In my therapy practice, I’ve found that it’s usually very effective to inspire clients by noting celebrities or famous people from history who have overcome adversity to become extremely successful, respected, and powerful despite their struggles. In an attempt to inspire you, I wanted to list some of these famous individuals. This article only lists a small number of resilient famous people. Yet there are many others with traumatic pasts which were not included. Their struggles were diverse. If you do not recognize a story similar to yours in this list, my hope is that you will cling to the common thread in all of these stories—pain so intense that it had the power to crush them and squash any ounce of hope they might have had. Against all odds, we can find the strength to overcome any trauma with our resilience.
1. Oprah Winfrey
Before she was the powerful billionaire she is today, Oprah had a troubled past that included promiscuity, drugs and a pregnancy at 14-years-old. She reports
that her baby died shortly after he was born. She had also been repeatedly molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend. It is no doubt that Oprah’s transparency about her struggles—both past and present—have made her more real and approachable in the eyes of the American public. This willingness to be candid about her struggles and her present “flaws”, I believe, have contributed to her success.
2. Jane Fonda
After years of believing that her mother died of a heart attack, Jane eventually learned the truth — that her mother had committed suicide by slitting her throat with a razor. Learning this, in addition to having a cold father, she said, led to an eating disorder battle that lasted 20 years. She since overcame this battle to become a legendary entertainer.
3. Jim Carey
At age 15, Jim Carey and his family were homeless. He quit high school to support his family because his father was an unemployed musician. They eventually had to start living in a van. Despite these struggles, he said he did not let go of his dream to become a comedian. He eventually went on to become one of the most successful comedians of his era.
4. Charlize Theron
When Charlize was 15-years-old, she witnessed her mother shoot her alcoholic father in self-defense. She said she channeled the pain from this trauma, using its power to propel her to have a successful acting career.
5. Joyce Meyer
Before this religious leader had the thriving ministry she now leads, she was sexually and verbally abused by her biological father. She says the abuse was part of her life for as early as she can remember, and lasted through her teens. When she was 18-years-old, she escaped her house by getting married. This unhealthy marriage, which included infidelity, ended in divorce. Her faith grew gradually through the support and love of her husband. Joyce said that she is now able to recognize, in retrospect, that her struggles from childhood have ultimately contributed positively to who she is today.
6. Gabrielle Union
When Gabrielle was 19-years-old, she worked for a Payless Shoe Store in California. One day at work, she reports that a former employee of another Payless, held up her store and raped
her at gunpoint. Gabrielle said that she was determined to be a survivor, not a victim. She sued the store for negligence and the perpetrator was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Gabrielle went on to star in many movies and television shows, including BET’s current drama, Being Mary Jane.
Due to the glitz and glam associated with Hollywood, wealth, and fame in general, it is often easy for us to forget that these stars are human beings. For many of these famous people, their pasts were not so glamorous—there was a great deal of pain. They did not let their pain keep them from living and dreaming big. If anything, their resilience enabled them to turn their pain into motivation. They believed that their pasts did not have to define them or dictate what their futures would look like. This resilience is not a special strength reserved for celebrities. Like these celebrities, we too can overcome our troubled pasts. You may not recognize it in yourself right away. But dig deep. It’s in there somewhere.