by Rhona Johnson
I have always had the strange luck to find the right book at the right time in my life. I took The Survivor Personality written by Dr. Al Siebert off the Library shelf and took it home to read it.
The title appealed to me because for a long time, I had been living those words in my own life! I was curious to see how this book would tie in with my own strategies and my life story of survival over the years.
Chapter One, "Life is not Fair and that can be very good for you" leaped out at me from the page. The first lines about adversity and how we respond hit me right away. I thought of how my son had reacted with rage and anger when his own son was born with brain damage and his response was to curse God and cut me out of his life so that when later on his two other sons were born in good health, I was never allowed to see them. This was an example of how when a person feels victimized they will lash out and try to hurt anyone they can. The blame had to fall on someone, and who else but his mother?
Looking back I could see that I had not been given good coaching on how to cope with adversity in my own childhood., and therefore, I had not been a good coach in his childhood either. So one generation bears the burden of conditioning and negative patterns and passes them on to their children. However, we can all learn how to handle unfair and distressing experiences. I was learning how to change from "victim/blaming" reactions to "learning/coping" ones. It would be a long and lonely journey, but I was on my way.
Dr. Al Siebert wrote that "people trained to act, think and feel as instructed, do not cope with life’s unexpected challenges, as well as a person with self developed abilities because life’s best survivors have each developed a way of coping that is unique to them." I agree with this statement wholeheartedly!
This was my childhood conditioning and followed the description on page 96 (p75 in 1996 edition) "efforts to create a "good child" unfortunately, often produce an adult who is not able to cope well with life." Sadly, "such a person is usually an energy-draining "pain" for others to live and work with." This becomes a barrier to developing a survivor personality, and I found that the journey from "victim/blaming" to "learning/coping" was going to result in years and years of adversity, physical, emotional and mental. "No pain, no gain"!
Life experiences are the best teachers. I was a skinny, shy and often ill child, and was overprotected due to being an unwanted one, due to the poverty and of my parents during the depression. I was very passive and quiet, but angry and terrified of doctors, hospitals and dentists. My mother was a nervous and anxious person, and my father was artistic, musical and socially an introvert. They had both had deprived childhoods themselves, my mother had been placed in an orphanage and my father had fought in the Boer War.
Their marriage was an unhappy one, and they argued over the lack of money and finally divorced. The experience of the bitter and traumatic separation and divorce and the loss of a home and uncertainty, left a mark on my life for many years. I was eighteen at the time, and had to give up a College education, and look for a job in order to help my mother survive. We had to live in one room together in a Boardinghouse.
I had won a scholarship to study Art and hoped to become a Commercial Artist. However, the divorce of my parents forced me to give up my dreams, and I was devastated and angry. My eldest sister had married, my only brother had emigrated to Canada, and my youngest sister was sent to a Boarding school. Our life as we once knew it was gone forever.
On page 21 (in both editions) there is a quote about life and how we learn. "In the schools you go to as a child, you sit in classes where first you learn the lesson, then you take the test. In the school of life it is the opposite. First you take the test, then you learn the lesson." I had to learn how to cope with my parent’s divorce, and the losses that came from this event. Grief and anger and powerlessness had to be endured. We had very little money and I had to learn to sew my own clothes. I had to learn to be flexible and adaptable in order to learn survival skills.
Giving labels to people limits understanding and by the time I was twenty years of age, I had married against my better judgment and realizing I had made a terrible mistake, I suffered a "nervous breakdown" and was diagnosed with "anxiety neurosis". I was treated with pills and given a book about nervous illness. Six months later I was expecting a baby, and was a lonely housewife. I became involved with a religious group not knowing that they were defined as a "cult". I believe I was drawn to this group due to my early conditioning. Dr. Siebert says’ "anyone trying to act like a good child is vulnerable to being overwhelmed when faced with challenges beyond the capacities of the act they were trained to perform. This is why "good" well behaved, white, middle -class young people, when faced with real world problems, are so vulnerable to Cults." I was the perfect example of this type of this assertion, and through my own experiences I proved this to be true of myself.
After my own divorce many years later, I began the long road to self development. The first course I attempted was that of learning "assertiveness". I had always been terrified of conflict, and hated confrontation of any kind. I suppressed my anger and feelings and this affected my health. Women have a huge problem with asserting themselves. This comes from the lack of money, education and support when attempting to escape from unhappy marriages or destructive relationships. It takes much courage for them to take those first tentative steps towards learning about gaining self worth, self esteem and self acceptance. Personal development became my passion.
At the age of fifteen, I had gained good marks at school, enjoyed sport and won prizes for Art. I was confident in my work, but still very inhibited with emotional and social issues.
After marriage and with a son aged eight, we decided to emigrate to Australia. This was to be the next lesson in life and survival. The grief of homesickness and adjusting to a new country was severe for the three of us.
The issue of being a "good child" and the conditioning that goes along with it handicaps one later on in life. My youngest sister also suffered later on with a severe eating disorder that nearly killed her. We pay a terrible price for the acceptance and approval of our parents.
The religious aspect adds more damage and the conditioning to be a "good member" of a group made coping more difficult. I could now see that fundamental beliefs can cause a black and white type of thinking. One has to others as "bad" or as "unbelievers" and this can make a person seem unloving and uncaring and lacking in tolerance and empathy.
The next challenge was to free ourselves from this group after ten years. This was achieved through letters to the Headquarters to object to a doctrine that was causing members to reject medical aid, and indeed many members had died as a result. My sister who was still a member of this group, would not be allowed to talk to us, if we were disfellowshipped and this is what happened to us. We were now cut off from our former friends in the group and my sister has not spoken or written to me since 1968, the year my father died. It is now the year 2004.
I can see how this came about, and this statement on page 108 (p88 in 1996 edition) explains the reason. "After years of being praised for good conduct in school, it feels familiar to again sit passively in uncomfortable chairs without being allowed to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water until given permission. It feels familiar to passively sit and listen to an authoritative person tell them how to think, feel and act in order to be a new kind of noun." We spent years and years listening to lectures on how to be "good" members of a Cult.
We had to start again from scratch. This is where the mysterious factor of "synchronicity" came into my life. I started the search for answers at the local Library and this led to finding the right books and the right people. We found a support group for ex Cult members and this in turn led into helping others escape from similar groups.
With regard to health and illness and stress and strain, I had more lessons to learn. Being a good child I was told not to complain or express anger. When it came to my own illnesses and injuries I had to learn to become a difficult patient and I refused surgery for my back when three times I suffered prolapsed discs that caused me months of pain and agony. I was sent to hospital for traction and it affected my family who were unable to cope with my being an invalid and caused anger and resentment.
I had to learn that being a survivor can be painful. One is sometimes misunderstood, and misjudged. I had to learn to overcome low self esteem, and going to University and obtaining a degree did help in this regard. I also had to learn to drive a car and become a single parent. It takes a strong self image and much self worth to stand up to anger and abuse, prejudice and punishment in order to survive. Curiosity, and a sense of humor are qualities that are needed. When you learn to appreciate yourself and your accomplishments, others will accuse you of being self absorbed or of having an "ego" problem.
However, the achievement of becoming a survivor who thrives is worth all the time and effort involved. I hope that my story will help others in their own journey to find contentment and peace of mind.