The disadvantages of growing up in a traumatic environment are relatively well understood. Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost everything, from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and stroke, cancer, and obesity.
They say that an adverse childhood environment victimizes you twice – once while you’re growing up and suffering through it, and again when the world doesn’t respond well to the coping mechanisms you used to protect yourself in said terrible environment.
However, what we seldom talk about is any advantage survivors may have because of our experiences. It seems “wrong” to say that something so horrible can bring any good. As a survivor of parental abuse, I unequivocally and wholeheartedly agree that what abusers did is horrible and inexcusable.
“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.” ― Michelle Obama
However, over the years, as I started to harbor less resentment towards the past and heal myself, I recognize that there are valuable lessons I learned from surviving the worst that confer me some advantages in life.
What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger, if we use the lessons learned constructively. Below I list some of the ways the experience has helped shape me that I use to my advantage.
1. We Know Bad Actors Exist
Not all people are good seems obvious, but unfortunately, time and again, people that grew up in happy families can fall prey to bad actors in relationships. They tend to think the best of people and believe that people are fundamentally kind; they give people second chances, often to their detriment when it is given indiscriminately.
If you suffered years of abuse at the hands of your caretakers, you don’t trust by default. You know, without a shadow of a doubt, that there are bad people out there, including psychopathic people who lack empathy for others. You also know that people only change if they recognize the problem in themselves, and some folks, such as people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, will only blame you for all the issues.
Because nasty folks raised us, we honed the ability to smell angry, violent people a mile away. We are incredibly good at reading non-verbal cues and almost have an allergic reaction towards duplicitous behaviors. Growing up, to stay safe, we had to be on alert all the time. We need to know if mommy and daddy are OK because when they’re not, we’ll be in a world of pain.
Some of us use this ability the wrong way, unfortunately. Instead of running away, we run towards the bad guy or gal, seeing it as our chance to finally make someone who reminds us of mommy or daddy love us. This behavior is tragically common and self-destructive, but it does not take away the fact that we have a radar to sense evil, and we could deploy it to our benefit.
2. We Are Resourceful And Resilient
One effect of having our back to the wall growing up is that we learn to be incredibly self-reliant. We know when shit hits the fan, no one is coming for us except for ourselves.
We also foster no desire to mooch off our parents. In fact, we look for the first opportunity to bail to safety. Therefore, we’re at no risk of being a thirty-something year old still living in our parents’ basement.
The Chinese saying “break the woks, sink the boats” (破釜沉舟, pò fǔ chén zhōu) illustrates this mentality perfectly. It describes a historical account where a general named Xiang Yu ordered his troops to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy’s territory. He won the battle because of this “no-retreat” strategy. Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to us is having no plan B and no way back.
Successful entrepreneurs like J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, and Brian Chesty, founder of Airbnb, attribute much of their drive to having no other options. Comparing this to most people who complain but still go back to a job they hate because of the safety it provides, the contrast is obvious.
3. We Relate To The Suffering Of Others
We understand suffering at a visceral level because we lived it. Until science figures out a way to allow one person to live in the brain of another, the only way to truly understand suffering is to experience it. The ramification of repeated abuse is that most childhood abuse survivors live with a long list of mental afflictions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, author of the seminal book “The Body Keeps the Score,” argued that had DSM included “Developmental Trauma” as a diagnosis, it would shrink from close to a thousand pages to just a few pages.
Adverse Childhood Experience is the underlying cause for a long list of DSM ailments. Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Disorder, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder are just a few of the mental illnesses common to childhood abuse survivors.
Unlike adults, children cannot protect themselves or leave the situation. Remedies that work in the ordinary world, such as communication, negotiation, and compromise, do not work in this world where the abuser runs the show.
The closest analogy I can think of to help people that have never experienced childhood trauma understand what it feels like is to use the Prisoner of War (POW) analogy. You are tortured, you watch people you love get tortured, you are helpless to do anything about it, and no one is coming to your rescue.
These so-called “mental illnesses” are merely ways our child’s brain devised to give us some sense of safety and control in a world where healthy ways of dealing with conflicts do not work.
For example, Dissociative Identity Disorder, the new DSM name for Multiple
Personality Disorder, happens when the trauma is so overwhelming that the person “puts herself in the cloud” and devises another personality to handle the trauma. Narcissistic Personality Disorder often results from parental attention that is conditional, and Borderline Personality Disorder, research shows, develops from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, with childhood trauma as a common trigger.
How do you explain to someone who has never felt what it’s like to live in such a deep well of despair that they prefer to pull all their hair out or cut themselves bloody because flesh pain is preferred to the sadness, fear, and hopelessness they feel inside? You can’t, but abuse survivors understand deep despair, and we can relate to the suffering of others in a profound way.
Of course, some of us that are unhealed hate the part of ourselves that feels pain and sorrow. These were not safe feelings to have growing up, and we were ridiculed for having them. Because of that, we can show a reckless lack of regard for people that exhibit such emotions. This is unfortunate, but again, it does not take away from the fact that we genuinely understand suffering.
4. We Know The Victim Mentality Helps No One
Some abuse survivors fall prey to the victim mentality. The allure of this mindset is that in the short term, sensational victim stories can get them the attention and sympathy from others, and it simultaneously relieves them of the need to do anything to fix what’s broken. However, unless they are willing to do the hard work and make the necessary changes, the situation will remain just as screwed up, and sooner or later, their audience will tire of the rant and leave.
As a child, we were indeed victims that were powerless to help ourselves, but as adults, our life is in our own hands, and others can help, but they cannot do the work for us. As long we think the world owes us or it’s someone else’s job to save us, we will remain stuck.
Many of us had a front-row seat watching some of our family members play the victim role, and observed the cycle play out. If we are aware enough, we are blessed by being inoculated from the lure of the victim mentality.
5. We Have A Mission In Life
In abuse situations, the abuser is in the dominant position, and he calls all the shots. He imposes rules not to benefit anyone but himself and sees everyone else as a pawn to use for his selfish needs. In this environment, there is no fairness or justice, and as a child, there is often nothing we can do to get justice.
The flip side of this drive for justice is we can get so engrossed in a cause that we lose balance and suffer burnouts. Learning how to pace ourselves and let go of the smaller stuff is crucial.
When channeled well, this drive can propel us to do great things and accomplish meaningful changes. Oprah channeled her experience of being molested as a child to drive the passing of the National Child Protection Act.
What happened to us was terrible, but it also forces us to examine ourselves more deeply and gives us the ability to relate to others through our shared humanity. I leave you this quote from Groucho Marx.
“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” ― Groucho Marx
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My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.
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