In her 2021 book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing—co-written with psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry—Oprah Winfrey opened up about the trauma she witnessed and went through when she was a child.
Winfrey talks about how she was severely physically abused—beaten to the point of being bloody—and how she also saw the violence between her grandfather and grandmother.
Winfrey also gives insight into how she overcame the trauma and how she was able to become resilient as a result of the pain. “Turn your wounds into wisdom,” is something she would say on her talk show.
But how do people recover from the pain of their past and become all the stronger for it?
Here are some signs that your pain has made you develop a deep sense of resilience.
1) You have acknowledged and accepted the past
Recognizing what has happened in our past doesn’t mean that we condone what happened, but it means that we don’t deny what happened, either.
“What I’ve learned about acknowledging my past is that I accept whatever happened has happened, but [that] I do not live there now,” says lifestyle writer Zahwah Bagharib.
Maybe you have learned from past mistakes, or you have forgiven those that hurt and betrayed you—not for their sake—but for your own emotional health.
You accept what you can’t change and refuse to ruminate on the past. You know that focusing on the “what ifs” may lead you to repeatedly engage in the same inner conversations and scenarios, says Sandra Silva Casabianca from PsychCentral.
“Thinking about what happened isn’t going to change it…[it’s] the ‘what coulds’ and ‘what wills’ that may help you move forward and be intentional in daily decisions that will affect your present and future.”
2) You also appreciate the fact that you’re still standing
It can be healing and helpful to appreciate that you are still here despite the heavy weight of your past, says therapist Suzanne Lachmann.
“It takes profound resilience to be where you are after where you have been,” she says.
“You may have come to believe via the negative experiences in your history, that you’re ‘supposed’ to go through life feeling bad. Yet the fighter within you is able to recognize that what you have been through doesn’t have to be how it always is.”
You realize that you are much more than the negative narratives from your past. You have come out the other side of it and that’s certainly something to be proud of.
3) You feel free from the past
Resilient people have often worked hard to free the hold their past has had on them.
They know that their past no longer represents who they are today or who they want to be in the future.
When they look back on their history and its impact, they appreciate the “building blocks” that contributed to their resilience, says Lachmann.
“You may see the opportunities to engage in the fortunate and challenging experiences that helped to shape you in a way that helps you feel solid in who you are, now.
4) You are dedicated to making the most out of each day
Feeling free from the past doesn’t mean that it never creeps up on you from time to time.
There will be days that you feel sorrow for what was lost or what could have been. This is part of the human condition.
But even if some days you feel like you are going through the motions, you’re still doing what needs to be done, says Holly Riordan from Collective World.
“You are still rolling out of bed and facing your day; even though it’s a struggle for you. This type of courage usually goes unnoticed—but you should at least recognize it yourself,” she says.
When stress, adversity, or trauma intrude on you, you still experience anger, grief, and pain—but the difference is that you are able to keep functioning, both physically and psychologically, says the Mayo Clinic.
Be proud that you are putting one foot in front of the other—even when some days you feel like you are back in the thick of it.
This is a huge deal for your healing and you should be proud of yourself.
5) Healing and self-care are high on your list of priorities
Resilience is just about putting up with your predicament, “being stoic, or figuring it out on your own,” says the Mayo Clinic.
Adapting to adversity means to take care of yourself—a big part of resilience includes reaching out to others for help and support.
It also means tending to your own needs such as immersing yourself in a hobby you enjoy. Regular physical activity such as taking a long walk in nature can also be especially healing.
Practicing mind-body relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing exercises can also help immensely.
Of course, eating well and getting enough rest are also essential for resilience and well-being.
We often talk about triggers but it’s also important to look for what one expert calls the “glimmers” in life. These could be that first sip of your morning coffee, the feel of your dog’s fur when you pet them, the sun on your skin during a walk, or even going through your nightly skincare routine.
These little things we do for ourselves can have a way of grounding us when we are intentional about them and bringing us back to the present moment.
6) You’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work
Part of being resilient relies on drawing on past experiences to help you cope with the challenges you’re facing today, says the team at HelpGuide.
“Even if you’ve struggled to cope with adversity in the past, you may at least be able to recognize some of the ways of coping that don’t help, such as trying to numb your feelings with drugs or alcohol.”
You know any kind of substance abuse will only make things worse—both mentally and physically—and you refuse to go (back) down that road.
Of course, other forms of addiction can be food as well as becoming a workaholic.
7) You see setbacks as part of the process
Being resilient means knowing that while you can’t change the past, you can always be hopeful about the future.
It’s important to remember that there will always be setbacks. Experts say that accepting—even anticipating—them makes it easier to adapt and view new challenges with less anxiety.
This doesn’t mean having a “false positivity” and ignoring any difficult feelings when they come up.
“It’s important to note that being resilient requires a skill set that you can work on and grow over time,” says Katie Hurley from Everyday Health.
“Building resilience takes time, strength, and help from people around you; you’ll likely experience setbacks along the way.”
“It depends on personal behaviors and skills—like self-esteem and communication skills—as well as external things [such as] social support and resources available to you.”
Remember that being resilient doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience stress, emotional upheaval, and even suffering. It means that you know that you can work through the emotional pain and restore equilibrium.
The road to resilience requires the following things:
Don’t let your fear of new experiences or an uncertain future overwhelm you.
Take one day at a time and try to be focused, flexible, and productive—in both good and bad times, says the team at HelpGuide.
“Manage and tolerate strong emotions outside of your comfort zone, even those you’d rather avoid like anger or despair.”
Also, work on strengthening your relationships and improving your communication skills, especially under pressure.
A big part of being resilient is knowing that you will eventually find a solution to any issue or problem—even when a solution seems out of reach.
“Surviving hardships can teach you important things about yourself and the world around you, strengthen your resolve, deepen your empathy, and in time enable you to evolve and grow as a human being.”
Part of the path might be to seek professional advice:
Remember that resilience takes time and it takes trial and error.
If you don’t know how to develop resilience or you don’t feel like you’re making much progress, talking to a mental health professional can point you in the right direction.
Here is a list of emotionally resilient phrases, according to a Harvard psychologist:
Dr. Cortney Warren, who is a Harvard-trained psychologist, says that emotionally resilient people tend to use the following phrases:
I can get through this.
I’m not going to let myself be a victim.
This, too, shall pass.
What can I learn from this?
I need some time.
Life is hard [and that’s okay].
It is what it is.
I have to see the reality for what it is, even if it’s not what I want, so I can move forward.
I still have things I’m grateful for.
I’m letting this go.
“Forgiving this doesn’t mean that it was okay; it just means that I’m no longer letting it weigh me down.”