Tough start in life? You know more than you think

Tough looking white cat with green eyes staring into camera

Estimated reading time: 10 min minutes

Do you sometimes feel you’ve been left behind? That you don’t understand how to cope with day-to-day demands? Learn to value the resilience you’ve developed after a tough start in life. Read on for tips to help you bounce back with greater self-confidence.   

Be kind to yourself

If you’ve had a tough start to life, you may feel behind in some areas. However, you’re probably discounting what you’ve learned from your experiences.

And many people forget that developing personal qualities and life skills takes many years. It’s an ongoing process that really never ends.

Naturally, your attitudes and willingness to work hard are key. But no-one learns all these things instantly, or by themselves.

1 Recognise your skills

Comparing yourself to others can make you lose confidence. And you may still feel inadequate because of your background.

However, you’ve developed many skills and abilities that you probably dismiss as trivial. Many of these skills are now transferable to other situations. They can be applied to work, sport or leisure opportunities.

But if you don’t recognise your skills, it’s hard to develop them. Are you willing to further your personal growth?

Perhaps you know more than you think.

2 Recognise difficulties early in life

As an adult, you probably now overlook problems you faced when you were younger. You think that’s all in the past, and you should have overcome it by now. But this may not be fair to you. It’s important to recognise difficulties that held back your learning.

Many factors have affected your development.

Your family situation and environment were unique, and many other outside influences have acted on you since birth.

All of these factors shaped your beliefs and attitudes, and helped make you the person you are. And some of these influences may not have been positive.

However, you can overcome the impact of your tough start in life. Acknowledge any difficulties that held back your learning. Then identify and build on the unique skills that helped you manage with these problems. You know more than you think.

Acknowledging past difficulties

Which of these applied to you when you were younger?

1 Ineffective role models

Maybe your parents or teachers weren’t strong role models. So you didn’t often see positive qualities in action. Instead undesirable habits or activities were praised.

Your wish to better yourself may have been ridiculed, and you felt pressure to conform to what others did.

In the process, you lost touch with mainstream goals.

2 No encouragement

Maybe no-one encouraged you to value learning. You were expected to leave school and go out to work early. There may not have been much money for tuition. Anyway, perhaps you didn’t have the peace and quiet to study.

Or quite the reverse may have happened; you may have felt immense pressure to perform 100% all the time, as Shelley does in this article.

3 Difficult home life

Many people grew up in chaotic home situations. Perhaps you couldn’t focus on your own needs. There were too many conflicting problems.

If you had a lot of other responsibilities, they may have taken priority over your schoolwork.

You may have had to work in the family business. You may have cared for family members when you were young, or had to manage someone’s unpredictable mental state.

Your family may have had a lot of unspoken rules that you had to follow in order to maintain stability. These types of rules lead to tension within the family.

Less powerful members of the family feel trapped, and helpless to change the family dynamics. However from the outside, the family may present as being “perfect.” That means no-one else notices what’s going on. 

4 Major health issues

Major health issues can disrupt education. You may have missed a lot of schooling, and found it hard to catch up.

Perhaps you were in pain, or taking medication that affected concentration. Even with hospital schooling, you would have fallen behind.

5 Moving from interstate or overseas

Your family may have moved for financial reasons, or due to civil unrest, violence or unsafe conditions.

If so, you and your family would have faced a long adjustment period. Finding work and accommodation would have taken priority over schooling issues.

You may even have moved several times within a few years. That makes slotting into the right grade at school difficult. It can also increase social anxiety, and deter you from making friends. 

6 Being different

Schools are hotbeds of bullying and cruelty. Anyone who is a little different from the masses is marked out. Either they suffer bullying and/or harassment, or they’re totally shunned.

Students who find it difficult to maintain attention and sit still in class can be singled out by teachers. Then they’re treated as if they’re nuisances. 

If you looked, sounded, or acted differently to the mainstream, you probably were a target.

Both bullying and exclusion can have a devastating impact on your well-being, and by extension, on your schooling.

7 Being overwhelmed

So you may not have done as well at school as you could have. But it wasn’t that you were stupid.

You were probably overwhelmed by your situation. You may have felt anxious much of the time, and preoccupied by what was going on at home. Or you may have felt sad and lonely, and fearful of not fitting in. You may have found it hard to manage your emotions, especially when the environment was noisy or chaotic. 

Nowadays, we know that no-one takes in new information effectively when they’re tired, worried, sad or feeling stressed.

But in past years, these difficulties weren’t recognised as affecting learning. Teachers may have labelled you as stupid or uncooperative, simply because you couldn’t focus on your schoolwork. 

But these labels were unfair and unjustified. You were doing the best you could. And remember, your capacity to learn is still untapped.

Here are some tips to help you move forward in life, with more confidence in yourself. 

Acknowledge a tough start in life

Take a moment to acknowledge what a tough start in life you had.

Acknowledge the emotional pain you may have suffered when young. You may still carry this around with you.

Sit quietly and let the pain be there, without trying to get rid of it. Just experience it, without demanding it go away. Don’t add to it by getting panicky that you’re feeling like this.

The feelings will pass. They won’t last forever. You will be able to resume your normal activities.

Doing something pleasant, talking to a good friend, or doing some exercise is a good way to lift your mood. 

So be kind to yourself and acknowledge what you’ve been through. You’ve had to face difficulties that many others haven’t.

But acknowledging this isn’t the end of the story.

The next step is to use your neglected skills and qualities as a scaffold on which to build more learning. You may find out you know more than you think.

1 Recognise your skills

If you’ve had a tough start in life, you may have learned to solve problems quickly. You may have helped organise the household or family workplace.

Young carers or helpers often take on lots of duties, such as:

liaising with health, financial or other professionals

helping with younger family members

organising medications or treatments

looking after others’ personal needs




You may have had to think on your feet to keep yourself safe.

You’ve probably also learned how to negotiate with difficult people.

2 Recognise your resilience

People who’ve never struggled often lack resilience. They collapse at the first difficulty, and don’t easily recover. Their disappointment and fears overwhelm them, to the point that they don’t function well.

They haven’t learned they can overcome problems. Instead, they cling to demands that life be the way they want it.

In contrast, you have inner strengths and qualities many others never develop. A tough start in life can develop resilience.

Resilience means you’re able to recover from setbacks. It doesn’t mean you never have problems. But it does mean using your talents and strengths to take control, and working towards finding meaning and purpose.

Even if life isn’t going the way you want, it’s still worth living. It’s just different to what you expected. And you can cope with that.

3 Focus on your strengths

So focus on your strengths now. Work on so-called weaknesses later if you need to.

Refuse to compare yourself to others. Everyone has unique skills, qualities and viewpoints.

For example, some people communicate well with others. They love energising groups of diverse people.

On the other hand, others excel at being alone. Their creations may be of great depth and insight.

So everyone has something to offer each other. So let’s work out what your unique skills and talents are.

4 Define your positives

Can you list any skills you developed in response to your environment? Which personal qualities came to the fore?

Think of even the smallest situations that you had to deal with. 

Note down positive actions you did, no matter how tiny. Or positive characteristics you showed, no matter how basic.

For example, if you were ill, you may have developed patience, perseverance and determination. In addition, you may now have more empathy for others’ health issues.

If you moved often, you may have quickly adjusted to change, been resourceful, and empathised with others who didn’t fit in.

Think of lots of different situations you went through.

Which personal qualities or skills did you develop as a result?

Now describe exactly how you showed these qualities or skills. Be specific about the actions you took. Don’t feel this is being big-headed. It’s stating facts; positive things that you really did. 

Take some days or even weeks to write these out. Then look over this list and pick out patterns of behaviour.

Can you summarise the skills and personality traits that are highlighted by this list? Don’t miss out anything, no matter how small. Give yourself credit. 

5 Develop a growth mindset

If you have a growth mindset as defined by Carol Dweck, you believe you can learn. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what education you’ve had. You’re capable of learning whatever you need in life.

So now you can take your list of skills and positive qualities, and decide which of these you want to develop further.

Which of them would be useful when looking for another job position, or applying for a promotion? How can you use these skills more in your daily life to solve problems in relationships, study, or developing your valued interests? Which ones will help move you closer to your dreams and goals?

Remember, you can also find people to help you along your path. It’s never too late to overcome a tough start in life.

6 Choose your role models

Now you’re an adult, you can choose your own role models.

Look for people moving towards meaningful goals. Think carefully to see if you respect the choices they make on a daily basis. Do they act in ways that match the positive values they claim to believe in? If so, let them inspire you to start your journey.

Make the choice to change your life now. Choose one small behaviour to change.

That one small step can start lifelong change.

7 Let go of bitterness and blaming

Having had a tough start in life can make you bitter. You may be angry and resentful you’ve had to suffer, or that you’ve missed out.

You can feel as if you’re always trying to catch up. Notice these feelings and thoughts. They’re valid, and they’re all part of your experience.

But going over and over them isn’t helpful.

You could always blame others for making life hard for you. But blaming keeps you mired in resentment and self-pity. It won’t help move you forward in life.

Refuse to blame others or yourself. Free yourself from bitterness so you can move on with life.

Bounce back from a tough start in life

You’re an important part of a greater whole. This applies no matter what group you’re part of – whether it’s family, friendship, work, study or volunteer.

See if you can carve out a niche for yourself. Play to your strengths. Think outside the box. Do what makes you feel fulfilled and worthwhile. In your own way, be a small part of something more.

Even if you had a tough start in life, you know more than you think.

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