Over the past three decades, I have trained more than 4 million people, sharing with them many intimate details about my life. However, I have never shared the fact that I was a child of domestic violence. And, if I had not met Brian Martin, I don’t know if I would have.
Brian asked to meet with me several years ago. I wanted to make time as I am always intrigued by what’s behind the success of self-made individuals, and Brian’s business was making waves in his industry. But on the day we had scheduled, I found myself running between meetings on a short stopover in New York before flying to London, and there was simply no time. Or at least that’s what I thought until my assistant called to tell me that Brian had been waiting patiently in the downstairs lobby of my hotel for the past two hours. Someone that persistent I had to meet.
As it happened, I had about an hour before the car came to take my wife, Sage, and me to the airport, so I invited Brian to come up to our suite. Immediately, it felt like we were on the same wavelength, members of the same tribe—and we had more in common than we knew. We talked for a while about his company and ways that he could help me reach my goals.
As I was getting ready to leave, Brian told me about the work he was doing through his foundation CDV—Children of Domestic Violence. He pulled out a report by UNICEF, and the numbers were staggering: 1 billion people worldwide are alive today who grew up living with domestic violence. I had no idea what a global epidemic this was. It resonated with me in ways I couldn’t share with him yet. Sage and I were both in tears. Until then I had never told anyone outside of my immediate family that I had been one of those kids. It was a fact I would not publicly share until my interview with Oprah in February 2012.
I didn’t like to talk about it much because my childhood does not define me, but I certainly grew up living with domestic violence. Like hundreds of millions of people, Brian and I grew up in households where violence was an ongoing part of our existence. We didn’t call it violence then, we just called it life. Shouting voices from down the stairs, people smashing things on the wall, a fist through a door, those who you love most hurting one another, physically and emotionally.
I was on my own by the time I was seventeen. I used to live in anger and used my rage as energy. I converted it into drive, fortunately, because just being angry wouldn’t have changed anything. Instead, those childhood experiences gave me the hunger to provide for my own wife and children, and the desire to help millions who’ve faced a similar situation. Feeling powerless inspired me to dedicate my life and career to empowering others.
That was also Brian’s path, and the choice that countless others have made to reach their full potential despite their early experiences living with domestic violence. His story, and the many other stories you will read in this book, demonstrate that you don’t need to start out in life with all the advantages. The difference between those who are successful and those who are not is psychological strength, emotional fitness. It’s the capacity to face the worst setbacks and find something inside to push through and triumph no matter the circumstance.
In the following pages, Brian answers the question, Can a childhood filled with violence and pain be transformed into one filled with strength, love, and freedom? The simple answer is: Yes, it can! You have the power to shape the raw material of your past and mold it into the life that you want.
In fact, what appeals to me most about Brian’s approach is that it is based on empowerment. Our experiences as children living with domestic violence have given us the equipment—a secret weapon if you will—to overcome all kinds of obstacles in our lives. What we went through, those things we faced as children have left us with vast inner reserves of strength, compassion, and courage. These are the gifts we were given in exchange for the price we paid as children. It means that we are not victims, we are victorious.
Like I have often said, your biography is not your destiny. We are not fated to repeat what happened to us ten, twenty, thirty years ago. At any moment in our lives we can choose which course we want to take. There’s no reason to be stuck in the same story. It’s just a question of figuring out how to flip the script.
But first, let’s look at the facts. Let’s see it as it is because this is not about positive thinking, this is about the truth.
Globally, UNICEF calls childhood domestic violence one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world today, affecting a billion people worldwide.
What triggers this violence? Essentially, it arises when someone feels they have lost control: whether as a result of financial stress or the ending of a relationship or a threat to their well-being. Suddenly they snap. Why? Often those who commit violence—physical or verbal—are emotionally scarred from feeling helpless as children, and they have been filled with fear and rage. It does not often take a lot for a person in this state to be triggered. Perhaps her life doesn’t match how she thinks it should be. Maybe she has a deep-seated fear that she is not good enough. And in that moment she loses control and starts to become violent toward her partner or children. This person (or perhaps you if you have been in this position) is in crisis and is now creating a greater crisis for those she loves.
Whether you have experienced abuse or you’ve been an abuser, it is important to understand that your actions and thoughts are often driven by falsehoods that you’ve learned—or often your parents learned. And that these falsehoods can be unlearned. You can create new truths. See it as it is; not worse than it is. The deeper truth is that no matter where you are in life, you have not yet tapped into your full potential. But it is within your grasp.
Like millions of others, we first experienced this pain as children, forming the memories and associations that shaped our lives. But then we realized that we could choose to tell ourselves a different story. We, along with millions of others, including presidents, senators, Academy Award–winning actors, Grammy Award–winning entertainers, business leaders, inventors, artists, and billionaires, also happened upon some important truths, and that has made all the difference in our lives. These truths, when shared, unlock an avalanche of untapped potential. Out of so much pain and injustice, something good must come, and it does.
If you’ve experienced any part of what I have described here, you know that one of the most agonizing feelings in the world is to have the people you love most in the world—the people who are supposed to love you the most—put you in a position to be hurt. For some, feeling you can do nothing to stop the abuse of others is equally excruciating.
When you grow up living with domestic violence, witnessing those you love tear each other down with physical and verbal blows, your brain doesn’t know how to deal with that. This kind of pain is not like a cut or a punch. It wounds the mind, the psyche, the spirit. It is one thing to have physical pain that can heal, but spiritual pain lives deep inside your subconscious mind and defines your self-concept; it leaves an indelible mark. But one thing is true: Only those who have experienced extreme pain have extreme strength. Spiritual pain creates spiritual depth and strength.
Most of us are looking for something outside ourselves to blame for our situation rather than finding a way to take control of ourselves and maximize our greatest strengths. Giving up self-control leads to depression, anger, resentment, and all the other lies that Brian talks about throughout this book. But the fact is, we have a choice.
The history of humankind has been shaped by men and women who made it through enormous pain; men and women who, no matter what they experienced, would not give up. They found the courage to move forward. And the truth is, the same energy is in your spirit as well. Courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid, it means you are afraid but you do what is necessary anyway.
If you grew up living with domestic violence—or care for someone who has—remember that there are choices. There are countless people who have been able to reclaim their past and rebuild it into something that serves the greater good for the future.
The potential’s inside of you now, so embrace the gift. It’s time to share the truth, to speak the truth, to live the truth.
The courageous men and women you’ll meet in this book have felt that pain. Some of us felt our mother’s and father’s pain as though it were our own. Others were once caught in this cycle, yet have successfully broken free. They have learned a way of life that’s based on contribution, inner strength, and love. This path is available to you, and your road map is here.