Three Strategies to Overcome Disadvantages

...and how to find the path that is right for you.

Posted May 31, 2017

“We change and grow when we can and have a good reason to do so” is a concise and useful way of looking at human development.1 Most of us thrive when we are given ample tools and love, because the thrill of growing into an adult is usually a sufficient reason. Mostly, we grow by building upon our existing strengths, which Malcolm Gladwell calls “capitatization learning”.2 It is fun, obvious and relatively easy. We like to do what we are already good at and feel confident with every step towards greater competence.

Positive psychology has pushed this type of learning for a while now. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, psychotherapists ought to spend more time on focusing on at what went right. Therefore, fostering gratitude tends to improve subjective wellbeing. Finding our strengths and applying them to our lives is often a more constructive way forward than crying about our faults.


When you have not received love, when you weren’t handed the right tools, when you suffer chronic deficits and painful disadvantages, “capitatization learning” is not an option.  According to Gladwell, this is the case for people who are born with dyslexia, lost a parent in their youth or suffered trauma or neglect. What is there to do when we have been dealt a difficult hand?

Most people who are confronted with great disadvantages suffer negative consequences. They might not excel in school – it is hard to comprehend a text when words are stumbling blocks. Dyslexic people face an uphill battle in our language driven school system. Therefore and maybe not surprisingly, an incredibly high percentage of prisoners suffer from dyslexia, childhood trauma or loss of a parent.

It is enormously difficult to have faith in other people and in oneself if one wasn’t loved as a child. Where is courage supposed to come from when one was never encouraged? I speak from experience. I know how hard it was for me to focus my mind while there was chaos in the home. I did not understand how else people could interact; how constructive communication could look like; what loving myself might mean.

What is there to do when we have acquired negative patterns because of our deficits? Instead of having built on our strengths, we might have built on weaknesses. The world might look bleak, dark, unjust or scary to those who suffer disadvantages. What type of learning is best now? Here are three strategies that people use in their lives to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles:


Instead of building on strengths, “compensation learning” means to make up for strengths. It is much harder to face and work with our deficits. It does not feel natural. It does not feel obvious. It is not fun. In fact, compensating for a deficit is often awkward and painful. As Gladwell points out, “compensation learning” confronts you with your limitations: “It requires that you overcome your insecurity and humiliation.”3 However, as hard as this type of learning is, people can be better off than they would otherwise. Compensation learning is highly rewarding in the end, even though this end may be far and distant.

So, instead of giving up, you want to take on the challenge of having to compensate. You might have to go the extra mile, in my case literally. I walked to the library when I had to. I bicycled for miles and miles to get to a computer to write my thesis. I took workshops, underwent therapy and training programs in other countries, spending every penny I earned in multiple day jobs so I could study at night.

In Buddhism we say: No mud – No lotus. The lotus flower, so clean and beautiful, has come from roots anchored in the mud at the bottom of a dark body of water. It is hard or impossible to see the light when you start in the mud. But when you know about “compensation learning,” when you know that your difficulty is an opportunity to become a lotus, you might opt for this strategy more willingly.


On the other hand, overcoming hardship might depend on the opposite strategy. Instead of trying to strive and improve, you might have to give something up. Everybody acquires bad habits in modern times. We are supposed to be somebody; status and riches are most esteemed goals. When you have faced great difficulty in life, buying into this notion can be even more harmful.

Unhealthy goals might stand in your way. Your patterns of perceiving the world as broken off pieces instead of one beautiful, whole picture might make you feel insatiable, needy for more and more pieces. Ending bad patterns can be a great relief. Once you acknowledge this, you might want to learn how to meditate. Meditation is stilling the mind with focused attention on the present moment. (To learn how to meditate, you might benefit from the “Tranquility” chapter in A Unified Theory of Happiness).

Another way of ending patterns is to look at the origins of them and express the feelings you have while doing so. Many people benefit from psychotherapy here. But you can also find ways to express yourself with art and music. Be creative. When you mold your pain into clay, paint it onto a canvas or make it into a song, you can look at it from a new vantage point. Letting go is easier with a changed perspective.


You might not have been loved, but you can become acquainted with this way of life presently. Instead of being mad or sad for too long about a past that has past or waiting for love in the future, create love in your life now. Love somebody. Encourage someone else, not to escape the truth of your darkness, but to discover the truth of your light. Listen attentively. Give. There is always something you can do to invite love into your life. That’s the beauty of love: it is never ever too late. (For more on: love).

Finding your path is the adventure of your personal life and cannot be prescribed. It is my hope that by knowing these three strategies, your path will become a bit more walkable.


  1. German psychologist Gisela Ulman (1987) provided this concise theory in Über den Umgang mit Kindern: Orientierungshilfen für den Erziehungsalltag.
  2. Malcolm Gladwell (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, New York: Back Bay Books, p. 112.
  3. Ibid., p. 113.
  4. Recognizing your problem is always the first step. Please do not overlook one of the greatest one in modern times: chronic loneliness. For more on "How to Get Past Your Loneliness," click here.) 

NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2017 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

----I invite readers to join me on Facebook and to follow my miscellaneous psychological and philosophical musings on Twitter.