The Adversity Advantage

How overcoming your challenges can make you more successful

There’s no denying that, for better or worse, our childhood experiences have shaped us into the people we are today. While some of us have endured greater hardships than others, adversity can be used to your advantage. Take Oprah Winfrey and Ralph Lauren for example – two of the most successful people in the world – who both survived difficult childhoods. Rather than becoming victims of their circumstances, they transformed that pain and suffering into something positive.

It’s with that vision in mind that The Adversity Advantage, by Jude Miller Burke, PhD, offers a step-by-step guide to transform childhood misfortune into career and life success. Written from a relatable perspective, Burke sheds light on how to work through self-doubt, develop resilience and move forward with confidence.

No matter what you’ve gone through, you can turn your adversity into personal and professional success. Read this empowering excerpt and start feeling better today:

Childhood misfortunes make everything more difficult – self-confidence, conflict resolution, being in love, and being successful at work. And, hundreds of studies show that changes in the brain compromise one’s lifelong immune system response to stress when a child experiences relentless stress. Experiencing abuse or an alcoholic parent harms your core sense of worthiness and self-esteem. The rest of your life, you may not feel good about yourself. As child abuse expert, Ernie Larsen, reminds us, “A solid sense of self-worth is what we lose when we are abused, and is the single most important factor in determining our happiness in life and our success in work and relationships.” Therefore, it is critical to work towards greater self-esteem to ease your path in life. Over half of the highly successful people I studied experienced very serious childhood problems. Despite poverty, loss of family members, alcoholism, abuse, and career failures, they went on to create better and happier lives.

Turning Points

Each person I studied and interviewed for this book had a turning point, where their eating disorder, drinking, panic attacks, work problems, or marital problems were overwhelming their lives. Each one came to the realization that without exploration and inquiry they would not overcome their challenges. Mindfulness of how past issues were sabotaging their adult life required discipline and effort. It takes work to change negative self-thoughts and bad behaviors. They were anxious, depressed, and realized their trajectories were only going to get worse. They decided they did not want to continue experiencing the issues that stemmed from childhood. Nor did they want to keep repeating negative and unhealthy patterns. The realization that childhood trauma leads to lifelong struggles with mental and physical health is shocking and may become a pivotal moment towards greater mental health. The turning point for each person was different – for some it was getting divorced, being fired from a job, career detours, eating disordered behavior, anxiety or depression, or inability to function in general. They all made a commitment to change their lives and to do the personal self-awareness work necessary as described in The Journey chart in the appendix. They sought an opportunity to do things differently by “looking at the pain, but not being the pain” any longer.

Resilience

Childhood adversity damages your core sense of self-worth, disrupts your lifelong stress response, and negatively impacts your immune system. The severity and frequency of abuse dictates the impact. Ongoing abuse at home or at school creates a worse outcome. The anguish of witnessing a mother being physically abused or being sexually abused is never forgotten. Resilience is the goal in recovery. The more you are able to withstand negative situations in your life, the more you retain your stability and bounce back to normal after a stressor. Resilience experts, Drs. Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, believe there is not one specific prescription that works for everyone; therefore, you need to find resilience building skills that work for you as an individual. They suggest the following tips to create resiliency:

  • Develop a core set of values
  • Find the meaning in your adversity
  • Regulate your emotions
  • Face your fears
  • Reframe stressful events to opportunities/challenges
  • Maintain a positive outlook
  • Emulate other resilient people
  • Accept challenges
  • Use your support system
  • Learn new things often
  • Find exercise you will do regularly
  • Don’t dwell on the past
  • Recognize what makes you strong

Resilience is not only a mindset, but requires practiced behaviors that help you survive and thrive during hard times. The following list of activities can help you rebound from setbacks.

  • Pursue healthy friendships
  • Read and engage in other pleasurable activities
  • Achieve work successes
  • Develop a career choice that fits with your values
  • Work for success in love relationships
  • Allow your “God given” talents to emerge – athleticism, intelligence, charm
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation Practice positive self-talk
  • Seek counseling
  • Enjoy a pet
  • Get out of bad relationships
  • Practice self-care – exercise, sleep, good nutrition
  • Rewrite your story – what are the positives you received from your family of origin
  • Avoid maladaptive behaviors – bingeing, starving, drinking, drugs
  • Identify when you feel helpless and take action
  • Practice gratefulness

Therapy

I asked another Minnesota-based psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, Cindy, to explain the impact on a child when experiencing trauma, such as abuse, and how therapy may be helpful. Her 35 years of experience led her to say,

“A child is very vulnerable to messages from their parents and so negative messages become very deeply embedded into their psyche. It damages their core sense of self and worthiness. Often children think there is something wrong with them and if they would have been a better kid, these bad family problems would not have happened. At the very time when children are learning how to bond or attach with others, there is uncertainty and abandonment. The child starts seeing the world as an unsafe place and their trust in other people is damaged; therefore, they become hyper-vigilant. Post-traumatic stress symptoms develop to varying degrees with those who experienced childhood trauma, including flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, avoidance of situations that remind you of the past, angry outbursts, and lack of a sense of the future. To numb these feelings, people turn to alcoholism, eating disorders, and other behaviors that harm one’s self. Counseling can be very valuable in changing these patterns.”

Cindy continues to explain ways to improve self-esteem and heal from the past:

“Therapy is very important in the recovery process. Find a knowledgeable and licensed therapist who has competency in trauma recovery or abuse. I can’t state this emphatically enough that it is critical to ensure the therapist you are choosing has the appropriate credentials and experience to be helpful. Find a sensitive and caring therapist to provide witness to your family history.”

Survivor workshops, such as those offered by the Meadows Retreat Center, have structured week-long workshops to pointedly address childhood trauma and the road to healing. The goal is to identify and release painful emotions from childhood while focusing on self-esteem and creating a healthy life.

Specific techniques within therapy, but which can also be practiced individually, are:

  • Tell your childhood story to a trusted person to give witness to what happened to you as a child.
  • Write a letter to your abuser, which you don’t necessarily need to mail – it can be very cathartic whether you mail it or not. This allows you to truly express your feelings and thoughts about what happened to you as a child.
  • You may choose to invite the person who abused you into therapy to confront their behavior and begin the healing process.
  • Literally, rewrite your story to emphasize the strengths and skills you achieved as a survivor. This can be very helpful in focusing away from the trauma and embracing a more positive script for the future. Just replaying the victimization over and over again in your head works to strengthen the negative emotions instead of moving forward. Writing your story of strength and survival will help you move into today without dragging so much of the past with you.
  • EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) allows for a client to access their trauma while in a meditative state and cognitively introduce or interweave more uplifting and positive solutions. This has actually been shown to change brain chemistry and emotional resolution. EMDR helps the client safely experience difficult experiences and focus on their strengths to create an alternative and more positive story. EMDR helps to change negative beliefs that are self-blaming into more optimistic thoughts and detach from past fears.
  • Bibliotherapy, such as reading this book, can be very helpful to recovery. Practicing the suggestions diligently every day can help you develop more life skills. In addition to therapy, support groups can be helpful, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, domestic violence prevention, Al-anon, or Alcoholics Anonymous. (Be aware that some self-help groups are more effective than others, so shop around until you find one you believe has healthy boundaries.)

Time definitely heals, but the degree to which you heal depends on whether you expend meaningful effort to understand and change your behaviors. Similar to many of the people I interviewed for this book, I am a lifelong learner. I have questions and seek understanding from my childhood and young adult experiences. Childhood troubles are often the fuel for seeking knowledge and answers throughout life. Those who have experienced adversity can smell a lie and seek the truth. They feel the tension in a situation and it is in their best interest to read the room and the people in it to avoid getting slapped in the face, literally and figuratively.

So, you can seek counseling, go to workshops, read self-help books, practice exercises and meditation – or you can continue to have your childhood provide the negative fuel that drives you every day while it appears to be buried. But, peace and happiness won’t be as easy to obtain without honesty and exploration of those very first years of your life.

Dr. Jon Kabit-Zinn encourages us to not sleep walk through life, but to wake up to our experience. He states, “Can we realize that wherever we go, there we are; and that this ‘there’ is always ‘here’ and so requires at least acknowledgement and perhaps a degree of acceptance… Can we grow into ourselves in our fullness and live our precious and fleeting lives more wisely?”

Will you allow yourself to live in this manner?

Abuse, depression, shame, anxiety, and other behaviors and emotions are passed down from generation to generation. If a parent is abusive and shaming to their child, there is a great likelihood they were victims in their own pasts. The beliefs we tell ourselves about our families – the stories we tell ourselves – help form our emotional worldview. Therefore, recovery requires doing your own work for improvement. The scar of abuse may never go away, but you can manage your emotions and be much less reactive to current situations that trigger your past. And, forgiving yourself and forgiving others, at the right time, helps on the path to recovery. Drop that heavy old friend, childhood trauma, for a lighter and brighter future.

Rose Caiola
Inspired. Rewired.

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