Overcoming Obstacles: What Oprah Winfrey Learned From Her Childhood of Abuse

This is one in a series of profiles on famous people who overcame incredible obstacles, failed many times or defied grim odds in order to succeed.

She was born to a single teenage mother on welfare in rural Mississippi. She felt unwanted and was shuttled back and forth from her grandmother to her mother and then to her father by the time she was 14. She lived in poverty and suffered abuse for years. This does not sound like the beginnings of a media mogul who would go on to own a cable network and become one of America’s most influential people and the first African-American billionaire, and yet it is.

A Childhood of Abuse

young-child-oprahIn fact, Oprah had to overcome many challenges and obstacles before achieving the success she enjoys today. She began life on a small farm in Mississippi where her strict grandmother raised her. “I was beaten regularly,” she told David Letterman during a lecture series at Ball State University. She recalled a time that her grandmother punished her for putting her fingers in a bucket of water she had retrieved from the well. “She whipped me so badly that I had welts on my back and the welts would bleed,” she said, which then stained her good Sunday dress. “So then I got another whipping for getting blood on the dress.” She was also lonely much of the time and due to her family’s poverty, conditions were poor. But her grandmother taught her to read before she was three years old and she still recalls the positive reception she received when she recited Bible verses at her grandmother’s church. The sense of approval and acceptance she felt after speaking to the congregation stayed with her and influenced her future career choices.

At six years old, Oprah went to live with her mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since her mother worked long hours as a maid, Oprah was neglected. At nine years old, she was left in the care of her 19-year-old cousin who raped her. She continued to suffer sexual abuse from other relatives, including her mother’s boyfriend, until she was 13 years old, when she ran away from home. At 14, she became pregnant (the baby died shortly after birth) and she moved in with her father in Tennessee.

Rescued by Education

Oprah’s father made education a high priority for Oprah. “My father turned my life around by insisting that I be more than I was,” Oprah said in an interview. “His love of learning showed me the way.” She began attending Nashville East High School where she took public speaking and drama and was even elected school president. She received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University after winning a public speaking contest. She had a few broadcasting jobs before being named the talk show host for a morning show called People Are Talking. From there her rising career is well-known—she took a job as host of A.M. Chicago, which became the highest-rated talk show in Chicago and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Learning from her Painful Past

“The human experience of yours is stunning,” David Letterman told Oprah during the Ball State University interview. “I am so grateful for my years literally living in poverty,” she replied, “because it makes the experience of creating success and building success that much more rewarding.” Oprah has continued to build on her own success; she created a monthly magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, has produced a variety of films, syndicated television programs, and a Broadway musical, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Color Purple. In 2011 she launched her own cable network, OWN. Time.com and CNN have called her the “world’s most powerful woman” and she has appeared on Time’s “100 most influential” list ten times since 2004—the only person to have appeared on the list that many times. And from 2004 until 2010, she was ranked among the “50 most generous Americans,” giving away nearly $400 million to educational causes.

Oprah developed a number of character traits as a result of living through these childhood traumas, many of which she now attributes to her success. “My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story,” she said in the Letterman interview.

Below are some of the lessons Oprah learned through her difficult childhood that are still relevant to children and parents today:

Developing Resilience

Sadly, Oprah is not the first or last child to grow up under the shadow of abuse, poverty, and neglect. Such obstacles can be overwhelming and many have trouble ever rising above them, but those who do have developed a certain level of resilience. “When they step into a situation, [resilient kids] have a sense they can figure out what they need to do and can handle what is thrown at them with a sense of confidence,” said psychotherapist Lynn Lyons. Some kids are naturally resilient, but resilience can be taught. To be resilient, a child needs to have good self-esteem, a positive outlook, and encouraging adults to provide guidance. “For every one of us that succeeds,” Oprah said in her biography, “it’s because there is somebody there to show you the way out…for me, it was teachers and school.”

Thinking Positively

Studies have shown that positive thinking can produce beneficial results for many people, including less stress, better coping skills and increased health. Oprah has been a strong proponent of positive thinking and has devoted many of her programs to this topic. “The greatest discovery of all time,” she said, “is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.” Although a person’s situation has a great deal to do with their wellbeing and their state of mind, so does their attitude. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Having an optimistic outlook is useful when working to overcome major obstacles.

Learning Empathy

Many attribute Oprah’s meteoric success to her ability to relate and empathize with her audience, a trait she likely acquired during her ordeals as a child. “Everyone is looking for that validation,” Oprah told Letterman. “I know what it feels like to not be wanted…you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people.” While her sense of compassion was a detriment in her first career as a news anchor with WJZ-TV in Baltimore—she was fired for being too emotional while reporting stories—it did allow her to excel in all her other career ventures. As a Forbes article asserts, “criminals hurt society with a callous streak born from their lack of empathy and Oprah is embraced by society because she has empathy in abundance.”

Taking Advantage of Opportunity

Some might say Oprah’s rise to success was a result of luck or being at the right place at the right time, but Oprah did learn to recognize opportunities and utilize them. “I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity,” Oprah has said, and she learned to never waste an opportunity to improve or achieve something more. Successful people learn to see opportunity where others may not and they are open to new possibilities and quick to try something new. Psychologists have learned that often people who think of themselves as lucky are really just better at seeing and seizing opportunities.

As has been true with so many who have learned to overcome major obstacles in their lives, Oprah found a way to not only overcome her childhood abuse and traumas but to use what she learned from them to become extremely successful in her adult life. And she continues to encourage others to do the same. “Turn your wounds into wisdom,” she tells the viewers of her network.

Image Credit – Discovery “Oprah Prime”


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