Most of us can think of at least one negative childhood experience that impacted us in a major way. Some of us have many. When we experience judgment and inequality in our youth, it tends to affect us for years to come. Later, as adults, the challenges don’t end.
We face difficulties in our careers, marriages, and as parents—difficulties that without resilience and determination can drive us to give up on our goals. Unfortunately, many people don’t receive the guidance and support they need to build this resilience.
In my role as a mentor and workshop leader for young women, building resilience is one of the skills I feel very passionate about because it is needed by so many. You may not master all challenges, but by building resilience, you can manage them. You can succeed despite them.
For these reasons, it’s important to stand up for yourself and view experiences through the lens of what you know is right and what you know is wrong. You might not “win” every time you stand up for yourself, but, among other things, acting with determination will build your resilience and help you persevere through future challenges.
What is Resilience?
If you’re trying to figure out how to better handle the challenges in your life, your first question might be, “What does it mean to be resilient?” Simply put, resilience means not giving up when you face problems. With resilience, you can learn from each challenge and become stronger, all while staying true to yourself and your core values.
For example, I’ve had to build up a great deal of resilience throughout my life. I had a difficult childhood, with mistreatment from the adults around me and too little food. I did not have help, and whether it was standing up to bullying from teachers, learning how to make a bed properly, or finding something to eat for dinner, I had to do a lot of things on my own. I explore my personal stories in my memoir, For the Right Kind of Love, but what I want to share now is that I figured out how to champion myself despite my challenges, the harsh reality of my situation.
As I grew up, I learned a valuable lesson: the struggles you’ve been through and the shortcomings you think you have don’t define you. Your values define you, and even though other people treated me badly, I knew the importance of being good to others and making the right choices. I didn’t have guidance from a parent or a university education, but through perseverance and determination, I built a successful career for myself and found happiness.
Those sticky things in your life, the things you carry inside of you, or the super tough things life throws in your face, you can find a way to keep going, too. It starts with choosing to persevere, sticking to your values, and growing from, or out of, your challenges.
Facing Your Challenges
To learn from your past experiences and turn those lessons into resilience, you’ll want to think about how your challenges have impacted you.
When I think back to my childhood, one of the memories that often unfolds is around dealing with the casual cruelty from my stepfather. When I was very young we were living in the desert in California, but my mother’s roots were in Canada. Every summer, we would travel across the country to the Northeast from the Southwest and camp along the way.
During one of these camping trips, when I was about nine years old, there was a pack of chocolate pudding that my stepfather would eat in the evening. Every night, he would eat one tin of this chocolate pudding, but he wouldn’t share. It was a four-pack of puddings, and there were four of us kids. He sat in a lawn chair outside the camp trailer and ate the pudding in front of us. He even went so far as to exclaim how delicious it was as he ate it very slowly while we sat quietly and watched.
We weren’t allowed to ask for anything—we only ever got what was given or offered. Still, that first night I thought, There are three puddings left. Maybe I’ll still get one. Then the next night, he did it again. Again and again, for four nights, he alone ate the pudding. Even after the second night I thought that with two left I still may get one, I was the second oldest. Survival of the eldest.
I knew he had done it on purpose, and I didn’t want to give my stepfather the satisfaction of knowing his behavior bothered me, so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. But even as a young kid, it was obvious to me that it was so wrong of him to do this to us, even at my young age, I knew that it was. That experience—and other experiences I had like it—helped deepen my personal understanding of the difference between right and wrong. It made me more resilient in that it reinforced my own values. I knew he wasn’t treating us with kindness, and I knew I wasn’t going to treat other people that way.
To build your resilience, I encourage you to think about the challenges you’ve faced. What did they teach you? How did they help shape the values you hold today? Most importantly, consider how your past challenges made you better equipped to face similar difficulties in the future.
Resilience Helps You Move Forward
How exactly do your past challenges help you navigate the future?
As a personal example, the various mistreatments I experienced as a child, both at home and at school, has certainly helped me become a better parent today. Nobody stepped up to help me when I was young, something I didn’t quite understand. As far as I was concerned it was quite obvious I was clearly ‘struggling’. But this, in turn, taught me the value of supportive adults. I have always made a conscious effort to be there for my children, their friends, and the young adults in my workshops. I listen, and I make sure they know they can talk to me when something is concerning them. There is not much they can’t open up to me about.
My past experiences also helped me deal with negativity better. For instance, at the beginning of my marriage, I faced a new challenge: judgmental in-laws (Debra Barone’s got nothing on me).They constantly made me aware I was lacking certain life skills, beginning with how to properly keep a house. They questioned my parenting and called me a bad mother. Worst of all, rather than help or teach me, they scolded me. That’s putting it nicely.
This criticism was difficult to hear, but I was able to handle it better because I had been through similar situations before. My earlier challenges had prepared me. I looked back on the experiences I had as a child with my mother and stepfather, and I thought to myself, You’re not the first to come along and treat me like this.
By calling on the lessons I had learned, like in the pudding story, I knew not to reciprocate the bad treatment. It was a lesson, not an excuse to be like that myself. Just like the in-laws, I was simply going to continue to move one foot in front of the other. I stuck to my values and the behavior I knew to be good and right. That’s the best thing you can do when faced with challenges: trust in yourself and your values. If you trust yourself, you’ll know when you’re on the right track.
Resilience Takes Time to Build
If you’re struggling with a challenge now, don’t be discouraged. Resilience takes time and experience to build. There will always be challenges—what matters is not giving up on yourself.
As you build your resilience, focus on the ways your challenges have made you stronger. When you’re faced with new experiences you find difficult, stick to your values: what you know to be good and right. Understand that when someone treats you poorly, it’s because of their flaws, not yours. If you trust that you’re on the right track, it means your critics are the ones who are wrong.
Once you recognize that you’re not to blame for bad treatment directed at you, you can take care of yourself, try to improve your situation, and be better prepared for the next challenge you face.