People who don’t allow their unhappy childhoods to define them usually have these 15 distinct traits

Having an unhappy childhood is like trying to run a lap around the track with weights tied to your ankles. 

From your earliest memories you experience setbacks, judgment, verbal or physical abuse and an atmosphere of lack and misery. 

But this isn’t the end of the story. 

Many folks take a brutal childhood and use it as the fuel for a life of empowerment, fulfillment, forgiveness and success. 

The question is:

What sets these people apart who are able to use a rough childhood as fuel instead of giving up? 

Let’s take a look: 

1) Tough as nails

There’s no way around it:

Those who take an awful childhood and don’t let it define them are tough as nails. 

From a young age they learn to depend on themselves and to not play the victim. When life, parents and society backs them in a corner and abuse or bullying tells them they are trash they laugh out loud:

They know it’s not true. 

And they know it says more about the bullies and lowlifes trying to force that mindset on them than it will ever say about them. 

2) Enhanced situational awareness

Those who don’t allow a bad childhood to define them have enhanced situational awareness. 

Because of the stress growing up and the pressures they faced from an early age, they are better able to notice threats and untrustworthy people before many others do. 

Their emotional and situational antennae go up long before most people even know there’s a problem, and this can save them from many scams, cheaters and traumatic situations later in life. 

They take no sh*t.

As Olga Khazan explains of one recent study out of Texas: 

“Chiraag Mittal, a professor at Texas A&M University and lead author of the study, explained that in uncertain environments, ignoring a potential threat can be deadly—thus, the subjects who had hard knocks earlier in life might have been skilled at keeping an eye on the periphery.”

3) Empathetic but not a doormat

Those who had a rough childhood but don’t let that define their life story are empathetic and tend to have high emotional intelligence (EQ).

They understand what people are going through when they are suffering mistreatment, neglect and abuse. 

They do their best to be a blessing in the lives of those around them, but at the same time they are never a pushover or a doormat for anybody.

They set their own limits in life and don’t let the expectations, needs or manipulative tactics of anybody drag them away from their goals or their own internal sense of mission and well-being. 

4) Adaptable to change and imperfection

Those who have overcome an unhappy childhood have an above-average ability to adapt to change and imperfection. 

Because of the tumult of their early childhood years and the difficulty they had with authorities and with consistency, those who have transcended early trauma are very hardy

They can take a sudden change of plans on the chin, or deal with a breakup in a stoic way that others might even find somewhat cold.

They’re not cold: just strong. 

As psychology writer Megan Hustad writes

“Individuals raised in stressful environments have a greater willingness to leave something undone—a lack of perfectionism that helps them do what’s necessary without dwelling on what could have been…” 

5) Creativity and thinking outside the box

Those who don’t let their unhappy childhood define who they are (or what they will become) are very good at thinking outside the box and tend to have a wide creative streak. 

From a young age, they were faced with a simple choice: 

Deny who they were and hide, cower and accept the mistreatment dished out to them, or keep a corner of their heart and soul that would always be theirs. 

Those who didn’t give up became strong and independent thinkers and creators in a way that’s hard for many others to imagine. 

As a result, they solve problems and think in ways that go far beyond the typical limitations of folks who may have grown up in more orthodox and supportive environments. 

6) Temperance in the face of highs and lows

When a person grows up in an environment that’s highly unstable or harmful, they become mentally resilient in a way that gives them much more stoicism. 

The amount of stress they had to face from an early age causes some to run to addictions and to fall into unfortunate mental illness and psychotic tendencies. 

But for others who can process and work with those early experiences, the rough childhood becomes their rock bottom:

They develop a temperance and stability in the face of life’s highs and lows that allows them to keep a grip on the steering wheel even when life’s road gets very rocky or its tempting to just coast on cruise control and let it ride. 

As psychologist Meg Jay explains

“Coping with stress is a lot like exercise: We become stronger with practice.”

7) Avoidance of the victim mentality

Those who don’t allow their rough early years to define them tend to be very avoidant of the victim mentality. 

But there’s a catch:

They do not deny what happened to them or pretend it was no big deal. They strike a balance of realism and they do confront what happened, often through therapy or supportive friends and partners. 

But they don’t relish it. And they don’t allow that pain to become their identity. 

It’s important. It’s real. It happened. But it’s not them. It’s things that happened to them. 

8) Channeling anger to productive causes

When there was a lot of trauma, broken trust or even abuse in childhood, there is a lot of anger. 

That’s natural, and it’s not a “shameful” or “bad” thing. 

But this anger, like fire, can either be channeled towards useful ends or it will burn down the person consumed by it. 

Thus the individual who doesn’t let childhood pain define them finds productive ways to channel and use their anger to fight for justice and right rather than to engage in malicious acts or to sabotage themselves or others. 

9) Intense work ethic

Those who had a rough childhood but won’t let it define them tend to have a very intense work ethic. 

They may never have received that parental support and encouragement of their dreams, and often had parents whose work ethic was faltering or who may have struggled with addiction or unresolved mental health problems. 

But rather than let this be a reason to let things slide, the individual who’s overcome this past uses it to fuel their own determination. They work extremely hard and find work they can pour their heart and soul into in a fulfilling and meaningful way. 

As research psychologist Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. writes

“Though we tend to talk about Millennials and Generation X as an entitled group, the truth is that these are the men and women making much of the difference in the world. 

Some may have gotten that drive from their parents. 

But I think many more have gotten it, learned it, from each other, or never even had to learn it at all.”

10) Teaming up with kindred spirits

These hardy folks find a way to team up with kindred spirits to get through the tough times and learn to lean on others in life. 

Elon Musk had an abusive and highly unstable childhood under his alcoholic dad, for example, but partly through reliance on his siblings (and vice versa), the little Musks grew up the best they could and fueled that trauma into productive and inspiring dreams. 

They didn’t let it define them for life. 

As mental health writer Jessica Stillman explains

“The Musk siblings clearly leaned on each other to survive the difficult moments in their childhood. Psychologists also recommend this resilience-building technique to everyone. Contrary to those old cowboy movies you might have seen, toughness is a team sport.”

What defines those who are defined by their childhoods?

Those who are defined by their childhoods have an element of genetic predisposition, according to most neuroscientific and psychological studies

At the same time, psychologists agree that there’s a large element of choice involved. 

When an individual has a terrible childhood, they have the ability to slowly but surely face that and be honest about it without letting it have the final say. 

The awful childhood happened. The trauma happened. The scars may never heal. 

But what happens next and what is done next remains a radical free choice. 

“A painful childhood may have shaped who you are, but it doesn’t have the final say in who you will become,” encourages licensed psychologist Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D.

“Open to whatever you find, and notice whether this approach shifts your emotional experience.”

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