How Pain from the Past Can Be a Gift in the Present

“When something bad happens you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” ~Unknown

Don’t hate your past. No matter what it contained or what it did to you, the past shapes who you are, not just for the things you felt damaged you but for the lessons you can take from it.

I love working with the people I call the world shakers. They’re the people who want to make a difference in the world so that they leave it in a slightly better way than they found it.

I love these types of people because they’re so driven by their heart and passion for others. They’re kind. They value people.

You know what else these people have in common? They have empathy for others and a desire to make the world a better place. Not in a showy, “give me the Nobel Peace Prize” kind of way (although a bit more showy-ness wouldn’t go amiss!) but in a gentle, modest way.

Do you know what really amazes and inspires me about world shakers? They’ve had their own hurts, challenges, and heartbreaks but instead of letting those things harden them and make them brittle, they’ve allowed themselves to stay open and vulnerable.

They’ve taken those things that have wounded, battered, and pierced them and transformed the experiences into fierce empathy for others.

They can’t walk past the person who’s struggling because they know how it feels to struggle. They have a way of recognizing the human condition in all of us.

They turn it outward and use it as a learning experience, one that enhances their ability to empathize and drives their conviction to change things for others.

It could be the mother who refuses to pass on the cycle of abuse she experienced to her own kids, or the teacher who bans the world “stupid” from her classroom because she can remember how much it crippled her to hear it as a child.

It could be the man who gives coffee to the homeless guy every day because he can knows what it’s like to feel like no one cares about you, or the recovering addict who works with troubled teens to try and save them the pain of his experiences.

World shaking is often driven by a need to make things better because of the pain we’ve suffered ourselves. 

Still, I still have to catch myself when I bemoan the things that have happened to me over the years. Like everyone, I’ve had my share of unpleasant, difficult, and down right heart breaking experiences.

For the longest time I was angry at the world because I’d experienced them. I hated the mistakes I made. I berated myself for my screw-ups and stupid choices. I felt defined by them—embarrassed and soiled—like I should be wearing a T-Shirt with the words “Damaged Goods” on it.

One day, a very wise person said these words to me:

Everything that has ever happened to you is the perfect preparation for the person you’re destined to become.

And everything flipped.

Those things that I had regretted so much had shaped me. What’s more, I had a choice in it. I had inadvertently used those things that had happened to me as things that drove me forward. Many of the things I’d become interested in, my passions, and my values were driven by those very experiences.

I’m a passionate advocate for reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues, and I started my whole journey of learning about personal development and emotional resilience because of my own battles with stress-related illness.

I help people find joy, passion, and a sense of purpose at work and that’s undoubtedly because I spent so many years in jobs that didn’t suit or that where I didn’t feel I was making a difference.

I’ve also struggled in jobs that really did suit me because I didn’t know how to handle the stresses and challenges our work can bring. I didn’t understand the importance of asking for help, having strong support networks, actively managing stress, and making sure I wasn’t mentally giving myself a hard time too often.

Having to take a break due to burn out and stress felt horrible at the time it happened to me. But during that time out I studied, trained, and read—a lot!

I realized that resilience is a practice, not some innate skill that you either have or you don’t. I learned how to develop my own resilience and that made me immensely driven to help others do it, too.

My dark times also forged my sense of empathy, a key skill I bring to my work. If I’d had the “charmed” life I’d originally wanted, would this have been the case? Somehow I doubt it.

All of the lessons I’ve learned led to wisdom that can only be gained through experiencing life’s ups and downs.

Hard lessons learned are deep lessons. They shape us. Most of us are familiar with the term post-traumatic stress, but did you know there is also a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth?

It’s the ability to grow through adversity—to come out the other end stronger, clearer, and with a renewed zest for life.

I think that’s what many of us fail to recognize in ourselves, that those dark times, far from diminishing us, can give us the most profound of gifts—the gift of recognizing human life in all its messy, painful, courageous glory.

We can take those gifts and use them to be a beacon to others to say, “It’s okay. I’ve been there. This too will pass.”

And that surely is a real gift worth giving.

About Jo Casey

Jo Casey is a resilience expert, trainer and coach who’s on a mission to help people increase their joy, passion & impact at work. She’s a mama, recovering perfectionist, yoga addict and baker of a mean sponge cake. Visit Jo at where you can sign up for her free ‘Work Happier Now’ course. Or you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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