After a damaging childhood, six important lessons lead the way to a better life.
I remember the day well. I was a teenager. Everyone was asleep in our house, and I thought, “Growing up like this has damaged me. I don’t know all the ways yet, but I need help so it will not impact me for the rest of my life.” In that moment, I made a promise to myself to live differently from the way my parents raised my sister and me. The cycle of verbal and psychological abuse that my parents put us through—because of their own painful childhoods—would end with me.
I didn’t know at the time that I was strong. I felt bottomless and lost. I didn’t have a positive foundation to start my life. And I used other people’s perceptions of me to determine how I felt about myself.
A Chaotic Childhood
Always a person who likes to understand things, I couldn’t grasp why my parents were abusive when they went to all the trouble to adopt my sister and me at six weeks old, only to treat us like they did. Our childhood was unpredictable and scary. My mom’s alcohol abuse changed her into someone who despised me and she let me know it. She regularly told me I was “stupid.”
She’d rant and rave to my sister and me—slurring her words and stumbling. When my dad got home from work, she’d put on makeup and pretend to my dad that she was fine. Soon, they would be fighting. Worse, my dad pretended none of it was happening, and he never helped us. My sister and I never knew what to expect when we got off the bus and walked to our front door. Sometimes, mom would lock us out.
I must have been a pretty self-aware teenager because at some point I told my parents I needed to see a psychologist. They blamed bad genetics for my problems but agreed to let me go to therapy. My first psychologist helped me see that I wasn't the problem in this situation. When I finally left home for college, I felt liberated and safe, though still emotionally fractured. I focused on getting attention from men as a way to feel powerful and to escape my pain. I was impulsive and wild—unwittingly re-creating the adrenaline rush of my tumultuous childhood.
I was 24 and living in Ohio when I found psychologist Gary Sarver, Ph.D., who changed my life. Of course, he would say, “You changed your life.” With talk therapy, he helped me understand and process everything I had experienced. Going through talk therapy with Dr. Sarver once a week on Wednesday evenings re-parented me. I attribute the process with turning my traumatic childhood into rocket fuel for inner strength, a strong sense of self and a resolve that would propel me forward to create a fulfilling and happy life. His wisdom stays with me today, at age 47, now that I am a happily married mother to two beautiful twin girls.
Recently, I learned there is a name for what I experienced at age 24: Post-traumatic growth, or PTG. In the wake of suffering or trauma, researchers have found that many people bounce back with even more determination to create a meaningful life. The term post-traumatic growth was first coined by Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, while they were working with a group of bereaved parents. They found that people who had suffered tremendous loss seemed to bounce back with a renewed sense of “activism, insight and altruism.”
“Out of loss there is often gain, and in ways that can be deeply profound.” Lawrence Calhoun explains in the article "The Science of Post-Traumatic Growth" in Live Happy. “A staggering crisis can often change people for the better.”
My belief is that talk therapy can facilitate post-traumatic growth. Whether you’ve experienced an abusive childhood or a tragedy, talk therapy, when done well, can take pain and transform it into strength to thrive. Here are six of the most important lessons I learned in therapy that have fostered my own post-traumatic growth.
1. Try anything.
This sounds simple, but at the time, I was stuck. I had a college degree and wanted to be a writer or journalist, but I worked as an administrative assistant and a waitress. I worried I really was stupid and would fail. My self-image was in the dumpster. Trying things or taking risks is necessary to get to the good life. All the good stuff is on the other side of that thing you dread doing. You have to take the risks to get there.
2. You are your own harshest critic.
I took over for my critical parents and verbally assaulted myself in my head. It wasn’t a healthy, “Oh, I failed at that.” It was an unhealthy “I’m a total failure.” Dr. Sarver introduced me to self-compassion, something I had never heard of. When you start to treat yourself like a best friend, life transforms.
3. Stop trying to make everyone like you.
I was such a people pleaser that I became fake—pretending I was okay when I wasn’t, and not authentically expressing my emotions. Growing up attempting to keep the peace was a coping strategy, but as an adult, it resulted in my being a doormat. I sat on my emotions and my anger. I had to learn how to authentically express myself and, as he said, “be okay being uncomfortable with people angry at you.”
4. You have as many answers as anyone else.
I had a tendency to see everyone around me as a successful adult and myself as a fumbling child. I’d idealize others and think they had all the answers. I’d date men who replicated my childhood instead of dealing with being alone. Talk therapy taught me to believe in myself and value my own company.
5. Good and bad things will happen to you; these are the normal waves of life.
Fear of the next bad thing around the corner—that you are living under a “black cloud”—can immobilize you, but no one can live a meaningful life in hiding. Understand that you are not cursed, and choose the scary step over inaction.
6. In the end, you have to rescue yourself.
This was my hardest lesson to learn. Somehow I thought my parents would see the light, apologize to me and we could all live happily ever after as a family. Dr. Sarver said, “It’s not going to happen.” Sometimes people aren’t capable of being who we need them to be. Acceptance and forgiveness were the hardest parts of talk therapy, but the most empowering. I realized we can give ourselves everything we need emotionally. We can let go of seeking it from people who hurt us. This realization was emotionally liberating.
I feel a daily sense of peace and happiness knowing my childhood is in the distant past. Living through a painful childhood has made me appreciate every minute of my life as an adult. I love knowing I get to create my environment and choose the people in it. I derive an incredible sense of joy from finally believing I am strong. What makes me the happiest is knowing I did the work to end the cycle of abuse and create a happy home for my family.
For more resources about post-traumatic growth, go to UNC Charlotte's Posttraumatic Growth Research Center website.
Sandra Bilbray is a contributing editor for Live Happy, and the CEO and owner of themediaconcierge.net.