How A Crappy Childhood Can Actually Be A Gift

Written by Sandra Bienkowski

My psychologist told me I should share what my childhood was like with more people because it's a big part of who I am. I cringed when he said that to me. I cringed even typing the first sentence of this post.

Let's face it, whining about your childhood makes people tune out. Heck, it makes me tune out. But why is it that we all laugh when people say, "I went to counseling for depression, but I didn't want to dive into all that childhood crap"?

A big part of it is because there are lots of funny stereotypes about seeking therapy. Maybe you picture a client lying on a couch, a stiff therapist with a clipboard, and lots of wasted time dissecting a childhood that is long over. And not only are these staid stereotypes kind of funny, but they also reinforce the truth that ruminating on childhood in adult life can indeed be pretty unproductive.

But my story is different ...

I'm in my forties now, but I saw a psychologist weekly for several years in my 20s. No, there wasn't a couch or a clipboard. Just two reclining chairs and two people talking. He jotted things down occasionally. But we were in full-on childhood analysis mode.

Before I continue, let me sum up my childhood quickly by saying it wasn't good. My mom was an alcoholic and my dad pretended she wasn't. And my mom wasn't a happy drunk; her alcoholism involved some Jekyll and Hyde personality-changing stuff. I share this information because it's what initially landed me in counseling. And I credit the time spent with this blunt, funny, sarcastic and empathetic psychologist for freeing me from my bout of childhood depression. He'd say that I fixed me, but he gave me the tools to do it.

But I wasn't just "fixed" by therapy. Now, 20 years later, I actually see my painful childhood as a gift, one that has made me a much more self-aware, compassionate and grateful person. Here's how you can, too ...

1. You gain a unique perspective on gratitude.

Even though I would definitely not want to relive my childhood, I wouldn't change it either. The fact that my childhood is over — and more importantly, that I grew from it — is a daily gift for which I am grateful. I had a revelatory moment in college when I realized, "I don't have to live at my parents' house anymore." It was so liberating to realize that my life is well, mine. From there on out, I could be independent and control my environment.

Now people tease me, saying that I'm too happy. Well, the reason I am so genuinely happy (med-free) is because I live with a unique perspective on gratitude. And I believe I owe this gratitude to overcoming a lot of crap in my childhood. I know what it is like to live in fear. I know what it is like to be afraid to come home. What I focus on today is how different things feel. And I celebrate that.

2. You learn that you are really quite resilient.

I made the decision to put myself in talk therapy in my 20s. That in itself is a decision that I look back on with a tremendous amount of self-celebration. I wanted the cycle of abuse to end with me. If you make the effort to dig deep into the pain you experienced during a damaging childhood, you are strong. The desire to understand your experiences and make new ones for yourself is a sign of strength. So tell yourself you are strong daily and prepare to be amazed at what else you can achieve.

3. When you fix you first, you discover a rich life.

All that said, I am not going to pretend it was smooth sailing after my many years in talk therapy. I made lots of mistakes in relationships and in how I treated myself but I always could fall back on the insights and tools I learned in talk therapy. I always could begin again in the right direction. Depression no longer had a hold on me. As I aligned my life slowly to what I learned in therapy, life became immensely better. Or as Maya Angelou so aptly put it: "Nothing works until you do."

4. Sometimes a painful time directs you to your purpose.

During my childhood, writing in journals was my escape. Notebooks were my secret hideout. My love of writing and personal development turned into my career path. A painful beginning shaped my purpose. Painful experiences can be a great teacher — leaving us with wisdom and sometimes even revealing our path.

If your past was broken, know your future doesn't have to be. As ABC broadcaster Robin Roberts says, "Make your mess your message."

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