I came across an article the other day that talks about how human beings are apparently hardwired for optimism. Humans Hardwired for Optimism
As I read the article, I found myself thinking: Yes, but what about people who are abused, especially if they are abused as children?
And then I read Dr. Vitelli’s post about wild children at Wild Children and I found myself putting them together.
I found myself thinking that perhaps abuse is one of the things that can short-circuit the hardwiring for optimism. Perhaps abuse causes a break in the pattern so that the expectation of things going wrong replaces the expectation that things will go right. (And studies show this does happen. The most recent one says that events such as trauma, loss of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, or a serious betrayal makes people less happy on a long term basis.) The result is individuals who may be afraid to take risks or do things their peers don’t hesitate to do—because those who were abused KNOW that things could go wrong.
So what does this have to do with wild children? Well, Dr. Vitelli cites research that seems to indicate there are critical periods that if missed mean a child cannot become socialized. I found myself wondering if perhaps something similar occurs when a child is subjected to abuse. There may be a similar effect to a lesser degree. But I also found myself wondering if it’s a critical period for acquiring the skill or a critical period for having sufficient motivation to be willing to learn the social skills.
This is a key distinction because if it is motivation then it might be possible to look at the situation differently and present motivation that would be different from what would work with a non-wild (or non-abused) child. It would mean looking for motivation that would be compelling in a way that would matter or make sense to the wild (or abused) child.
It’s also relevant for those who were abused as children because often social skills are a casualty of the abuse—both because of the abuse itself and because the family in which it occurs is likely to be lacking in coping and/or social skills (otherwise the adult would probably not need to abuse the child and the child would not be isolated and could find someone to tell who would stop the abuse). So many abused children don’t learn necessary skills as they are growing up AND lack the hardwiring optimism that would encourage them to try to learn those skills anyway.
I’ll freely admit that while I now tag myself as April_optimist, for much of my life that would not have been accurate. I thought people were cruel, Iexpected things to go wrong and had a hard time believing they wouldn’t, life was something simply to be endured.
I was just too blasted stubborn to give up.
So what does this all mean? Because you know I’m not going to present what seems like pessimistic information without having a solution! It means that we may need to consciously choose to be optimistic—even when it doesn’t feel natural or we have to work at feeling that way. It means perhaps choosing it as a strategy because studies show that it’s a useful approach to life and increases the odds of success and decreases the odds of depression.
It means choosing to never give up—no matter what the “experts” may say about the odds for a given person. It means we may need to consciously choose to acquire skills we didn’t get as children. And that means being willing to choose to go outside our comfort zones over and over again until we do acquire the social skills we didn’t learn as children.
That’s not easy. (I’ll spare you the descriptions of years of awful stumbles on my part as I learned.) But it can be done. IF we acknowledge that we need to learn these skills and don’t blame ourselves for not having the skills (or inclination) to begin with we can accomplish what seem like miracles.
It absolutely means being willing to stumble and make mistakes. It means finding ways to reward ourselves for trying. (There’s that issue of motivation again!) It means giving ourselves credit for what we do learn to do. It means loving ourselves as we are AND asking more for ourselves than we already have. It means having faith that we can learn the things we didn’t learn before. It means having faith that change is possible and having a clear sense of why we want to make those changes. It means allowing ourselves to feel the pain of what we don’t have so that the work it takes to get to where we want to be will feel worth doing.
Note: I am adamantly opposed to any method that involves purposely causing ourselves pain! I truly believe that is one of the most counterproductive things we can do. I strongly believe that the more we can build rewards and fun into any process of change, the more likely we are to follow through. (Just as I believe the optimal method for grounding ourselves in the present is to find things we are happy about that remind us this is NOW.)
The good news is that with each success—however small—IF we acknowledge that success, we gain motivation to keep going. We get proof that change is possible. We discover that things can be better than they were before. We begin to get addicted to being happy and having fun. We reprogram ourselves so that we regain much of the optimism that is hardwired into humans in the beginning and which got undone by the abuse—or even more recent painful setbacks such as a betrayal or loss of a loved one, etc.
As I said, I’m an example of someone who lacked so many skills and learned them. I’m an example of someone who went from being terrified of life to being optimistic. I’m an example someone who made lots of mistakes along the way. But I got here. I’m proof that it’s possible. And I share all this in hopes that my example will give hope to others that their lives can change for the better too.
Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),