How to Turn Your Childhood Hardship Into Success

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It is possible to experience childhood adversity and still feel good as an adult. In my most recent study of 310 successful men and women — featured in my latest book, The Adversity Advantage — 40% experienced child abuse, witnessed domestic violence, or had an alcoholic/substance abusing parent struggling with addiction. If you broaden the definition to include poverty, death of a family member, divorce, or mental illness, 60% experienced serious childhood adversity. In spite of these impactful childhood problems, this group of successful people reported a high level of life satisfaction as adults, much higher than the average in the population.

Many reported that things did not come easily for them, however. They grew up with poor role models for communication, conflict negotiation, self-esteem, forming relationships, and expression of anger. The abuse they experienced created many personal and work problems. Turning their adversity into successes required them to become students of factors that lead to success.

My research demonstrates the following skills as critical for overall well-being and to achieve success at work:

  • Communication
  • Conflict negotiation
  • Building authentic relationships
  • Healthy boundaries
  • High work engagement
  • Flexible work style
  • Confidence to socially influence others
  • Networking skills
  • Seeking and accepting challenging projects and positions

Transforming their childhood hardship — whether that was family alcoholism, abuse, poverty, or poor mental health — into survival skills was required. One business owner who grew up in an abusive family said, “After the way I was treated by my family, I was determined to never treat anyone in that way in my own life.” A healthcare executive said, “See your adversity in perspective and relate your current strengths to early adverse situations you chose to overcome.”

Many of the people I studied recommended the following to recover from their childhood troubles:

  • Identify your values and how you want to be treated and treat others.
  • Acknowledge the severity of your childhood problems.
  • Understand the impact family problems had on your confidence, self-esteem, and relationships.
  • Surround yourself with people who treat you with respect. Do not recreate the abusive relationships you had as a child in your adult life. Ask yourself, “How do I feel when I am around this person?”
  • Become a student of good communication and forming relationships with both sexes.
  • Choose work or a career that provides meaning and fits with your personality.
  • Build authentic social capital through networking and mentorships.
  • Develop a spiritual practice.

Recovering from childhood adversity is not easy. The impact of being a small child with parents who raged, abused, or neglected you leaves an indelible footprint that can make the rest of your life more difficult.

Nonetheless, I have seen many of these people recover and thrive in their personal and work lives. While it is not the purpose of the workplace to help survivors recover, work can be helpful. Having an overarching purpose and meaningful work in life provides a tree from which you can hang other “ornaments” that lead to recovery.

I recommend the following specific skills to integrate and move past your childhood hardships:

  • Discover meaning in your life
  • Know your values
  • Develop your spirituality
  • Develop mindfulness toward your feelings
  • Actively choose positive thoughts to replace negative ones
  • Learn to communicate assertively to protect your boundaries and ask for what you need and want
  • Develop a healthy network of friends and family
  • Learn how to comfortably negotiate conflict
  • Know what makes you happy
  • Find a good job fit

There are many resources that can be helpful in the recovery process. You may want to seek the help of a workplace employee assistance program, a mental health counselor experienced in the area of trauma recovery, support groups such as Alanon or Adult Children of Alcoholics, or attend The Meadows Survivor workshops.

One of the sad ironies of life is that as we age, often we are still who we were 10 or 20 years ago. Superficially things may have changed, but certain situations and people may elicit feelings and thoughts we had as a child.

Still, peace and happiness are attainable by taking the time and energy to do some honest self-exploration of those early childhood years. If you want a guide during this exploration, consider working with a licensed therapist.

Bio: Jude Miller Burke, Ph.D. has 20 years corporate management experience; is a psychologist, executive coach, and author. Her previous book, “The Millionaire Mystique: How Working Women Become Wealthy and You Can Too!,” is available on Amazon.com and is currently being released in Japan.  

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