“When life gets tough, the tough get going.” This timeless proverb may be true for some but, for others, hardship can be too much to overcome. When the going gets tough, their life simply falls apart. What is it exactly that separates those who thrive regardless of adversity and those who don’t? Is it genetics, luck, or pure willpower?

Consider that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before he became the first democratically elected president in South Africa. Abraham Lincoln failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, and was defeated eight times in elections before becoming president. A boy born to a teenage alcoholic prostitute and an absentee father found himself in trouble throughout his childhood, eventually growing up to be Charles Manson.

These examples are extreme, but they demonstrate the different routes people may choose when facing major obstacles. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs, stealing, or physical violence. Nearly 16,000 people drank themselves to death in 2010. Every year, more than 3 million children will witness domestic violence in their home. Conversely, many people have gone through hell and back and are moral, happy, and successful. As a youth violence and family trauma psychologist, it’s my job to find the turning point between the right path and the wrong one.

In my own life I dealt with hardship and failure. My family was poor. I had to cope with suicides, mental illness, and domestic violence; two of my family members died of alcoholism. My grandmother was a teacher and I thought I would follow in her footsteps. After attempting to go to school for teaching, I realized that I was not cut out for it. I felt like I had failed. When I was young, I tried to be a writer and was not successful. My first marriage was a failure, as was my first business. I was challenged significantly when I enrolled in my Ph.D. program at the age of 42 and my classmates were all 20 years younger.

And the story would not be complete without telling you that someone attempted to rape me when I was a young woman. I only told a few people. I cried and cried. I wanted to scrub the skin right off my body. Yet today, I can face my fears and am a big fan of “Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit.”

Despite all these trials, life marched on and turned out positive. I earned my Ph.D. I am a successful non-fiction writer and the author of two books that have sold well. I own my own practice, Eastern Shore Psychological Services, which has grown considerably and won numerous awards. And I am happily remarried to a loving husband, although I once told myself that I’d never marry again.

Why was I able to overcome the negative parts of my life when others from similar backgrounds have ended up addicted to substances or in jail? The simple answer is that I had enough protective factors in my life to outweigh my risk factors. For instance:

  • The neighborhood I grew up in was safe.
  • I was always supported by people who loved me.
  • I did well in school and had opportunities to succeed.
  • I had pro-social role models.
  • I received treatment for depression and PTSD.
  • There were many happy events in my life.
  • I kept going, one foot after the other, no matter what.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that children who have more than five risk factors (learning problems, maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, etc.) and less than six protective factors (adult support, life skills, clear standards set by care givers, etc.) have an 80% chance of committing future violent acts. This means that, while we all face varying levels of hardship, there must be a counterbalance of positives in our lives so that we may continue to grow and succeed.

Looking back at my family members who struggled, I realize that they did not have the level of support and education about depression and alcoholism that I was fortunate to have. At two points in my life, I had problems controlling my anger, just like my father. But I gained support through education and friends, and I learned to deal with it effectively. Without these support systems, statistical research says that I would most likely have failed.

It’s true that some of our ability to deal with hardships and failure has to do with biological traits and genetics. Some of it may have to do with luck. But mostly it has to do with the environment and people around us. Our parents, siblings, peers, educators, and community all play a vital role in shaping who we become. Life is tough and we all have our own challenges to face. But we don’t have to face them alone. With a caring heart and encouraging hand, we can all play a role in supporting others through their greatest hardships.

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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