Do you think you're a prisoner of a troubled childhood? It is possible to bounce back from adversity and go on to live a healthy, fulfilling life. More people do it than you may think. At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself—yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs.
How much of resilience is genetic? People seem to differ in their inborn ability to handle life's stresses. But resilience can also be cultivated. It's possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. Some evidence shows that it's not until adulthood that people begin to deal with the difficulties of childhood and to rebuild their lives. You have capacity for strength, although you might not be wholly aware of it.
Resiliency is the capacity to rise above adversity—sometimes the terrible adversity of outright violence, molestation or war—and forge lasting strengths in the struggle. It is the means by which children of troubled families are not immobilized by hardship but rebound from it, learn to protect themselves and emerge as strong adults, able to lead gratifying lives.
Most survivors of alcoholic families do not repeat their parents' drinking patterns. The same is true of adults who have survived families troubled by mental illness, chronic marital disputes, racial discrimination and poverty. About a third of kids never seemed to be affected by poverty, alcoholism and abuse in the homes they grew up in. Of the remaining two-thirds, many were troubled as teens, typically turning to petty crime. But by the time they reached their 30s and 40s, they had pulled themselves together, determined to not repeat their parents' lives.
A troubled family can inflict considerable harm on its children, but resilient people are challenged by such troubles to experiment and respond actively and creatively. Their responses to adversity, repeated over time, become incorporated into their inner selves as lasting strengths. To the degree that it is learned, resilience seems to develop out of the challenge to maintain self-esteem. Troubled families make their children feel powerless and bad about themselves. Resilience is the capacity for a person to maintain self-esteem despite the powerful influence of the parents.
It is also possible to be hurt and to rebound at the same time. What the resilient do is refrain from blaming themselves for what has gone wrong. In the language of psychology, they externalize blame. And they internalize success; they take responsibility for what goes right in their lives.
Survivors draw boundaries between themselves and troubled parents; they keep their emotional distance while satisfying the demands of conscience. Resilient children often hang out with families of untroubled peers. As adults, the resilient children of alcoholics marry into stable, loving families with whom they spend a great deal of time. Survivors cultivate insight, the mental habit of asking themselves questions and giving honest answers. They also take the initiative. They take charge of problems, stretching and testing themselves. But they don't do all the work alone. One of the primary findings of resilience research is that those who lacked strong family support systems growing up sought and received help from others—a teacher, a neighbor, the parents of peers or, eventually, a spouse. They were not afraid to talk about the hard times they were having to someone who cared for their well-being.