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Finding Meaning in Hardship: The Victor Frankl Story and What We Can Learn From It

"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."

Victor Frankl

Born into a Jewish family in the early 1900s in Vienna, Austria, young Victor Frankl stood out among his peers academically. Frankl displayed an early passion for medicine, psychology, and philosophy and by the age of 16 he was corresponding with Sigmund Freud (who asked Frankl if he could publish one of his papers.) Before WWII broke out Frankl had become a respected neurologist and psychiatrist.

Victor Frankl, Psychologist
Victor Frankl

As the Germans invaded Austria during World War II, Frankl, like most other Jews at the time, was looking for a way out of the country. His only real hope was to apply for a visa to the US; however, this was the exact same hope for hundreds of thousands of other Jews in Europe at the time. He knew his chances of being granted the visa were next to nothing.

Astonishingly, his visa application was approved. He held a winning lottery ticket, one that would save him from the unthinkable tragedies marching closer and closer to him with each passing day.

In an act of loyalty, Frankl decided he could not bear to leave his parents and siblings behind and turned down his visa, and along with it his opportunity for safety.

Soon enough the Nazi’s invaded Austria, just as Frankl got married. His wife had gotten pregnant but was forced into an abortion, as Jewish couples were not allowed to have children. One year later, in 1942 Frankl, his wife, parents, and siblings were all captured and taken to concentration camps.

Concentration Camps

Frankl ultimately was sent to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp, where he was sentenced to relentless hard manual labor in freezing conditions. Weak and starving he had been separated from the rest of his family and was left wondering about their fate (his father, mother, and wife would not survive). All the while he watched fellow prisoners be tortured, worked to death, or outright killed.

Eighty four percent of people that went into Auschwitz did not survive, but Frankl did.

While he was suffering in these concentration camps, he often saw it through the lens of a psychologist. He looked at human behavior, even his own behavior, and tried to understand why some people seemed give up and die, while others pushed on.

As he documented in his book, A Man’s Search for Meaning, his resilience was reinforced from the love he had for his wife and his desire to once again present at grand lecture halls. During long marches in the snow, his bare feet blue from frostbite, Frankl would envision himself lecturing to

colleagues about the very moment he was experiencing.

The Value of Meaning

The atrocities and hardships Frankl experienced are difficult for most of us to truly comprehend. The degree of misery, pain, and hopelessness he must have experienced cannot be overstated.

However, Frankl stayed grounded to his meaning and purpose and used the experiences he was facing to that end. Throughout his time at various concentration camps he wrote a manuscript for a book - writing on whatever small pieces of scratch paper he could find - that would become A Man's Search for Meaning.

Frankl went on to become an influential psychologist founding logotherapy, his approach to mental healing that centered on finding one's meaning in life. Frankl came to conclude that striving to find meaning in one's life is the most powerful motivator. Those in the concentration camps that had lost their meaning, or lost their hope to find meaning, were doomed. Those who held onto their meaning in life were more likely to persevere.

A Man’s Search for Meaning, is dense with powerful anecdotes and lessons the reader can implement into their own lives. Of the many powerful quotes from the book, here are a few of my favorites and what I take away from them.

Frankl's Quotes and Lessons To Take From Them

1. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

A popular sport psychology idiom that sums this up for me is "control the controllables".

The things you cannot control in life will always outnumber the things you can control. Focusing too much on what we cannot control is natural, but it also causes stress and anxiety. Whether it is everything you see going on in the news, the way the coach is treating you, or a bad call by a ref/umpire, trying to change the situation is only going to make things worse. Instead, change your internal mechanisms like your mindset, attitude, breathing or effort so that you stay in control. In my approach to mental coaching I talk a lot about identifying and focusing on your process - those things you can control - instead of the outcome or situation.

2. “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”

Dig into why you do what you do. If you are an athlete, why do you play your sport? Get beyond the surface level answers and into the deeper reasoning. Having a clear “why” will help you not only get through those near impossible workouts but it will help keep you fulfilled along the way. Beyond your why, what is your mission, core values, and vision?

These are not easy things to discover and having a coach or mentor hold up a mirror so you can see your true reflection can be incredibly important. But once you have unearthed these elements you'll find a space of clarity and motivation you might not have had previously.

3. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

One of the hallmark quotes often cited in sport psychology and mental training that helps differentiate between responding and reacting.

When something happens to us we can either react or respond. We have no control over reactions , just think about when the doctor taps on your knee causing your leg to pop up. A response on the other hand is a choice, and that decision requires some space from what just happened. Ask yourself, when something bad happens did you react, or did you respond? Did you let the situation dictate how you think, feel, and act or did you decided how you want to think feel and act? The answer to that question has a profound influence on how you will perform and is one of the foundations of my approach to mental training.

Find Meaning and Control In Your Life

Frankl’s message is an important one, especially during the challenges we have all faced in 2020. It is all too easy to allow what is going on around us to take control and change our internal states.

But those are yours to control.

That’s your attitude, your thought, your emotion.

It’s okay to be frustrated, mad, or disappointed, at what’s going on around you. Feel those emotions, but then act on what you can control and see what meaning you can derive from your current experience.

The sport psychology mental skills that I teach athletes and other performers revolve around many of the themes Frankl discusses in his book. If you are only focusing on controlling the physical parts of your performance and ignoring all that you can do for the mental and emotional parts, you are limiting your abilities.

If you want to learn specific techniques to enhance your ability to control your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors so they are all in unison working towards your goals, give me a shout. I've got your back.

Sign up here for a free 30-minute consultation.

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