Tag Archive: focus

The power of adversity


I grew up in chaos.  My mother contracted MS early on, then miraculously went into remission, leaving only numb fingers for some years.  Later on, the nerve damage was more impactful, but most of the time growing up, her MS had only one major impact on the rest of us.  That’s right, chaos.

You see, as she was lying on her bed, day after day, unable to move or see, she would contemplate many things; and the biggest thing was: what was truly important to her.  As a result, when the miracle happened, she no longer considered things like housework and order to be all that important.  Creativity, on the other hand, was vastly important, but only a certain kind of creativity – creativity that led to practical solutions, and that bettered our lot in what she considered a meaningful way every day.  So, art was out, but sewing and designing clothing was in; ballet was out, but working in clay creating pots and dinner-wear was in; writing was out but cooking well definitely was in.  One other thing that happened is that us kids were expected to take up the slack in housekeeping, and even though I won’t go into what that looked like, I will suggest you take a few creative moments imagining what 4 kids might do with it.

This molded certain ways I operated into adulthood.  For instance, I would witness friends and associates struggling with whether or not to do what their parents were against, and would get that, in this way, I was fortunate.  I remember thinking more than once as an adult making my own way:  Wow!  This would have been a lot harder if I hadn’t grown up with chaos! We were a pretty independent bunch, and that gave me something very precious: personal power.

Yes, there were many ways in which I didn’t have this power and had to learn to regain it, but not when it came to my own independence. I had that in spades, and all because of the adversity I met in childhood.

Research and scholarly wisdom has thus far focused on the detrimental effects of childhood abuse and/or adversity. Willem Frankenhuis and Carolina de Weerth in their research paper Does Early-Life Exposure to Stress Shape or Impare Cognigion?  discuss evidence showing that, in addition to the detrimental impact of childhood abuse, there are some positives.  This doesn’t negate the negative impacts of such abuse, which can be severe, far reaching, and difficult to correct.  What it does show is that adults who experienced childhood abuse or adversity have, compared to safely nurtured children, better skills that help them deal with potential threats.  These people are better at detection, learning, and memory on tasks that protect them from these possible dangers.

One often-sited example is the study where children are given the option of delayed or immediate gratification, knowing they will receive a larger treat if they delay than if they don’t delay.  Children raised in an emotionally safe environment will opt for delayed gratification; those raised in a stressed unsafe one will opt for the “fast” immediate option, strategizing that something is better than nothing.  These children can never count on a stable environment and so they take what is offered in the moment rather than wait for what might never happen. Both strategies make sense, considering the two different environments.

Another example is the ability to shift focus in unpredictable environments.  Adults from adverse childhood backgrounds are, on the whole, better at shifting focus without loss of accuracy than their peers from stable childhood backgrounds. In other words, flexibility in times of instability is easier for the first set of adults, which is an asset in unsafe times.

The big learning for me from this study is this: no matter what our background is, children take whatever situation they end up with and adapt as best they can.  In Gestalt Therapy, this is called Creative Adjustment. It’s wonderful to know that we have this capacity in us; it’s something some of us can truly appreciate as a strength that is well-earned.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .

Hurt People and Free People

hurt people hurt people and free people free people – anon

I first heard that phrase in an interview with Sarah Jones.  I thought it perfectly captured the dynamics of both sets of people.  When I’m hurting, I’m miserable and all my focus is on my misery. When I’m feeling great, the exact opposite is true: anything that happens during that time is completely workable.  There is nothing that really gets to me.  I’m generous with myself and others, helpful in a real way, and generally positive and energized.

I’m really no different from anyone else in this way.  To prove my point, if you’ve ever wanted something really badly – say, a red VW Beatle (are there any of those outside Mexico anymore?) – then all of a sudden, you will – guaranteed – begin to see an amazing number of red VW Beatles, or at least red cars.  Every time a red car is in your line of vision, it will literally grab your attention.  It’s like being in an auditorium and hearing your name: you may not have heard anything else, but you will hear your name.

Whatever I’m focused on is what I’m going to notice.  So, when I’m miserable, I’ll notice things that make me more miserable.  And even more, I’ll want subconsciously – or even unconsciously – to be with others who are miserable.  That old saying “misery loves company” should really read (as a psych prof of mine once said) “misery loves equally miserable company”.

And, when I’m feeling great, my focus is on that great feeling. And I want everyone around me to feel that great.

It reminds me of what I heard many different inspirational people say: if you’re simply surviving and not thriving, there is no way you can wish anything better on others.  The focus must be solely on survival. I don’t know if this is a law of nature, but it seems so. Sometimes, however, we only feel we are surviving; and simply feeling this will make us act as if that’s all we’re doing: surviving.  There may not be anything we can do when we are truly barely surviving – all our resources really must be focused on survival – but we can do something about our mindset if we’re beyond that point but don’t know it. Like the relative who has a million dollars in the bank but still rummages around garbage bins looking for cast-away produce (yes, I have known people who do this) – not because they believe in not wasting anything, but because they believe they are barely surviving.

For me, the way I got myself out of feeling I was only surviving, was understanding what I was doing to those I cared about.  I was making them as miserable as I felt, without realizing this.  I simply couldn’t help it! As long as I was focused on surviving, this was bound to happen.  For me, that realization snapped me out of the survival mindset, creating a crack in my armor, and I was able to see the truth of my situation.
Today, I don’t have a million dollars in the bank, but I can still feed and shelter myself. I’m careful with my money so that I can use it to live well and happily. Instead I spend a great deal of my time volunteering and finding ways of helping those in my community.

I love what I do, and a big part of why I love it is my focus.

Now I’d love to hear from you about your own experiences, knowledge, opinions.  In the comments below, share one thing that you experienced as a mirror moment that changed your day, or even your life.

This newsletter is in three parts: the first part is my contribution; the second is a video I’ve found that relates to the topic in part 1; the third is a quote. I hope you enjoy the richness this brings to the topic of the week with all three parts.

Pastor Rick – Surviving isn’t thriving

hurt people

Quote of the Week

If human beings are perceived as potentials rather than problems, as possessing strengths instead of weaknesses, as unlimited rather than dull and unresponsive, then they thrive and grow in their capabilities.
― Barbara Bush

At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages.  For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/services-and-programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co