We’ve all been there—suffering through a painful presentation. And many of us have been that person standing in front of a group of people, all eyes on us, knowing that the group is expecting more than we feel capable of providing.

Having spoken to many crowds and listened to many speakers, I’ve had enough experience both in front of the microphone and behind it, to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of public speaking. I’ll begin with my top 10 mistakes and finish with my best advice, all of which I wish I’d known before I ever gave a speech, workshop, or media appearance.

  1. Telling the audience how nervous you are.
  2. Telling a completely irrelevant story designed to “break the ice.” Unless it’s relevant or universally funny, skip it and get to the main message you’ve been entrusted to bring.
  3. Rambling all over the place without connecting the dots to the fragments of your speech.
  4. Giving a speech filled with bullet points bereft of story to provide context.
  5. Standing like a statue with no movement, animation, or facial expression to help drive home your point.
  6. Telling an off-color or politically incorrect joke. Just don’t. Ever.
  7. Giving TMI (too much information). No one wants to hear your intimate details.
  8. Going into too much detail, especially irrelevant details. No one needs to know the turn-by-turn instructions of how you arrived at the venue.
  9. Using “fillers” as in the person who says “um,” “you know,” etc. repeatedly throughout his or her talk.
  10. And the number one biggest mistake of public speaking is being OVER- or UNDER-prepared. The person who is over-prepared has memorized his or her speech which sounds “canned,”and generic. The under-prepared speaker wastes everyone’s time by failing to prepare a relevant and engaging talk specifically for that particular audience.

Now that you know what NOT to do, here are some tips on what TO do to earn the appreciation of the people who have invited you and to be asked by others to share at their events.

  1. Know your audience and what concerns them. This is key to being relevant.
  2. Know the theme of the event, and understand what they expect from you. Be sure you can meet their expectations before you agree to speak.
  3. Prepare your talk so that you know your main point, and deliver it with passion, enthusiasm, and with relevant stories that drive it home.
  4. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally so that you arrive at the venue with a genuine smile on your face and a message in your heart and mind that you are prepared to deliver with every ounce of energy you have.
  5. Prepare yourself physically by getting plenty of sleep the night before the event, drinking plenty of water, and eating lightly before the event. It’s important to eat something so that you don’t get lightheaded or distracted by hunger, but it’s equally important not to eat too much so that your stomach isn’t trying to process a heavy meal while your mind is trying to coordinate with your mouth to deliver an engaging message!
  6. Prepare what you will wear so that your clothing doesn’t distract from your message. It’s important to wear colors that make you stand out in the crowd but not so far out that you aren’t taken seriously.
  7. Be sure that your attitude, facial expressions, and body language match the message you’re trying to communicate.
  8. Never, ever, under any circumstances distort the truth. If you’re not sure about something, verify it before stepping out in front of the crowd. If you are put on the spot in front of the crowd, don’t be afraid to say, “Gosh, I don’t know.” It’s better to admit that you don’t know everything than to prove you’re a liar. Remember that practically every attendee in the audience will have a little device in their pocket on which they can verify the veracity of what you have to say in less than 10 seconds. Don’t lie. Ever.
  9. Be early to the event. Remember that whoever invited you has put his or her reputation on the line to vouch for you. Unless you’re in the emergency room or the morgue, you do not get a “pass” for being late.
  10. In the last 10-15 minutes before giving your talk, don’t look at email. Do not check your social networking pages. And be careful not to engage in serious conversation. This little piece of advice will help you avoid the avoidable disaster that can happen if you receive bad news that you can do nothing about right before you become the center of attention.

If you’ve been entrusted with a message to share with others, I wrote this for YOU. If you fall prey to these mistakes, your message will be diminished. On the other hand, if you avoid these mistakes and follow this advice, you will be better able to communicate your message with those who can benefit most from it.


rhonda-sciortinoRhonda Sciortino, author Successful Survivors — 8 character traits of survivors and how you can attain them

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Pretending Suicide Isn’t A Problem Won’t Make It Go Away

Originally published by Foster Focus Magazine.

Victims of abuse are at higher risk.

We can’t prevent suicide if we don’t talk about it. So, let’s have an honest conversation about the fact that those of us who have experienced the pain of being abandoned, abused, neglected, sold, or treated in any way that made us feel unloved and unworthy of love, are at a much higher risk of suicide.

According to Dr. Daniel J. Pilowsky of Mailman School of Public Health, adolescents involved with foster care are about four times more likely to have attempted suicide than adolescents never placed in foster care. This probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who has ever been in foster care.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5 to 15-year-olds in the general population. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “teenagers experience strong feelings of stress, confusion, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, and other fears.” If teens in the general population experience those feelings, imagine the exponential magnification of those feelings by the factors of abandonment, neglect, and abuse that preceded time in the foster care system—a system of living with strangers (hopefully well-meaning, but strangers, nevertheless).

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that every 40 seconds someone commits suicide in the US. This is a national tragedy, which is particularly poignant because it’s often foreseeable and preventable.

Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. The challenge is that many current and former foster kids don’t seek help. This unwillingness to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts can be rooted in various issues including, but not limited to, being unaware that no- or low-cost services are available and accessible, an inherent feeling of hopelessness that there is anything that can make life any better, a feeling of being unworthy of receiving help, or the stigma and shame that can accompany thoughts of suicide.

Many of us have been touched by suicide. This is, in fact, one of the factors that increases our risk of suicide. Once someone in our life has taken their life that person’s action becomes an option in the back of our minds should the pain simply get beyond what we can bear. For people who had a parent who suicided when the person was young, there can be an additional underlying sense that it is their destiny to repeat that tragic family history. In addition to childhood abuse and knowing someone who suicided, other risk factors include previous suicide attempts, family history of mental health conditions, mental health diagnosis, and substance abuse.

– See the complete article:

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You May Say I’m A Dreamer

Originally published by Foster Focus Magazine.

I have some big dreams and visions. And I’m not the only one. There are lots of us who want to do big things with our lives. We want to make our lives count for something. Many of us try to accomplish big things, but because we only have our piece of the puzzle, we fall short. But when we come together, we’re stronger and better able to do big things.

I have a dream to see kids who are growing up in less than the best of circumstances to be connected with churches in communities throughout the country. I can envision kids who have experienced abandonment, abuse, neglect, poverty, or homelessness (or all of the above) connected with the good people in local churches who will look them in the eyes and see the value they don’t see in themselves.

I envision these kids, like the one I used to be, learning to mine the lessons out of all they’ve been through, learning work ethic and character building, and learning how to have healthy relationships with good people. Having been abandoned, neglected, abused, hungry, and homeless in my life, I am confident that what I envision would be prevention of homelessness, drug use, criminal activity, and trafficking.

Kids who feel valued and cared for are less likely to feel pain that leads to self medicating. The sense of belonging they would feel in a church family would make them far less likely to fall for the lure of a trafficker. And kids who learn relationship skills, work ethic, and good character in the safe environment of people who will gently teach rather than judge them are far more likely to find and keep a good job that will help them become responsible, self-reliant adults.

– See the complete article at:

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If I could give you anything, I’d give you these 10 things:


  1. I would give you eyes to see yourself as the awesome person you are.
  2. I would give you a healthy awareness and confidence in your strengths and an acceptance of your weaknesses.
  3. I would give you an ability to speak the truth in a considerate way and to listen carefully to everyone in your life.
  4. I would give you fresh sense of optimistic anticipation of good things every morning.
  5. I would give you healthy, meaningful relationships with good people.
  6. I would give you excellent, pain-free health so you could live your life to the fullest.
  7. I would give you happiness—no, scratch that. I’d give you joy, which, unlike happiness, isn’t diminished by our circumstances.
  8. I would give you a clear vision of your unique life assignment.
  9. I would give you financial provision to fulfill your life assignment and to have all the good things that accompany it.
  10. I would point you in the direction of the steps to fulfilling your life assignment so that you could earn the incomparable feeling of doing what you were made to do…I would “point you” rather than “give you” because only you can fulfill your life assignment.

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Grieving the Irreplaceable

Grieving the irreplaceableI lost someone who can never be replaced. I suppose that no one can truly be replaced, but there are some relationships that no one else can ever fill. Like losing your mother, father, brother, sister, or a beloved grandparent. There will always be others who come in and out of our lives like neighbors, coworkers, bosses, and others. It’s healthy to accept that these types of relationships may be for a season rather than for your whole life. There are no guarantees that anyone will be in our lives forever, but there are some relationships that are in a category all their own. These are the relationships with people who give us life or who so powerfully influence our lives that we will feel their imprint on us forever.

I have lost irreplaceable people before, so I know the unquenchable pain of losing a piece of your heart—a piece of your life that is never going to be there again—a part of you that’s so important, so interchangeably woven into the fabric of your being that you’re not sure who you are without that person—or if you even want to find out.

I lost my mother and father when I was a little girl. One day they were there—and the next day they were gone. I was too little to understand logic or explanations of why they chose to live their lives without me. I only knew that they were gone. I know intimately that others can try to fill those vacancies in our hearts, but the hard truth is that anyone who tries to fill that open space isn’t ever an exact match. Picture a jigsaw puzzle. There may be a piece that seems to fit–sort of. You can try to force it, but it will never be the exact fit.

Grieving the irreplaceable

When I met Janet, I was like a leaky bucket that would never be filled—I was so in need of a sense of worth and value, yet unable to believe that I was worthy of anything good.

When I lost my dear friend of forty years, I knew intuitively that the hole in my heart would never again be completely filled. You see Janet wasn’t just a casual friend. Janet knew me when I still lived with my abusers. She saw the shack I grew up in. She saw that I was dirty and dressed in clothes and shoes that were dirty, often had holes, and didn’t properly fit. She surely noticed that I smelled–we had no shower and I didn’t even own a toothbrush when I first met her. Despite all of those reasons that others shunned me at best and ridiculed me mercilessly at worst, Janet treated me the same way she treated everyone else. She included me, she joked with me, she made it ok to be me.

Through the years, I learned that I could truly trust her–something that doesn’t come easily to someone who has been through what I’ve been through. I learned through the experiences of her sticking with me as I made stupid decisions, that she never judged me or thought less of me. She didn’t preach to me or scold me, despite the fact that I probably could have benefitted from either or both. When I showed poor judgement, as I did on many occasions over our forty years together, she simply stood by me.

You can Google her name and not find a single picture of her. She had no website. She had only the wisp of a “digital footprint” in the form of a lone Facebook page that she never even uploaded her profile picture into. She didn’t care about clever “posts,” or “likes.” She didn’t follow Hollywood gossip or fashion trends. Although she was interested in theater and music, she was completely out of touch with who the actors, actresses, and famous musicians were. She didn’t care. Fame wasn’t a measurement of a person in Janet’s estimation.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Rhonda and Janet in New York City with a minion. It was classic Janet to have no idea what a minion was or what I was singing about when I broke out into the “Happy” song.

Wealth didn’t impress her either. As I went from the dirty young girl who often didn’t have enough to eat, to a financially prosperous business owner and investor, Janet’s opinion of me didn’t change. She cared only that I was a good person doing good in the world. THAT is what she asked about and on which she expressed her pleasure. She was oblivious to my house overlooking the ocean, luxury automobiles, and my matching shoes and handbags. She was clueless about name brands and designers, in fact, in Janet’s economy, anyone who’s purse was worth more than what was inside was probably foolish.

Janet’s big, hairy, audacious goal was to create an online program to help people who had been diagnosed with cancer. She wanted the program to help those who were at a crossroads in life to choose to find and follow their passions. Janet believed that cancer could be a turning point for those who were willing to make dramatic changes by focusing all of their attention to living out their passions, and in so doing, would be “flipping a switch” that engaged the systems of their body to fight and win against cancer (or whatever other life threatening diagnosis was trying to diminish their lives). Janet didn’t get to finish her project, and in the end, apologized to me. Can you believe it? She apologized as though she’d failed or somehow disappointed me.

The truth is that although Janet had an ambitious goal to help others, and was fully qualified to execute it down to the tiniest detail, doing so evidently wasn’t part of her Life Assignment. Janet had absolutely nothing to apologize for. She fulfilled her Life Assignment beautifully. She influenced so very many people that we will never know this side of Heaven what all she did, but this one thing I do know for sure: she changed me.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Showing the love of God to someone who’s never known love is the greatest thing any of us can ever do in this life.

Janet’s acceptance and love helped me to go from feeling like a caterpillar crawling around in the dirt, expecting at any moment to be stepped on by the next malicious beast who came along, into a beautiful butterfly, free to fly from here to there, touching people with my message of turning adversity into advantage, the message that it’s possible to use the lessons mined from pain to create a meaningful life.

I suspect that God knew that a 13 year old girl who had never been loved and didn’t know what love was, would only open up and receive love from another 13 year old girl—one who didn’t judge, didn’t look down on me, who never took offense at my very often rough, tough actions and words, who included me, was kind to me, joked around with me, and stuck with me through good times and bad. Giving love (expecting nothing in return) to someone who’s never known love is the greatest, and perhaps most difficult, thing that any of us can ever do in this life.

It took her all of our forty years together, but she finally taught me, with her life, that it was better to let the walls of defense down enough to enjoy people rather than continue to keep those walls up in ever-present expectation of being hurt. Janet thought everyone was interesting. She looked for the good in everyone, and seemed to always find it. I, on the other hand, have kept most people at arm’s length. My theory was that the closer the person is, the more likely it is that I’ll be hurt. And I’ve simply had all the hurt I can bear.

I have a litany of experiences I could recount that would support the wisdom of keeping the padlock on my heart locked tight. But as I process the fact that she’s gone on without me, that we’re not going to be “little old ladies” together, that there’ll be no more 5 hour conversations over endless cups of hot tea, I’m asking myself what of Janet can I take from her and incorporate into my life. How can I be part of the legacy of this amazing and wonderful woman who changed me forever by loving me when I was very difficult to love.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Janet Kay Reid loved me when I was very difficult to love. She was a priceless, irreplaceable gift.

There are likely to be many times in the future when I’ll realize Janet’s influence on me on one thing or another, but what I know so far is that I am going to let down the walls around me and let people into my life. I see now from Janet’s well lived life that I can let people into my life and into my heart, and that the fuller, richer life that will result will outweigh any hurt.

In the end, despite that Janet didn’t complete her big, audacious goal of a program for people diagnosed with life threatening disease, she did far more than that—she gave love freely, received love gladly, and taught others to love. The three most important things in this life are faith, hope, and love, and the greatest is love. Janet intuitively knew that—she had and shared all three freely with everyone within her influence.

I know from experience that there is life after the loss of an irreplaceable person. Life is never again as it once was or as we hoped it would be, but we realize that although we might have thought we wouldn’t be able to go on breathing, we do. Planet Earth continues to turn. And somehow, through okay days and awful days, we realize that a new normal exists. There is change, but the change is inside us. We’re better, wiser people for having had the honor of having those irreplaceable people in our lives.
Grieving the irreplaceable



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Smart People Talk About Ideas

Great IdeaWhen I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Coffey, told me that really intelligent people think and speak more about ideas than they do about other people. I have never forgotten that. I may not have been the most intelligent person in that class, but I have always tried to make up for in diligence what I may have lacked in brain power. Great Minds quoteI thought, “If that’s what smart people do, I’ll do that too !” I’ve since learned that emulating good mentors, whether they be good at relationships, business, investing, or whatever their expertise may be in, is a smart thing to do.

That concept of speaking more about ideas than I do about other people is so deeply engrained in me now that when I’m about to speak about someone else, I ask myself, “Does what I’m about to say put this person in a positive light, or conversely, will it influence others to think negatively about the person?” 

This doesn’t mean that I’ve never made a mistake in this area. I dislike confrontation, so it’s far easier for me to seek advice from others rather than going directly to the person with whom I have a problem and having a direct conversation.  There have been times when I’ve spoken to a trusted friend about a problem involving someone else, so speaking behind that person’s back was necessary to get advice on how to deal with the situation.  Similarly, as a business owner, there were times when I had to have conversations about employee performance with the employee’s supervisor to gain perspective on the quality of the person’s work on behalf of my company. But after gathering information to gain wisdom and perspective, it’s time to have a private conversation with the individual with whom you have a problem.

“What Comes out of your mouth is evidence of who you really are”

There have been times when I declined opportunities that looked amazing to others, but which I had no choice but to decline because I chose not invest time or resources with someone of questionable character or someone who demonstrates through speech or actions less than ethical intentions or motives. I have made discussing ideas rather than people a deliberate lifestyle, and there is no business deal or opportunity that is worth tarnishing my reputation or diminishing my quality of life.

So, if you want to create a life of true success and have everything that goes along with it, choose to speak more about ideas than about people. You just might find that one of your ideas could change the world!

Each of us has a limited number of hours in this life. Let’s spend our time helping others by speaking directly to them about what we’d like to see change rather than gossiping behind their backs to others.

Rhonda Sciortino head shotRhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to a great future. Connect with Rhonda at

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The Body Keeps the Score

by Dee Wilson

Bessel van der Kolk is one of the world’s leading experts on trauma and trauma treatment, and continues to be a creative and provocative researcher and scholar in a subject that is finally receiving the attention it deserves in child welfare. Van der Kolk’s recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, should be required reading for professionals and advocates interested in bringing trauma informed practice to public child welfare agencies, courts, training programs and child and family treatment agencies.

Van der kolk was a member of a group of trauma experts that developed the diagnosis of complex trauma in the early 1990s and lobbied unsuccessfully for its inclusion in the DSM-IV. His scorn for a diagnostic system that fails to distinguish acute trauma resulting from natural disasters or car accidents from chronic trauma perpetrated by caregivers is evident:

“This was a tragic exclusion (from DSM – IV). It meant that large numbers of patients could not be accurately diagnosed … You cannot develop a treatment for a condition that does not exist. Not having a diagnosis now confronts therapists with a serious dilemma: How do we treat people who are coping with the fall-out of abuse, betrayal and abandonment when we are forced to diagnose them with depression, panic disorder, bi-polar illness, or borderline personality, which do not really address what they are coping with?” And Van der kolk continues “To this day, after twenty years and four subsequent re-visions, the DSM and the entire system based on it fail victims of child abuse and neglect – just as they ignored the plight of veterans before PTSD was introduced back in 1980.”

Remarkably, almost the same series of events have occurred in recent years after Van der kolk and some of his colleagues in the National Child Traumatic Network articulated the diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder to give traumatized abused and neglected children a single diagnosis rather than multiple diagnoses. In the proposal to the American Psychiatric Association they stated:

“Studies on the sequelae of childhood trauma in the context of caregiver abuse or neglect consistently demonstrate chronic and severe problems with emotion regulation, impulse control, attention and cognition, dissociation, interpersonal relationships, and self and relational schemas. In absence of a sensitive trauma specific diagnosis, such children are currently diagnosed with an average of 3-8 co-morbid disorders. The continued practice of applying multiple distinct co-morbid diagnoses to traumatized children has grave consequences: it defies parsimony, obscures etiological clarity, and runs the danger of relegating treatment and intervention to a small aspect of the child’s psychopathology rather than promoting a comprehensive treatment approach.”

Once again, however, the relevant DSM subcommittee rejected the proposal on the grounds that “no new diagnosis was required to fill a missing diagnostic niche,” a response which Van der kolk views as clueless, but which most likely reflects an ongoing stubborn resistance to any new diagnosis that would subsume multiple more familiar diagnoses, a denial likely based as much on considerations of power and authority among mental health experts, along with ready access to funding streams, as on intellectual differences among scholars. Clearly, some well-placed clinicians have viewed developmental trauma disorder as a predatory diagnosis with the potential to undermine established treatment protocols and practices. Unfortunately, Van der kolk does not address the interpersonal tensions and conflicts resulting from his evolving understanding of trauma with the same candor as Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery.

Body Awareness and Mindfulness

For years, Van der kolk’s perspective on recovery from trauma has been divergent from many other therapists and researchers. In The Body Keeps the Score, Van der kolk is critical to the point of dismissive of cognitive behavioral treatment (which he asserts helps only about a third of trauma victims) and other talk therapies, and less concerned with developing a trauma narrative than most other trauma therapists. Van der kolk was an early user and proponent of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) which, unlike some experts, he does not view as an idiosyncratic version of CBT.

Van der kolk comments that “… my professional training, with its focus on understanding and insight, had largely ignored the relevance of the living, breathing body, the foundation of our selves.” He asserts that “many of my patients they could not feel whole areas of their bodies,” and were literally unable to identify objects that he put in their hands when their eyes were closed. According to Van der kolk, trauma victims may often feel disconnected from their bodies, and numb to their internal states, or feel constantly anxious and on edge, profoundly unsafe in their physical being as well as in social relationships. This is because the brain systems that monitor (for the most part unconsciously) “housekeeping” functions in the body such as breathing, appetite elimination, sleeping and waking have been overwhelmed by the perception of threat(s) resulting from the brain’s response to traumatic events and their aftermath. The body is on alert, activated by stress hormones to the extent that physical health is eventually harmed, according to Van der kolk, whose account of mental and emotional functioning has been greatly influenced by Antonio Damasio (see The Feeling of What Happens). Physiological dysregulation, in turn, leads to emotional dysregulation characterized by panic attacks, “meltdowns”, self-harm and other desperate survival strategies, according to Van der kolk.

Given this perspective regarding the suffering of trauma victims, Van der kolk has gravitated in his therapy toward practices developed in various spiritual traditions (especially Buddhism) to regulate internal states, for example mindfulness, meditation, yoga, physical practices like massage and dance, and scientific advances such as neuro-feedback. Feeling safe first means feeling connected to (i.e. aware of, sensitive to) the body and knowing how to calm down, in Van der kolk’s view. He is extraordinarily focused on slow conscious breathing (6 breaths per minute with a pause between breaths) as a means to both physiological and emotion regulation.

The Importance of Social Relationships

The normal response of children to danger is to seek out others for reassurance or protection; a baby’s or toddler’s attachment pattern is a survival strategy. But what if children have been severely harmed, or neglected, or abandoned or repeatedly humiliated by caregivers? The survival strategies these children employ when they fear and distrust caregivers, e.g., numbing, dissociation, rage, social isolation, bullying are likely to puzzle or frighten caregivers, teachers and peers and undermine the potential for stable committed parenting, friendship and intimacy. This is the challenge confronting caregivers, i.e., birth parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, as well as parent educators, therapists and other professionals who work with abused and neglected children and youth. Arguably, a disrupted capacity for intimacy in early adulthood is a common pathway to intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.

Van der kolk emphasizes the importance of the experience of early nurturance in developing resilient responses to adversity. For the most part, Van der kolk asserts, children who recover quickly from trauma have strong, secure, positive relationships with attuned caregivers, which provides a reliable source of emotional safety in dangerous conditions. But what if children lack nurturing parenting, and/or have experienced multiple unplanned moves in foster care?

Van der kolk’s recommendations for facilitating recovery from early severe abuse and neglect are similar to those of Deborah Gray, Ann Gearity and other trauma experts:

“Since emotion regulation is the critical issue in managing the effects of trauma neglect, it would make an enormous difference if teachers, army sergeants, foster parents and mental health professionals were thoroughly schooled in emotion regulation techniques. Right now, this is mainly the domain of preschool and kindergarten teachers, who deal with immature brains and impulsive behavior on a daily basis …”

Van der kolk has an important cautionary message about the over dependence on psychotropic drugs and verbal therapies to suppress and manage undesirable child behavior. He writes:

“Mainstream Western psychiatric and psychological healing traditions have paid scant attention to self- management … other traditions from around the world rely on mindfulness, movement, rhythm and actions.”

Van der kolk goes on to mention yoga, tai chi, rhythmical drumming, martial arts, conscious breathing and meditation, but he adds “Aside from yoga, few of these popular non- Western healing traditions have been systematically studied for the treatment of PTSD.”

Agency: developing self- leadership

Despite his dismissive comments regarding “talk therapies”, some of Van der kolk’s most interesting chapters in The Body Keeps the Score are about psychodynamic approaches to re-enabling the capacity for agency seemingly lost at the time of traumatic events and subsequently. Van der kolk comments that “almost all (of his patients) had in some way been trapped or immobilized, unable to take action to stave off the inevitable. Their fight/ flight response had been thwarted and the result was either extreme agitation or collapse.” The experience of trauma victims suggests that it is psychologically devastating to be immobilized at a time of severe threat to life and bodily integrity. The self-loathing that so many survivors suffer from may, in part, arise from an inability to forgive oneself for what seems an unforgiveable failure of nerve.

Some readers may remember the outstanding American movie, “Fearless” (1993), about the survivors of a plane crash in which most of the passengers died. One of the story lines in the movie is about a woman who survived the crash but condemns herself for not holding on to her baby who died when the plane hit the ground. No amount of empathy or compassion, or words of understanding, can relieve her self-condemnation until the main character (played by Jeff Bridges) places the young woman in the front seat of his car with instructions to hold on to an object about the size of her deceased child, and then accelerates the car until they hit a wall. Both the Jeff Bridges character, whose take away from the plane accident is that he cannot die, and the mother whose baby died in the crash are injured (though not severely); and their family members are horrified. Nevertheless, the young mother is released from a self-loathing that made it impossible for her to function or accept the love of her husband, extended family and friends. The Jeff Bridges character has a different challenge: he must relearn the fear of death.

Anyone who doubts whether severe life threatening neglect ( often combined with destitution) can be traumatic should read Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary new novel, Lila, about a young woman who at age 3 or 4 lacked a name or identifiable caregiver and was in danger of starvation or death from exposure to the elements. Lila is rescued and mothered by a homeless woman who drifts from place to place. As a young adult, Lila is redeemed by the love of an elderly minister who must overcome her distrust and expectation of rejection. Lila is not redeemed from sin but from a deep sense of her worthlessness. Like many other trauma victims, she believes herself to be godforsaken, literally a non-entity in the eyes of others.

In the chapter, “Putting the Pieces Together: Self Leadership,” Van der kolk describes Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), the goal of which is to integrate the fragmented parts of the self. Van der kolk states that “At the core of IFS is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom and pain.” And he continues, “In trauma, the self-system breaks down, and parts of the self become polarized and go to war with one another.”

Like other psychic families, IFS views the self as having three parts with distinct roles: “exiles” ( the toxic rejected parts of the person), “managers” ( critical and perfectionistic) and “firefighters” (emergency responders who act impulsively “whenever an emotion triggers an exiled emotion”). All three parts have an important role to play in protecting the self from “the full terror of annihilation.”

The goal of IFS as described by Van der kolk is to cultivate “mindful self- leadership” through compassion and curiosity regarding every aspect of the self and what trauma victims have done to survive. Non- judgmental curiosity is the therapeutic lynch pin of IFS; but the underlying belief is that the self that we aspire to does not have to be cultivated or developed. Van der kolk asserts that:

“Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.”


Van der kolk’s account of recovery from trauma has practical meaning for child welfare systems and for professionals who work with abused and neglected children:

· Safety means not just physical safety but the experience of deep connection to and awareness of the body, so that the survivor’s body and brain are not always, or even usually, on alert. Activities that mobilize purposeful enjoyable physical movements have great therapeutic potential.
· Emotion regulation begins with body awareness especially awareness of breathing, and, in young children, requires the willingness to turn to caregivers for help when they feel vulnerable.
· The capacity to develop and sustain social support necessary for both protection and a sense of security begins with experiences of early nurturance, i.e., attunement, between caregivers and very young children. Managing behavior through consequences and damping down aggressive behavior with drugs is not a substitute for the experience of attuned caregiving.
· A renewed capacity for personal agency is created by the acceptance of split-off parts of the self, a therapeutic process enabled by non-judgmental curiosity regarding the complex array of behaviors and internal processes deployed by victims to survive.


Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness , Harcourt, Inc. 1999.

Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini and Rosie Perez; screenplay by Rafael Yglesias from his novel, directed by Peter Weir, 1993

Robinson, Marilynne, Lila, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Van der kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking, 2014.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s and are not intended to reflect the views of Casey Family Programs or any other organization.

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Top Ten Ways You Know You Had a Rough Childhood

1. You try to help others who have it rough—it doesn’t matter how busy you are, you do what you can to help others who are going through tough times.

2. You are crazy about fairness. You can’t stand unfairness or injustice—you’ve experienced a lot of unfairness, and you can’t stand to see anyone treated unfairly. You stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.

3. You work three times harder than anybody else, and you will never, ever give up—you know that there are lots of people who came from solid families, were given what you’ve had to earn, and had lots of good breaks in life, but that doesn’t stop you. You make up in hard work and good attitude for whatever you don’t have.

4. You know that your experiences don’t limit you, but rather qualify you—you know people who had every advantage, but who aren’t able to do some of the things you can do. Because they haven’t been through tough times, they haven’t learned how to figure things out. They don’t know how to read people’s faces, how to figure out who’s in charge, how to get along with difficult people… in other words, they aren’t street savvy. And sometimes, street smarts and common sense makes the difference between success and failure.

5. You run toward problems rather than away from them—you are unable to look the other way and pretend something bad isn’t happening. You don’t shirk responsibilities. You may not know how to solve a problem, but you can be counted on to try to do something to make the situation better.

6. You can handle just about anything because you’ve handled worse—because you’ve been through tough times, you know there is nothing in your life now that can be that bad. You know that challenges are temporary, and one way or the other, the situation will improve.

7. You can get along with just about anybody because you learned how to go along to get along—you figured out how to survive a tough childhood when you were too little and too vulnerable to do anything about your circumstances. There were times when you got through it by going along. That valuable lesson of knowing when to go along to get along serves you well in your adult life.

8. You are fiercely loyal to the people who’ve helped you. and you NEVER, ever forget someone who’s helped you—you remember the teacher who was nice, the kid who invited you to his birthday party, and the neighbor who included you in their family events. You would do just about anything for the people who have been kind to you.

9. You are protective over the people who’ve helped you—you know you’ll lose your good sense and all self-control if anyone tries to harm the people who’ve helped you. You’ll move Heaven and Earth to protect those who have done good by you.

10. You’ll take calculated risks to improve your life—you’ve made it through tough stuff before, and succeed or fail, you’ll make it through the risk you’re taking. You’ve built a good life, and you know you could do it again if you had to.

If you’ve had a rough childhood, I’d like to know what YOUR thoughts on how you survived, how your experiences shaped you, and what you learned. Post your comments at I read every one, and will respond to you.

sb logoRhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, became a ward of the court at 6 months old. For most of the first 16 years of her life, she was raised by a mentally ill man and an alcoholic woman in an abusive, emotional roller coaster of a childhood.

Rhonda emancipated from the child welfare system at age 16 and used the coping skills from her childhood survival to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. She credits a brief stay with a wonderful foster family for teaching her that there was a better way to live. Through her writing, speaking, online courses, radio show, and media appearances, she shares how others can mine the lessons out of what they’ve been through, and succeed because of them.

Rhonda serves as the Child Welfare Specialist for Markel Insurance Company, spokesperson for Foster Care Alumni of America, and the chairperson for Successful Survivors Foundation.

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The Diagnosis That Explained A Lot

I recently learned that I have “hyper-focus ADD.” This is one of seven types of attention deficit disorder that’s been identified by Dr. Daniel Amen of Amen Clinics. AH HA! So THIS is why the building can be on fire around me, and I can continue to work, oblivious to what’s going on around me. What a revelation!

I learned that I have a choice to make. I can lean into this diagnosis, focusing on my work to the exclusion of everything else, because, after all, I have hyper-focus ADD. OR, I can create coping mechanisms to counter balance this tendency to focus on only what’s in front of me.

You may be thinking, “what’s the big deal? It’s not a bad thing to focus on what you’re doing.” True enough—being able to focus on whatever you’re doing without distraction is a very valuable skill, especially when I’m writing an article or a book, creating materials for a workshop, working on a keynote, or reading detailed reports of child welfare measurements across the country. But where this valuable skill can derail and run me right off into a ditch is when I am so engrossed in what I’m doing that I lose track of time or of what’s going on around me.

Before learning coping mechanisms to compensate for what I choose to see as my “valuable skill,” I was always late. I would be late getting out the door in the morning. I would misjudge the time it would take to get where I was supposed to go. I’d be so focused on the audio book I was listening to in the car on the ride to my destination, that I’d miss the turn and waste valuable time trying to get back on track to where I was supposed to be.

To add to these blunders, when I would realize that I was late, I’d start to feel anxious and upset. I knew that making someone wait for me was disrespectful and inconvenient. My tardiness said, “I don’t value you or your time.” The truth was that I DID value the person and his or her time, but I had no idea how to correct my behavior.

Before learning that I could shore up my areas of weakness with coping mechanisms, I blamed everything and everyone except myself. The dryer broke, so it took too long for my blouse to dry. The dog ran out the front door, so I had to chase him down before I could leave. I couldn’t find my keys. The heel of my shoe broke. The car had a flat tire. There was traffic I hadn’t counted on. Blahblahblah

I’ll never forget the day when a friend of mine told me about coping mechanisms her husband had learned after a traumatic brain injury. In hindsight I can see that she had shared this information for my benefit in the hopes of trying to help me without coming right out and saying, “you are really screwing things up for yourself—get it together.” Thankfully I “got it!”

I learned that I should plan on the weekends what I was going to wear each day of the next week. That way if a button needed to be sewed on or something needed to be washed, I had ample time to get it done. I learned to put the dog in the backyard before opening the front door. I learned to put my keys in exactly the same spot every time they left my hands, and so on. I turned the stuff of daily disasters into routine activities, and thereby eliminated the majority of the causes of the anxiety-prompting episodes in my life. Of course, you can’t avoid everything that could ever arise, but now if I’m late for an appointment, it’s certain that something unavoidable has happened.

The issue of not being aware of what’s going on around me while I’m focused on what I’m doing is a little more difficult to manage. The downside of this particular issue is that I don’t hear what’s said—even when it’s said directly to me.

I can actually be looking right at someone as though I’m engaged in the conversation, and have absolutely no idea what was just said. What’s going on in my head may be the tragedy I was just evaluating, the latest foster care results, or what I’m going to make for dinner. I don’t mean to be completely tuned out to what others are saying, but the gears of my mind don’t shift quickly from one subject to another. Consequently, if someone steps in to tell me something and steps right back out, I may not even be aware that he or she stopped in. If someone texts or calls with a quick bit of information when I’m deep in thought on something else, the information given to me will not register in my mind. I used to think I was just terribly forgetful, and then I realized that you cannot recall information that you didn’t take in to begin with.

One of my employees learned quickly that I could be looking right at her, nodding, and adding the occasional comment, and still not have heard a single word she said. She tried various things, and landed on a system of knocking on my door, standing in front of me, saying my name firmly, and then waiting until I stopped what I was doing, turned toward her, and there was recognition in my eyes, before she would speak.

Through the years I’ve learned that I have the power to pull myself up out of the hyper-focus trance I go into. I can set the alarm on my computer and push myself to get up every couple of hours, walk around, drink some water, check voicemail, etc. Importantly, I’ve learned not to allow myself to go into that hyper focus mode where it’s not appropriate—when I am on a tight schedule, when I’m sitting in an airport waiting for a plane or in some other public place, or while waiting for a meeting to begin. I’ve learned that I can literally tell myself, “NOT NOW!

I’ve learned that living out this “diagnosis” is a choice. I can see it as a disadvantage and use it to make excuses or I can learn how to use it to my advantage, such as when I have a block of time and have an important project to complete. I cherish the times when I can silence the phone, close the door, and sit alone with my computer and focus completely on one project to the exclusion of everything else. I choose to see this diagnosis as the recognition of a skill that I can use to my advantage—a tool I can use to do what I was created to do.

What situation, label, or diagnosis do you deal with? I challenge you today to consider the ways you can take charge and use whatever it is to your advantage.

RhondaSciortinoHeadshotRhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to a great future.

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You Have the “Secret Weapon” of Success

Every survivor of abuse wants to succeed, but few know how to do it.  My heart breaks for the foster alumni I’ve seen who have tried, failed, and who then find themselves in an emotional ditch, unwilling or unable to risk the pain of failure. They’ve endured too much pain already without risking the heartbreak of perceived failure.

Having gone from abandonment, abuse, and poverty to successful business person, child advocate, radio show host, author, and speaker, I’ve learned how to go from less than nothing to survival to authentic success, and I am now focused on significance.

In response to the struggling I’ve seen in the lives of my foster alumni brothers and sister, I’ve created a training program that I’ve named YOUR REAL SUCCESS. I gave it that name because I wanted to emphasize that each of us is unique in the world, so what success looks like for each of us will be unique. For example, my personal and professional success started with a career in insurance. Whodathunk it?!

Insurance taught me how to manage risk, it taught me how to look beneath the facts for the triggers that cause tragedy, and it gave me the means to invest in the things that have reaped the financial rewards that have allowed me to help others in ways I could never have imagined. When my passion about helping kids who have been abused intersected with what I knew about risk management, my unique success helped me go to the next level of doing something significant with my life.

YOUR REAL SUCCESS probably won’t look anything like mine. Just like there being only one Taylor Swift, only one Blake Mycoskie (founder of Tom’s Shoes), only one Larry Page (co-founder and CEO of Google), only one Oprah Winfrey, and only one YOU. You may not know what you were created to do, but there are clues that will help you find it and characteristics and coping mechanisms that will help you make it a reality in your life.

One of the most important things you should know as you work to earn your success is what makes YOU so awesome! Know who you really are, what you are passionate about, and what bothers you. Know what you do well. Know what comes naturally to you. Mine the lessons out of what you’ve been through and what you’ve learned along the way, especially those things you are able to do because of the unique “training” you’ve had through abandonment, abuse, dysfunction, chaos, and whatever else you’ve experienced. This reflection on yourself is important because once you know your unique combination of skills, strengths, and abilities, you can learn how to communicate them to others, and in so doing, you’ll be positioning yourself to connect with others who can help you create your real success. Knowledge of yourself and the ability to communicate it is one of the keys to success!

Two words of caution about communicating your awesomeness: First, this does NOT mean talking to everyone who will listen about all you, what you’ve been through, what’s been done to you, and what you’ve done and want to do with your life. It DOES mean communicating in a clear, concise way, who you are, what you want to do with your life, and how you want to help others. This gives potential employers, business partners, and colleagues a clear understanding of how you might be a good person to fill a need. Secondly, learn to communicate about yourself in 3 minutes or less and then STOP. Give others an opportunity to speak, to tell about him or herself, to ask questions, or to change the subject entirely. I’ve noticed that too many foster alumni destroy opportunities by spewing out TMI (too much information) about their personal lives, choices, and other issues that are not relevant to creating success. The sad thing about this is that most alumni who shoot themselves in the proverbial foot have no idea that they’ve just destroyed their chances of success with everyone within earshot.

In my upcoming YOUR REAL SUCCESS program, participants will learn how to mine the lessons out of what they’ve been through, and then how to effectively communicate their unique combination of awesomeness.

One of the most significant aspects of the program is that participants will learn to identify in themselves the characteristics of successful survivors that have been acquired and honed in the adversity they’ve experienced. It’s those characteristics that can be our “secret weapon” in the creation of our authentic success.

So, what are the characteristics of successful survivors of trauma?  I have identified 15 characteristics, but we’ll focus here on the five most common “secret weapons” of successful survivors.

#1  We’re stronger than the average person

  • When adversity strikes, we may be saddened or angry but unlike people who are debilitated by the trauma, we take the development more or less in stride.
  • We are known for pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps to keep going despite the challenges, how we feel, or how bleak the future may appear.
  • We see adversity as a challenge and an opportunity. When others go to bed and pull the covers up over their heads, we dig in and get to work.

#2  We’re tenacious, persistent and assertive

  • Our experience tells us that we’ve made it through worse, so if we just keep trying, we’ll make it through our present challenges too!
  • Like the young mother who went to 27 different apartment buildings before she convinced one building manager to rent to her for what she could pay rather than the advertised rent.
  • We aren’t afraid to ask for exceptions. Being told “NO” isn’t nearly as bad as what we’ve experienced in our lives!

#3  We’re resourceful 

  • In going without some of the necessities of life, we’ve had to figure out how to get by.
    • We can make a meal out of the heal of the bread and a couple drops of ketchup.
    • Without the money to replace what was broken, we had to figure out how to fix it.
    • Without money to buy a new pair of pants when we grew too tall, we figured out how to let out the hem or hem them into shorts.

#4  We quickly shift from fear to action

  • In the event of an emergency, you want us around! If anyone can survive a crisis, it’s going to be someone who’s survived some rough stuff in their life.
  • We make excellent first responders, emergency room staff, combat soldiers, or any other position that requires rapid decision making and the ability to act decisively.
  • The military trains this ability, which they call “mental toughness.” We already completed a more dangerous form of boot camp when we were too little or too vulnerable to avoid it.

#5  We’re courageous

  • We’ve shielded younger siblings from abuse or sexual molestation.
  • We’ve tried to protect our mothers.
  • We’ve learned how to walk through embattled neighborhoods and how to survive interactions with gang members and drug dealers.

Hopefully these five characteristics that are common to successful survivors of abuse have given you an idea of the types of characteristics that you have, or that you can develop, that can be translated into success in the workplace, which translates into income, which is the tool you’ll need to establish independence and financial security.

You may not have every one of these characteristics, but you have exactly the combination of strengths that you will need to fulfill what I call your “life assignment,” which is the creation of your own personal and professional success. My hope that is that you learned something about yourself that you were previously unaware of. You have strengths you have yet to uncover.

Once you know your unique awesomeness and learn to articulate that to employers, colleagues, and potential business partners, you’ll be well on your way to success!

To fast track your success, start by signing up for the online, self-paced course, Succeed Because Of What You’ve Been Through Level 1. For your copy of my free ebook on Success Tips, emails, and event announcements, subscribe at Much more information will be in the YOUR REAL SUCCESS program. To bring YOUR REAL SUCCESS to your area, contact Rhonda at [email protected].

Rhonda SciortinoRhondaSciortinoHeadshot, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to a great future.

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