Do you know what Oprah Winfrey, Drew Barrymore and Eminem have in common?
Aside from being icons in pop culture, they all had a tough upbringing. They went through a lot of struggles in their childhood before becoming the successes they currently are.
I find them, and people like them, so inspiring because I know just how limiting a tough childhood can be. Many people find it so hard to overcome and struggle well into adulthood.
But those who were able to rise above them were able to do so because of certain personality traits.
Here are nine of those traits:
One of Eminem’s most uplifting tracks (and one I often use at the gym). “Till I Collapse” has a verse that goes:
“Cause sometimes you just feel tired, feel weak
And when you feel weak
You feel like you wanna just give up
But you gotta search within you
Try to find that inner strength
And just pull that sh*t out of you
And get that motivation to not give up
And not be a quitter, no matter how bad you wanna just fall
Flat on your face and collapse”
It’s a great song for the tough times, isn’t it? And it reflects the rapper’s whole mindset – to get back up every time life punches you down.
Anyone who has overcome a tough upbringing could never do it without that resilience, that strength of mind and determination.
You develop resilience by constantly choosing to fight and go on, which then builds a steel core within you. That’s how you turn pain into strength.
It’s no secret that a tough childhood can have serious consequences, such as trauma and toxic stress.
But that doesn’t mean that every child who’s gone through a tough time grows up to be a dysfunctional adult.
You know why?
Because that tough upbringing also develops a positive trait – self-sufficiency.
This is especially true for kids who’ve been neglected. They learn how to be independent because it was a matter of survival.
And that’s a trait that serves them well into adulthood. They’re not afraid to make hard decisions, and they’ve learned that they can rely on their own judgment and abilities.
It’s what they’ve been doing since they were kids, after all.
Similarly, people who’ve had a tough upbringing know how to be flexible. How to adjust to whatever situation they’re in.
How could they not, when the environment they grew up in was so volatile? One learns how to adapt, or else they wouldn’t be able to overcome.
For instance, when my parents divorced, it was a difficult time for me. I wouldn’t say I had a tough upbringing overall, but that period was definitely hard for me.
Suddenly, I had to live in two different homes, shuttling from my mom’s to my dad’s every week.
Plus, money became tight; my mom had to take on more hours at work, so she had less time to look after me.
Such situations are difficult for a child because it’s not a stable environment. And as any child development expert will tell you, stability is a core childhood need.
The upside is, I did become more adaptable, having had to deal with so many changes early on in life. That’s how it is for people who’ve overcome tough times in childhood.
4) Problem-solving skills
So, as a natural consequence of being independent and adaptable, people who’ve overcome a tough upbringing have sharper problem-solving skills.
With issues like financial problems, absentee parents, constant relocations, children find their own ways to deal with them.
For example, I have a friend who came from a poor family, and she tells me how she learned early on to sell stuff to help bring in some money.
She’d sell handmade jewelry to her classmates, old toys she no longer used at garage sales, and when she was old enough, she offered tutoring for the younger kids in her neighborhood.
That was her way of helping to make ends meet, and more importantly, to take control in a situation that was beyond her control.
This is actually what’s inspiring about people like her – they didn’t see themselves as helpless, no matter how dire the situation was.
And that’s a huge part of being able to overcome – the sense of agency.
Oprah once said, “I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”
And make good she did. She rose from her terrible circumstances of neglect and abuse, went after her dreams, and pushed on until she became the legendary talk show host and TV network owner she is today.
That’s just to name a few of her achievements. A far cry from being the “Sack Girl” in her neighborhood (they were so poor that she had to wear a potato sack instead of proper clothes)!
Similarly, Drew Barrymore had to go through the grueling task of overcoming substance abuse at a young age. Imagine doing all that excruciating inner work when you aren’t even fully grown yet!
But she did it and went on to have a shining, wholesome career as an actress and now talk show host.
Perseverance is such a game-changer for people who have gone through a difficult childhood. I think it’s a trait that truly separates those who rise above and those who stay mired in defeat.
Growing up in uncertainty teaches you about bravery in ways that a stable upbringing might not.
You see, for kids in difficult situations, the comfort zone is quite small; in extreme cases, maybe even nonexistent.
These kids learn to operate outside the “normal” bounds from early on, simply because their life is anything but normal.
Think about the kid who has to take public transit alone to get to school because no one can give them a ride. The kid who stands up to bullies, both in school and at home.
Or let’s talk about one of my favorite figures in history who had one of the harshest circumstances a child could deal with – Helen Keller.
Imagine growing up not being able to see or hear. Keller did just that, and with so much grace. All because she was brave enough and persistent enough not to let the silence and darkness limit what she could do.
I honestly don’t think I could handle that with as much grace as she did.
With all of those lessons the school of hard knocks has taught them, it’s no surprise that the folks who’ve overcome have so much insight.
They kind of had to grow up faster. Had to deal with the unpleasant side of life.
And while that’s a sad and sobering thought – no child should ever have to be an adult too soon – the silver lining, if we could call it that, is that they gained so much wisdom.
For example, they know that…
- Small acts of kindness can go a long way in easing someone’s pain. So does grace.
- Difficult things pass; best not to wallow.
- Success means differently for each one of us.
- Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- You can only control yourself, so best to focus on that.
I mean, these insights really vary from person to person, as it all depends on the specific circumstances each one has had to overcome and learn from.
But the bottomline is, their difficulties served to make them wiser than someone who’s had it good all their lives.
Maybe that’s why Oprah has a lot of inspiring quotes…
Their early struggles may be the main reason why both Oprah and Drew have become such relatable and empathetic talk show hosts.
They just have an amazing ability to connect with people, to listen attentively, to see the struggles that others try to hide. To make people feel understood and supported.
Empathy is a trait that anyone who has overcome a tough upbringing shares with them. Having gone through many trials in life, they know just how hard it is.
And so, instead of becoming hard and bitter, they become soft. The true embodiment of what Kurt Vonnegut said:
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
This brings me to my next point…
Through it all, people who have had to overcome a tough upbringing stay grateful. The thing is, they can only do that if they take that message above to heart, the one about being soft.
You see, some people do overcome their difficult upbringing, but they end up being hard and bitter. They end up having a cynical view of life, as if it’s nothing but a long trail of lemon trees.
In my opinion, that’s not exactly overcoming. As long as you carry the struggles of the past with a bitter heart, you’re still coping, not exactly thriving.
But if you can be grateful despite it all, maybe even because of it all, that’s when you truly win.