interview with Dr. Norman Rosenthal


gift of adversityToday I have the privilege of interviewing Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the noted research psychiatrist about his new book, “The Gift of Adversity,” that explores how life’s disappointments and difficulties provide us with the lessons we need to become better, bigger, and more resilient human beings.

As a world-class psychiatrist, what have you found to be the most important tool your patients can armor themselves with when confronting adversity?

The most important tool is a clear head. Don’t panic. In most situations there is time to think; thinking is your friend, and impulsive action is your enemy. Analyze the situation, understanding what you’re up against and what resources you have at your disposal. Of course, in emergencies you will need to act quickly, but that’s when your primitive fight-or-flight responses will click into gear and – with a bit of luck and quick thinking – will save the day.

Our society seems paralyzed by fear of imperfection and adversity, yet you make the case that adversity can be a boon. How so?

Many of us hold up perfection as an ideal – and the media feeds this.  We are told how to get the perfect marriage, the perfect child, the perfect Christmas, the perfect vacation, the perfect job.  In reality, however, perfectionism can set you up for repeated disappointment and can sometimes be crippling. I learned this in a grade school art class where I produced a cardboard clown with no thumbs, but it worked out fine. The huge lesson to me then was that things don’t have to be perfect. That lesson has stood me in good stead throughout my life. So, from my years as a psychiatrist, I can tell you: imperfect marriages can be wonderful; imperfect children can bring boundless joy; an imperfect Christmas can be a time of giving and spiritual growth; that lousy vacation!   You will laugh and tell stories about that awful vacation for years to come; and finally, realizing that your boss and job are imperfect will make you less grumpy every working day.

Your book draws on many experiences from your own life. How has adversity shaped you for the better?

I have often realized that, as a psychiatrist, I am most sensitive and in touch with my patients’ problems when I myself am undergoing my own difficulties. The reason for this is that adversity can sensitize people and help them tune in to the suffering of others. It can also harden people and make them mean. So we have a choice as to how adversity is going to shape us as human beings. As I looked through the lessons I have learned along life’s journey, I realized that the most valuable lessons came from difficult times – whether these were the result of bad luck, errors of judgment on my part, or self-imposed challenges. Adversity has made me more resilient and has helped me become a kinder, wiser, and better person.

When life is hard, it can be challenging to see meaning or gifts in a given situation. What advice would you give to those who are experiencing hard times – are there specific things they should do or keep in mind?

I would say remember, other people have been this way before and have succeeded in overcoming these very same obstacles and, in many instances, have become stronger as a consequence. If they could do it, so you can you. Now you simply need to figure out what they did that worked and how you can implement a strategy that will work for you.

You share a number of anecdotes in The Gift of Adversity – your own and those of others. Is there one anecdote or story that has been particularly inspiring to you?

There are so many inspiring stories in The Gift of Adversity, but one that stands out as unforgettable to me is a personal visit I paid to the great Viktor Frankl. For those who don’t know the name, Frankl is best known for his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning. His book draws on his experiences during the Holocaust when he was imprisoned in concentration camps and narrowly escaped being murdered. He lost his wife and parents to the Nazis and emerged emaciated and in poor health. But he never lost his spirit of optimism. From this dreadful series of adversities Frankl developed key insights that he would turn into books that have helped tens of millions of people. One such insight is that when you are in a situation in which you have no control over the terrible things are happening around you, the one thing you can control is how you choose to view your circumstances. In The Gift of Adversity I describe the fascinating and terrifying years in Europe during World War II as related to me by a great eye witness and one of my all-time heroes – Viktor Frankl.

What is the most important lesson about coping with hardship that people should take away from reading The Gift of Adversity?

There is an old Eastern proverb: The fox has many tricks, but the porcupine has one big trick. When it comes to dealing with adversity you are better off being a fox than a porcupine. Here are some of the many tricks in dealing successfully with adversity

  • Accept that the adversity has occurred
  • Proportion your response according to the nature of the adversity
  • Analyze the situation
  • Regulate your physical and emotional state – for example, by keeping regular hours of sleeping and waking, eating regular meals, exercising and meditating
  • Reach out for help – to family, friends or even kindly strangers
  • Turn your predicament into a story – to help you process it
  • Reframe the adversity – think about it in a different way

Originally published on Sanity Break at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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2 Responses
  1. Cathleen Deery

    Thank you for sharing this. Reading it sent me back to Viktor Frankl. This excerpt from his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is very important to me. I found it at this site:

    “An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”