How to Overcome a Challenging Childhood and Emerge Even Stronger

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By Lisa Kohn


I was raised in and torn between two conflicting, bipolar worlds. There was the world I longed for and lived in on weekends – my mother’s world, which was a fanatical cult (the Moonies) – and the world I was forced to live in during the week – my father’s world, based on sex, drugs, and the squalor of life in New York City’s East Village in the 1970s.

Growing up in a cult, your brain is filled with false truths and lies. You know you’re sinful. You doubt yourself. You’re filled with shame and self-loathing. And life with my father required vigilance. My role models there were dope-dealers and hippies who had my brother smoking pot at the age of ten because it would be “cool.”

My mother always said she loved me, but she left my brother and me for her Messiah. My father never said he loved me, but he showed up to take care of us when my mother walked away.

Neither world I existed in gave me a strong, safe base. Both were confusing. And scary. A childhood of confusion and fear can warp one’s thinking. Not feeling secure in a parent’s love convinces you that you’re not loved. And unlovable. At least this is what it did to me.

I’ve spent years examining – and reexamining – my childhood and all that happened to and around me. I’ve spent decades unearthing, and healing from, what I experienced and how I made (illogical) sense of it at the time. This is some of what I’ve learned and some of how I healed.

  • Be. Here. Now.– These are simple words, but often I forget them. I’m not the first one to suggest them. I’m more at my best when I remember that this moment is all I have, and focusing on this moment is soothing. When I notice my breath, when I try not to judge myself (or others,) When I notice beauty and love around me; all these things ease my heart and soul and remind me that I’m no longer in the craziness I grew up with. I’m safe.
  • Breathe – I’ve found that it’s often that simple. I just need to breathe. Breathing calms me. Breathing makes me feel more alive. Breathing brings me back to the moment and, once again, reminds me that I’m here now, and that I have nothing to fear.
  • Practice appreciation – When we look at what’s working, we get more of what’s working. When we look at what’s not, we get more of what’s not. I’ve found that focusing myself on all that I have, all that is wonderful, and all that I appreciate brings me to a calmer, more joyful state of mind and life. Positive psychology research has proven that our peripheral vision increases when we practice gratitude and appreciation – we literally can see more beauty around us when we actively notice it.
  • Allow it to get messy – I am a recovering perfectionist. I can have a compelling need to get things “right” and make no mistakes. But we learn by making mistakes and by relaxing and letting things happen. It still can blow my mind that things can happen without me causing or pushing them. I’ve learned that I learn by allowing myself to not know the answer, to try things and fail, to make mistakes and slip. By allowing mess – and growth – I relax my grip and have more fun.​
  • Have fun with itSpeaking of fun, it’s an awful good goal to aim for. And it is a choice. I’ve learned that I always have a choice as to how I’ll respond or how I’ll engage with others or with my day. I may not feel like I have a choice, but if I can breathe and calm down, I usually do. And I’ve learned that choosing to have fun – with my day, with my family, with strangers, with my tasks at hand – makes my day more fun and teaches my brain new truths. It’s a great way to counteract the fears I’ve accumulated and to soothe my scars. I can choose to have fun, and life’s more fun when I do.
  • Distract myself – When all else fails, I distract myself. Just like I used to distract my kids when they were toddlers, and too distraught to think straight. I’ve learned not to try hard to feel grateful when I don’t feel grateful. It doesn’t work for me; in fact, it often backfires. But when I just find something that takes my mind off of what I’m hurting or angry about, I feel better.
  • Live. Love. Laugh. – It is simple. Life is happening all around me, and it’s my choice if I notice it and live it fully or if I let myself be too caught up in old pain and new struggles. Love is there for the taking and the creating, but I have a choice whether I open myself to love and choose to love or whether I stay caught up in my old stories and lies. Laughter is always an option, if I can remember it’s an option and focus my attention on reasons to laugh and smile. It’s a choice I can make – or not make – each day and each moment…to live, to love and to laugh.

Life throws so much at us, and it can easily feel like too much, especially when we’re still reeling – or we think we’re still reeling – from all that happened when we were young. But I’ve found over the years that it is possible and amazing  to claim each day as my own and to live stronger and more fully than I ever thought possible.

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