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Adversity Can Break You, Or It Can Make You Invincible

A difficult childhood doesn’t have to mean a hard life. We can all learn from rewriting these three lies of an unhappy past and overcome adversity.

 Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images,

by Janice Holly Booth

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Writing his bestseller, Invincible, Brian F. Martin was focused on offering guidance to childhood victims of domestic violence. But in researching the book, Martin discovered an equally compelling theme—that children who lived with domestic violence also endured other adversities. “There is a fundamental question me must ask ourselves and those we love: did you grow up facing adversity of any kind in your childhood home?” The question is critical, says Martin, because “the more challenges you face in childhood, the greater the potential for negative consequences throughout your life. Further, the more you struggle to discern a singular cause or reason why you are feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in life, the more you will inevitably have to answer that overarching question.”

Growing up in a home stressed by domestic violence, Martin came to hold certain negative beliefs–he calls them lies—which influenced his behavior and thoughts. As an adult, he struggled to overcome those adversities. In the quest to untangle his own complicated past, he identified common lies that perpetuate psychic damage long into adulthood, and blasted them to bits with the light of truth. The lies, and their positive counterparts, are not just for people who’ve endured domestic violence. For anyone who’s had to overcome adversity in childhood, Martin offers a way to reframe the past and rewrite the present.

LIE #1: You’re a bad person. You are not a good person because you resent others and their happiness. Your resentment will make them hurt and you will feel better.

The Reality Because of the adversity you experienced as a child, you are prone to resentment—the accumulation of anger that has gone unexpressed. In many cases, that anger couldn’t be released in the moment, so you relive it and channel it toward others. Anyone who enjoyed a happy childhood has something you never had, which can lead to thoughts like, “It wasn’t fair, they don’t deserve it. I hope they fail.” Resentment is a simmering fury that comes from the endless replay of that old anger over and over again.

Remind yourself that you are a good person, and that you have reached a plane that most humans can’t; those who have suffered understand suffering.

The Rewrite Remind yourself that you are a good person, and that you have reached a plane that most humans can’t; those who have suffered understand suffering. Trust yourself that you have a great capacity for empathy. Choose to forgive for your own sake. You can start the process of forgiving others—and yourself—by simply imagining yourself saying the words. Begin by asking your parents, “What was your childhood like?” Remember, this question is not as much for them as it is for you.

LIE #2: You’re alone and it will always be that way. No one can truly understand or connect with you and that is just as well because they can’t be trusted and you will push them away. You had no one else to rely on growing up, so you might as well assume that will always be the case.

The Reality When the people on whom your entire life depends are under attack or behave unpredictably and sometimes cruelly, your emotional world is thrown into chaos, and it’s hard to feel safe or to trust anyone.

The Rewrite Instead of questioning other people’s intent, assume it is positive. Because it takes courage to trust others, remind yourself of the courage you have already demonstrated, the risks you have taken. The courage to trust another pales in comparison to the courage you displayed early in life. Trust in others comes so much more naturally when you learn to trust yourself.

LIE #3: Fear will always run your life. Fear and anxiety will stop you from realizing your goals and dreams. It’s your destiny.

The Reality The conditioning effects of living with fear alter a child’s brain. Exposure to chronic stress puts the part of the brain that detects danger on high alert. Fear becomes the default response to everything. You focus on all the bad things that could happen, which stops you from taking action.

The Rewrite Think of goals that are meaningful and repeat them aloud, as if they have already happened: “I enjoy my work and make $__ a month;” “I have the loving relationship I’ve always wanted.” Pick three new goals and write down three actions you can take to achieve them this week—something straightforward that will begin to build momentum. Keep track of your progress, and keep revisiting your goals, imagining them vividly as if they’ve already happened.

Martin believes that surviving adversity leaves gifts, hidden truths earned by anyone who has endured hardship and come out the other side seeking answers. Reframing the past, stripping away the veneer of lies to reveal the truth underneath, is the path to healing and a life of meaning and peace.