Resiliency and grit are trending topics in psychology and mental health. But what does it really look like when faced with adversity and failure? Here’s my story.
Life rough? Life unfair? Have you made some mistakes? What are you going to do about it?
When I was in fifth grade I begged and pleaded with my mom to cut my hair around my ears. She refused, claiming that my ears would stick out and look foolish (my mother also told me wearing the color yellow made me look “dirty’). So I took matters into my own hands because I had trouble being told “no.”
I found a pair of scissors and started to cut my hair. But I wanted my sides and back to have a shaved, tapered look. That’s why I grabbed one of my older sister’s Bic disposable razors and started to “clip” the edges of my hair. Guess how that turned out?
This anecdote encapsulates far too many incidents that define my childhood years. My personal morality tales often played out with great similarity:
- I wanted something
- I was either told “no” or a social norm forbad it
- I disregard obstacles and made a poor choice
- My poor choice resulted in a poor outcome and consequences
As a grown adult with time and experience on my side, I look back on my childhood with neither fondness nor dread. My childhood is a textbook and my life has been a never-ending lesson on how to turn disappointment, stupidity, and misfortune into a meaningful and purposeful life.
My Failures, Poor Choices, and Mistakes Made Me the Person I Am Today
I think about that haircutting incident when I speak to others about resiliency, grit, and learning from your mistakes. Sometimes I marvel at how many stories of failure, stupidity, and poor choices I have in my life.
I enjoy sharing my personal stories with others. They can be quite comical.
My mishaps are like signposts that mark my personal journey of growth and maturity. And although I can now laugh at my poor choices and am emotionally detached from my childhood pain, that hasn’t always been the case. Because if I’m being honest; Resiliency and grit is hard, painful, and can be very slow to develop.
What I Learned from My Failures and Mistakes
Dr. Dave Verhaagen has written extensively on the topic of resilience and the importance of failure. He specifically cites three major lessons taken from failure:
- You learn natural consequences
- You learn important life skills
- You become emotionally stronger
I eventually learned all these lessons. But I would also admit that I failed to learn these lessons the first several times I failed or make poor choices. I pouted, whined, got angry, blamed others, and resented discipline. But these truths eventually permeated thru my thick skull. I also learned several other important lessons:
- I learned to set realistic expectations for myself and for others
- I learned to forgive myself and others
- I experienced the feelings of disappointing or hurting people important to me
- I learned who were the important people to have in my life
- I learned to stop caring so much about the approval of unimportant folks
The Role and Influence of My Mother
In the story of my life, if anyone comes out looking like a saint, it would be my mother. I am sure I was not a pleasant child. Yes, I was precocious and charming. But I was also mean and angry.
I vaguely remember her trying to subdue me with once with a bear hug. I also recall throwing dishes at her head (I’m pretty sure I missed). I was selfish and uncaring toward everyone. My haircut disaster is a charming story of laughable, youthful stupidity. Here are some of the less charming incidents on my childhood rap sheet of indiscretions:
- Stealing Lifesavers from a local grocery store before age 5 (caught and punished)
- Keeping Sunday School offering money for myself (caught and punished)
- Playing with matches and burning carpet in our house (never proven)
- Stealing cigarettes from my grandfather and smoking a pack a day (suspected but never convicted)
- Finding and keeping a large amount of money that belonged to my neighbors (it was rent money and they almost got evicted)
- Breaking my brother’s nose during a physical altercation (we didn’t speak for 6 months)
- Inviting friends to a church sleepover and using stink bombs on other people’s possessions (it was mutually agreed that I would take some time away from youth group)
- Running away from home several times (ranging from 1-8 hours in length)
- Completing little to no homework on middle school
- Listening very little to my mom or older sisters
- Getting one of my teeth shot out by a BB gun when playing war with friends (I was the entire Vietcong Army)
I swore, I yelled, and more often than not, I did what I wanted to do. So how come I was able to get my act together? Well, others could see that I was in pain, that I had a good heart, and I also had a lot going for me in life if I could somehow move past my immaturity and youthful stupidity.
The grit, resiliency, and maturity that I developed during my life didn’t come cheap. My character was not refined through innocent, happy memories. It came from bad choices, disappointing others, consequences, and learning the hard way.
Not Allowed to Wallow in Self-Pity or Play the Victim
When I look back on my childhood with the self-awareness of an adult brain, I see clearly how angry and emotional I was as a kid. What was I struggling about:
- Grappling with my own adoption and how I looked different from others and felt treated differently
- Insecurities about my physical appearance – I endured regular remarks about my height, my eyes, my skin color, and the shape of my head
- Grappling with my parents’ divorce and feeling like my family was torn apart. It wasn’t amicable. It involved infidelity. And it pretty much bankrupted our family. Up until high school, all my close friends came from intact families. I always felt embarrassed by my family circumstances
- Living below the poverty line. I remember waiting in line for free government cheese. I was self-conscious about receiving free lunches at school. I felt like everyone was noticing that my clothes weren’t name-brand or cool.
- The eroding relationship with my father and brother. They kept moving further and further away. I did not see my brother for my entire high school career. There was a 5 ½ year gap of time before I visited him Christmas break of my freshman year in college. My brother went from being my best friend to a complete stranger during my childhood. In the last twenty-eight years of my life, I have spent a combined time of less than 30 hours with my father.
There are several reasons why my childhood was difficult. I could come up with a dozen reasons or excuses as to why growing up wasn’t perfect or ideal. I wasted countless hours in self-pity. I’ve asked the worthless question “why me?” over and over as a child.
I’ve played the victim role, looking for sympathy or a pardon for my transgressions. But in the end, all self-pity did was make me more miserable and trap me in my own pain.
I don’t begrudge my clients wallowing in self-pity and victim mentality. I just inform them that it doesn’t make anything better or change anything. My mom knew this and she didn’t accept my pity parties. She exemplified grit and demanded it from others. She was too busy trying to raise and support three of her four children to dwell in pity or let her children play the victim.
The Immense Importance of an Internal Locus of Control
So how did I step out of self-pity? By developing an internal locus of control. How did I cultivate that mindset? Well, my mom wouldn’t allow it any other way. An internal locus of control is one of the hallmarks of resiliency. And resilient people see themselves as being in control of their destinies – they don’t view themselves as victims.
“Resiliency and grit is hard, painful, and can be very slow to develop.”
People who operate from an internal locus of control believe their lives and actions have the most impact from their own choices and actions. When I was caught stealing, I had to apologize to the person and pay back the money.
This is what happened with my little Sunday School incident. That is what happened when my siblings and I got caught stealing Lifesavers from a grocery store. That is what happened when I got caught stealing tip money from my sister.
My childhood was anchored in common sense. When I made bad or poor choices, I had to live with the consequences of my decisions.
My mother had a way of communicating that was substantive, concise, and unquestioning. Before I started high school she also told me that if I were to get in trouble and arrested to not waste my one phone call on her, because she would leave me in jail until the authorities forced my release into her custody. That was my mom. She said what she meant and meant what she said.
Right before I started high school my mother reminded me that she could not financially afford to send me to college. So if I wanted to go to college, I would need to do so on my own performance and dime. There was no pressure for me to go to college. My mom and I both knew I was capable of achieving strong grades in school. But the question was whether or not I was willing to put the time, discipline, and effort to earn those marks.
The message was loud and clear: a lot about my childhood was out of my control, but the type of young man I would become was all within my power. I would have no one to blame for my successes or setbacks except for myself. My mother stayed out of the way and allowed me to figure out who I wanted to be as a kid, a teen, and a young adult.
“My childhood is a textbook and my life has been a never-ending lesson on how to turn disappointment, stupidity, and misfortune into a meaningful and purposeful life.”
Now, it’s not like I didn’t whine or complain about my life. I’ve had my fair share of making excuses for poor choices or falling short in my accomplishments. It’s just, nobody cared, or more likely, nobody accepted my excuses.
Instead, the message I received was, “what are you going to do about it?” Time after time, it was reinforced to me that the quality of my life was in my hand. I had just as much talent and opportunity as the next person. The question was, would I take advantage of either of them?
I Learned Empathy from Many People
My family and I had plenty of help during our difficult periods. I remember several years when Thanksgiving Day rolled around, one of our church deacons would drop off grocery bags full of all the holiday meal trimmings. Most of my soccer and basketball coaches were my friends’ fathers. These men tended to take me in and transport me to and from games and practices, often while my mom was working to support us.
My mother also modeled empathy to me by showing me how much struggle and labor she endured for our family to survive. Recent research indicates showing your children how hard you struggle and work may help them develop their own resiliency.
Finally, time and maturity helped me step out of my own neurotic, teen self-absorption. Eventually, I connected with more peers who had their own laundry list of hardships and life grievances. And I saw how off-putting it was to be around people who adopted a victim mentality in life, as though the universe had conspired against their happiness. I gained perspective and gradually grew out of my bitterness and selfishness. But it took time. Growth requires patience.
How Long Does It Take? However Long You Need
I love it when clients or their parents come to therapy and ask how long will it take for things to get better? I’m honest with them – I cannot answer that. I could easily meet with anyone, hear their problems, and tell them what to do and what to stop doing in about 1-2 appointments. But that’s not why someone comes to therapy or why therapy can help.
I see my role as a consultant and collaborator in their life journey; someone who will walk with them through rehashing their struggles to find some semblance of meaning or growth through both ordeals (living the event, retelling the event).
When I tearfully ran to my mother and showed her the epic haircut disaster, she showed grace and empathy. Despite my poor choice (and three bald spots to show for it), my mother showed empathy on me. We went out and purchased hair clippers. My mom would continue to cut my hair for two years until she did a poor job one time in the seventh grade. I called her a derogatory word and she refused to cut my hair until I apologized to her. I never did and started to cut my own hair.
Hey, I didn’t say I learned my lesson the first time! Growth takes time!