Left alone with an abusive, paranoid schizophrenic mother for much of her childhood, Lillian*, 85, admits to being generally suspicious of people’s intentions. But she is also extraordinarily willing and able to shift directions—her CV includes stints as an actress, portrait painter, theater professor, college dean, community organizer, and entrepreneur. Her husbands’ careers required several moves, including an extended stay in Japan, forcing Lillian to routinely adjust her own professional goals. “I had no difficulty doing this,” she says. “I counted on the permanence of nothing in my life except my ability to meet the challenge of change.”
Greater knowledge of the cognitive adaptations that stressed kids like Lillian tend to make could lead to curricula and school environments more geared toward their strengths and attentional styles. Today, Ellis says, most interventions for kids identified by teachers or social workers as high-risk take their metaphorical inspiration from cats’ claws—kids “come into school like a cat with its claws extended.” And all efforts to help them are variations on “trying to get the cat to retract its claws—to be more trusting, to be more comfortable in school, to be more connected to the teacher.” In other words, they are pushed to act more like kids from low-stress, low-risk environments. But reprogramming people is hard, he says, and educators could find it easier to work with children’s adaptations rather than fighting them.
Tumultuous childhoods, as novelists and therapists have long known, can make for more complex and compelling characters. “People who haven’t suffered are as interesting as shrubbery,” says therapist Ian Morgan Cron. “With happy people,” he half-jokes, “you think, Oh man, I can’t get any purchase in this conversation with this person, because there are no cracks.”
But Cron has seen in his practice how growing up in a culture steeped in negative assumptions about one’s intelligence, temperament, and mental state can lead an individual to play out self-fulfilling prophecies: I’ll never recover from what I went through. I didn’t have the foundation you need to get the most out of life. Skeptical of their own prospects, such people might shy away from opportunities or get lost in the pain and bitterness of their experiences.
While a fuller understanding of the effects of chaotic beginnings gain societal traction, individuals who can learn to grapple with the stress of their past and overcome bleak views of their future can generate new hope. “We are the stories that we tell about ourselves,” Cron says. “At group retreats, I ask people to turn to the person on their right and say, ‘Would you please just tell your life story in five minutes, in which you appear as the victim?’ When that’s done, I say, ‘Now turn to that same person and tell the same story from the perspective of you as the hero.’ And they say, ‘What? Is that allowed?’ Well, sure.
“You have agency in this matter, even without revising history. It happened. We’re not going to deny the facts,” he says. “But the way we interpret history is up for grabs, and it can have a tremendous amount of healing power.”
People who have already embraced every aspect of their past don’t need convincing. “I’m not a denier, but rather a realist,” says Lillian, who recently self-published her first novel. “I’ve learned to creatively change what can be changed and to live with what can’t be altered. And I always turn to the fact that I’m still here and actively in the mix. I strongly believe that we all have so much more within us than we allow to develop. The possibilities are endless—not threatening.”
*Names have been changed.
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