Are you Supernormal?
I love to visit my local public library. They have a non-fiction display shelf where they put random books reflecting topical themes. I’ve read some great books that I don’t believe I would ever have found or chosen rifling through Amazon. One catchy title that caught my attention last year was “Supernormal.” Written by clinical psychologist, Meg Jay, this book transports you into the world of those who have suffered from childhood adversity and yet soared to unexpected heights. Actually, it was interesting but unsurprising to me to learn that nearly 75% of us will experience adversity by the age of 20. It might be the loss of a parent to death or divorce, bullying, alcoholism, or drug abuse in the home. It could be illness in a parent or sibling, neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, a parent in jail or growing up exposed to domestic violence. These experiences are often kept secret as are our courageous battles to overcome them.
Jay drew on almost 20 years of work with clients and students with histories of childhood adversity. She recounts stories of everyday people who, like superheroes, have lived life dodging bullets and leaping over obstacles, even as they hid in plain sight as doctors, social workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, parents and artists. These are fascinating, powerful stories that include public figures such as the famous tennis player, Andre Agassi and Jay Z, as well as plenty of ordinary people rendered extraordinary by their journey to overcome challenges they faced growing up.
For me this book came hot on the heels of a lot of news at the time about the very real health consequences for adults who have survived childhood adversity. Higher risks of mental health problems and auto immune disease are only two of the many potential health problems these adults face. Jay’s book is refreshingly upbeat. It is encouraging to know that the trials and travails of our imperfect childhoods can be overcome as adults. Survivors can lead healthy and happy adult lives and as Jay points out the difficulties experienced as children can actually give these people heightened abilities - hence the title of the book - “Supernormal.” Interesting stuff, yet what most struck me about this book was the final chapter where Jay gives a summary of tips for adults who have lived through childhood trauma. It was such practical advice for living a healthy adult life that I thought I’d share it in this blog because I think its good advice regardless of whether you struggled as a child. I’ve been keeping it in my “social media file” of interesting tidbits for a while wondering when to unveil it and I think it flows on nicely from last week’s exploration of research on resilience. I changed the tense Jay wrote it in to the first person because it personalizes it and reads powerfully as a set of wholesome intentions for life:
I will own the fighter within. I am empowered by my ability to be strong and bound over obstacles in my way. I will not feel bad about the times I have been angry or ashamed for refusing to accept things the way they are. This is how resilient people strive and thrive but I will continue to find ways to create some peace for myself too.
I will find someone to tell my secrets to. If that person says the wrong thing, I will try someone else. And soon. I know my story will get easier, more organised and understandable with every telling. It will probably become shorter as well.
I will take good care of myself as an adult. I will find a good physician (GP) and get a physical once a year. I will tell him or her that I have a history of childhood adversity because he or she will not know it just by looking at me. I will sleep eight hours a night. Eat well. Play well. Exercise well. Work well which will include taking time off. The good will not win out in the end if my life is cut short by chronic stress.
If I think I may be living with depression or anxiety or insomnia or some other stress-related illness I will treat it like the brain health problem that it is. Find a therapist, or tell my regular doctor. I will remember that to struggle does not disqualify me from being a resilient person or a good person, and neither does sometimes feeling like an antihero. If, however, I am leaning on substances to try and cope I will try leaning on people instead. They are better for me.
So are yoga and meditation, but these are not the only ways to reduce my stress. I will clear my mind of painful thoughts and feelings by becoming absorbed in what feels natural to me: Reading. Podcasts. Biking. Knitting. Running. Nature. Movies. Mental distancing is a power all its own. And physical distancing is just fine, too.
Some hurtful relationships may improve with time, but many will not. If it is helpful to me to make amends with those who have hurt me, I will give it a try. If it will only bring me more heartbreak, I give myself permission to stay away. I will avoid relatives, partners - or bosses - who are re-traumatizing.
It is wise to protect myself from dangerous people - but I will make sure my armor is not too tight to let love in. I will allow the good people in my life to have more of a presence than the bad. I will write out a list of those I feel grateful for, and some heartfelt letters too. I will put pictures and reminders of those who have mattered out where I can see them every day. I will fight for their importance - in my life and brain - just as they once fought for mine.
I will make something of my present so my past does not loom so large. As I go along, I will resist the temptation to compare my hardships or triumphs to those of others. We all have different definitions of success and adversity, and of ordinary and normal too.
I will find more people to love, who will love me back, and remember they may come from all backgrounds. There is no need to pick sides in life, to restrict myself to those who have suffered as I have; a diversity of perspectives enriches us all. Nor is it fair to assume that those who have had average, expect-able upbringings are better suited for living than I am. This is simply not so.
I will be the parent I wish I had. I will create the home I always wanted. I will resist the urge to protect my children from every hurt, as well as the urge to toughen them up. Life will send its slings and arrows, and when it does I will: Listen. Validate. Name. Empathize. Problem solve. Love. I know what to do. All the things I wish someone had done for me.
And as often as I can, I will be good to myself, and to those I encounter. It may not be true that everyone I meet is fighting a hard battle but, as I know by now, a great many people are.
This ends my series on ordering your inner world. Next week I want to start looking out exploring how we go about organizing our external world to slow down and simplify.
Do you have any intentions/mantras that have emerged as a result of having reflected about your childhood that you would be comfortable to share? If you are a parent, I invite you to think about some things your parents did that were helpful for you? What would you do differently?