Everyone faces adversity, challenges, and trauma in life. For example, a soldier will see horrors that they wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and a star athlete will experience inevitable injuries that will prevent them from performing at their best. Many traumas are near-unavoidable, such as childhood trauma when you are under the custodianship of your parents or guardians. As a result, you might be struggling greatly with your emotional well-being while trying to overcome your past and make a better future.
While facing your life challenges, it is important to note the subtle difference between your experiences helping to shape you and your experiences dictating your future. The importance of this difference is that the former empowers you to choose experiences that will lead to personal growth, while the latter demoralizes you into feeling like a victim of circumstance. So I’ll spend this post explaining it to help you learn and benefit from experiences while minimizing their negative impact.
Your life outcomes are definitely a product of your choices and experiences. If you practice a skill long enough, you will become better at it. Outwork your peers, and you will usually surpass them (barring possible genetic limitations). Success is a result of years of continuous effort and improvement, from a person who practices hours per day to become a great athlete to an academic who studies a field for his whole career. Remember that fame or wealth isn’t necessarily the only measure of success; you can just as easily see success as helping others, contributing to a field, raising children, and providing for your family. Your choices to direct your experiences toward desirable outcomes for your life will be the biggest determining factor in whether you end your life satisfied with it.
However, there are experiences that happen to you that are either outside your control or very negative and debilitating that might make you feel like you’ll never be happy. Anything from being assaulted to being abandoned as a child can stick with you and cause emotional scars that hinder your ability to have healthy relationships, a steady job, or strong friendships. These experiences, while very difficult and devastating, do not have to define you.
There’s a difference between you working in a coal mine or teaching 1st grade and being a coal miner or 1st grade teacher forever. You don’t have to be. As soon as you stop doing it, people will stop saying that you are that. Sure, it might take some time for people—yourself included—to change their mind to match the reality, but it’s really that simple. You can be a teacher one year and then an entrepreneur the next. You can be a nerd in high school and pretty cool and popular in college. You can be someone who experienced childhood trauma when you were younger and a strong, kind, ethical person as an adult. What happened before doesn’t necessarily dictate who you are now.
It is important to acknowledge that it’s not particularly easy to overcome major life setbacks or historical traumas. Yes, you are much more likely to turn to drugs and prostitution if you were molested as a child to either deal with the trauma or treat yourself in the way you feel you deserve to be treated. You are more likely to continue teaching if you are a teacher than fly to Los Angeles and try to make it as a stand-up comedian. You are more likely to push people away, gain weight, or do other things to protect yourself if you had relationship issues in the past. However, it does not have to be that way. Your life is not predestined. Whether you believe in non-physical reality where maybe you had to have that trauma so you could grow into the person you are today or you believe in only scientific, physical reality and think that things just happen, you can have an attitude that you will not let your past define you.
I am a good example of this. I was raised by a single mother, was abandoned by my father as a child, and have always struggled with friendships because I hover between introverted and Asperger’s. I could’ve let my environment dictate my future by staying around my hometown, working at the same dishwasher job I had when I was 15, and not doing anything to improve my conditions. Instead, I studied hard in school, went to college, found a career that I enjoy, moved up the corporate ladder, and am now very successful and do whatever I want with my life. Yes, it has been difficult throughout, as I obsess over every little mistake I make around other human beings and to this day struggle with eye contact, small talk, human connection, and a few enigmatic health issues, but my life situation is multiple times better than it would’ve been if I had just “accepted my fate” as someone who was statistically likely to turn to crime, drugs, and irresponsible behavior due to my social status.
Yes, there are times where your experiences can haunt you. From the “Why did that happen?”s to the woulda/coulda/shouldas to the “How could they do that to me?”s, I’ve been there. I also know that it could be very, very bad in situations such as traumas from war, abuse, and ailments. But there are also plenty of people who don’t let their experiences define them and continue to move forward. For every example of someone who overdoses after skyrocketing to fame after childhood abuse, there are a few people who realize that they define themselves. There are people like David Goggins who went from a mess of a life to a life of discipline, John Walsh who lost a child and helped thousands find theirs, and Steve Jobs who build an amazing company only to get fired from it and then work his way back to make it one of the most successful, influential companies of all time. There are plenty of people who get abused and then help other abuse victims. There are plenty more who use the chip on their shoulder or disadvantages to spur them ahead. The “You can’t beat me!” attitude is just as powerful—if not more—than the can-do attitude of someone who faced less adversity in life.
In short, your chosen experiences shape your future. Your negative experiences can shape you as well, but you choose whether they break you or temper you. The most important thing to understand and remember is that you do not have to be defined by your past. Yes, there will always be the amusing story of the man who complained about being defined by his past actions:
“You see that bridge over there? I built it with my own bare hands. But they don’t call me Jimmy the bridge builder, do they? You see that barn over there? My father and I raised that barn together, but they don’t call me Jimmy the barn raiser, do they? But you fuck one goat…”
and you might become infamous like a Monica Lewinsky or John Bobbitt for embarrassing events. But you’re still alive after them, and your life is still yours to live and not anyone else’s. So get the emotional support you need, do whatever you can to build yourself back up and improve your physical and psychological health, and make your life your own. Because you are not your past, and it doesn’t have to dictate your future. You can take the steps to make yourself what you want to be. It just takes one step at a time and one more success than failure. Take that step and become successful, and you will define yourself by your actions now, not back then. The past is over, the present is here, and the future is yours to make.