Love & Life

Why Childhood Adversity Turns Some People into Super-Achievers as Adults

In 'Supernormal', her groundbreaking new study of trauma and survival, Meg Jay tells the stories of people who overcome trauma in their childhoods to go on and live successful lives as adults.

By Meg Jay, PhD

When Mara was a newborn, her mother had an urge to throw her against the wall. She rocked her in a nursing chair each day and night, and all the while she stared at a spot across the room, a target where she imagined hurling her baby girl.

One evening when she thought she could resist no more, she turned out the lights so she would not see the spot and wedged herself tightly in a corner, knees to her chest, squeezing Mara hard.

This is how Mara’s father found them, both wailing. Don’t turn on the light, Mara’s mother said, confessing everything between terrified sobs.

Mara’s father crouched in frozen fear as mother and baby screamed together and, before he could act, his wife’s shrieks reached a piercing crescendo and the baby fell silent. Both parents thought Mara had died when in fact, she had fallen fast asleep.

As if a switch inside her had simply turned off, she went from being a squirmy, squealing baby to a limp and quiet, eight-pound source of warmth. That night, Mara’s mother was hospitalized with what the doctors at first thought might be postpartum depression – except that after she came home and Mara went from being a baby to a toddler, it only got worse.

Once a busy caterer who loved to try out new dishes on her family and friends, Mara’s mother became more irritable and unpredictable with each passing year, and Mara and her father never knew if dinner would be on the table or on the ceiling.

More than once, Mara packed her child-size suitcase to run away, but because she was not allowed to leave the yard, she sat in the farthest corner of their large wooded lot and stared at the sky.

It seemed so empty, it was like looking at nothing, except for the birds and the planes that flew whichever way they wanted. Watching them, Mara could sit out there for hours.

* * *

In response to fear, our brains are hardwired for fight or flight. Yet when fighting back is not an option and neither is physical flight, many supernormal children stick around and comply with what the situation demands while, on the inside, they find ways to escape.

Maybe they fall asleep when they become overwhelmed, or they flee without leaving the yard. Even when their bodies must stay put, they take their minds somewhere else. This is one of the key survival strategies of many resilient children: One way or another, they get away.

They resist being defined or engulfed by whatever ails those near to them.

According to psychologists Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus, there are two ways of coping with stress: problem-focused coping in which the individual works to fix the problem, and emotion-focused coping in which the individual manages his emotional response.

Problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping are somewhat akin to modern forms of fight or flight, and neither approach is inherently better than the other. Rather, much like the Serenity Prayer taught in Alcoholics Anonymous—God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference—the art of adaptation is choosing the right way to cope at the right time.

Many resilient children find ways to minimize the impact of their difficult surroundings, often first by trying to fight back, to change things somehow and improve their lot. If that does not work, they do not necessarily accept their situation but they accept that, at least in the moment, they cannot change it, and they distance themselves from the chaos around.

Distancing is a form of emotion-focused coping, one based on the recognition that while we may not be able to change the bad things that happen to us, we can change how much we pay attention to those bad things and how much we let them affect us.

In psychology, the oldest and broadest term for such distancing is dissociation, a word that refers to a wide variety of strategies that allow us to disengage from our surroundings. The most extreme forms of dissociation are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, and tend to be sensationalized and pathologized in books and movies.

Meg-Jay-Supernormal.jpg
Meg Jay, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and narrative nonfiction writer

Maybe this was why, as an adult, Mara wondered what her lifelong tendency toward dissociation meant about her mental health. The most common forms of dissociation, however, are not necessarily sensational or problematic but are typically used as creative and temporary forms of coping.

Listen to how, as a child, Maya Angelou minimized the impact of her time spent in Missouri, a place where she lived for many months and where she was chronically sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend: “In my mind, I only stayed in St. Louis a few weeks.”

Or hear how Angelou’s brother, Bailey, handled his own childhood terrors: “He explained when we were smaller that when things were very bad his soul just crawled behind his heart and curled up and went to sleep. When he awoke, the fearful thing had gone away.”

Knowing how and when to separate ourselves from our surroundings may sound sophisticated, but psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan argued that such distancing is “the most basic capacity of the human mind to protect its own stability,” and its use can be seen even in very young infants.

Excerpted from Supernormal: Childhood Adversities and the Untold Stories of Resilience with permission from Penguin Random House

Lead image credit: Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

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