Not despite, but because
Exposure to mental illness and abuse is a rough way to start life. A lot has been challenging for me that probably wouldn’t have been had that not been my childhood. For all those challenges, it seems I have thrived, at least in some areas of life. Over these past days I attended an event that generally marks being in an upper echelon of professional success. I can’t say much more about that, but while here I have been making a point to remind myself of how far I have come, despite the setbacks. These past few days, however, I’ve realized it may not be despite the setbacks that I have done well, but rather, because of them.
For all of my life that I can remember, I have been incredibly ambitious. So I’ve assumed that that is just the way that I am — that it’s perhaps hard-coded in my genetic code, and that no matter my upbringing I would have been this way. There are other traits I’ve assumed are similarly inherent to me. I am fidgety and have a short attention span at times. I am a stimulation and experience seeking person. I love music and thrills, feeding my eager nervous system with dopamine. I was a precocious, curious, and energetic child and the traces of all of that persist into an adulthood that finds me surrounded by others of similar stock. For all my life, I have assumed, this is me. I understood these as equivalencies: this is how I am; this is how I always will be; this is how I ought to be. These assumptions began to unravel a few weeks ago after I finally finished reading The Body Keeps the Score.
Most of the traits of I just mentioned, including the flighty nervous system and love for stimulation, are precisely the markers of a child who had a traumatic childhood. It was jarring and brought me to tears to hear an extensive list of traits and attributes, many of which I still find too sensitive to write about, that perfectly accurately described me. Every. Single. One. And, for all of them, I thought they were just the way I happened to be.
I do suspect that in most contexts I would have still been a precocious and curious child. That does seem to be true to my personality. But many of my other quirks are clear less natural.
If someone surprises me, I massively overreact. If a physical therapist touches me, my body panics and freezes. These moments are embarrassing. It is very difficult for me to feel grounded or stable, even when my life is peaceful and calm. As a result I have spent all of 20s trying to solve problems I didn’t have and chasing dysfunctional relationships while shunning genuine care and connection. For the last few weeks, I have been coming to terms with the reality that this was outside my conscious control and almost certainly the product of my early childhood environment rather than being inherent to who I am. But I now also see that the ambition, drive, and want for greatness and impact— far more central to my constructed identity than some odd quirks and relational dysfunction, are likely equally the products of my early childhood environment. I suspect I made it here, to this gathering of success, not despite my traumas, but because of it.
It is unclear where ambition comes from, but it clear what it is: a want for more. If as a child one does not feel like they have enough, it is no surprise that will grow up to want more. Many circumstances can create that. A child can be lacking in love and comfort. Or perhaps they grow up in poverty or financial hardship, or maybe simply the perception of financial hardship, and that leads them determined to want boundless sums of money. For so much of my life, I have been motivated by material success. I always wanted to make a lot of money. I have written extensively about what luxury, material, and indulgences mean to me. I long ago recognized that they are shallow, but I still viewed them as being intrinsic to who I am, if a part of the shadow side. Now, I suspect that they too are simply products of my environment.
As a child, it’s likely that what I really wanted was emotional attunement and safety. The preponderance of research shows that’s the majority what any child wants or needs. Despite what I am sure were genuinely the best efforts of all of those around me, and there were many — my parents, grandparents, uncles, family friends — I just didn’t get that. As a result, I externalized my desires into fantasies. I looked at media, fiction, and movies, and created in which I could be a hero. As I child it seemed if only I could be wealthy, or famous, or beautiful, or talented, or brilliant, or ideally all of the above, then I would be loved. So all of that is a big part of what I have wanted for as long as I can remember. Those desires have been a part of my identity. Now, seeing that they are not inherent to who I am, but rather the product of a less than ideal upbringing, I wonder if it’s finally time to let go of some of those parts of my identity.
Changing one’s identity is hard, maybe even traumatic in itself. We become very attached to who we think we are. There’s a divine inertia to Ego. I don’t necessarily need to change all of it. My modest success to date may be the result of the ill-gotten gains from trading of childhood for some standing in this world, but it’s also not one I can reverse, and there is so much in my life that I am grateful for and would never want to change. This story had a sad beginning, but doesn’t need to have a sad ending.
When standing in the supposed circles of human greatness, I can’t help but look at peers and wonder, what made you this way? True, some people are really simply extraordinary in their talents. That is surely never easy either, but there are obviously happy, well nurtured people who find great success in this world. But for those found success through sheer force and will, the type I frankly think most valued in American culture, my heart suspects some suffering made them that way. So much human greatness comes not despite, but because of the challenges.