Kathy Andersen knows a lot about overcoming adversity. Adopted as an infant in Australia and sexually abused by her adoptive father throughout her childhood, she’s triumphed over more difficulty than most people experience in a lifetime. (Do you know the signs of emotional abuse?) Featured in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Andersen related that learning to embrace life and move on from her troubles allowed her to to surmount the obstacles keeping her from success and happiness.
Andersen spoke candidly to Reader’s Digest of her motivation to leave behind the darkness of her past that included her own attempted suicide. “I overcame those dark moments with the realization that I didn’t want my father to win—in the midst of the pain of suicide attempts, I didn’t want him to win.” She continues: “Something inside me shifted into a determination for me to win, to live, and to make choices for myself that would give me freedom and the opportunity to live a life that I wanted, on my terms.” At 30 years old, Andersen knew she wanted to make a drastic change in her life for the better. She left her highly successful corporate job in Australia to travel the world. “Despite career success and a bright corporate future, there was something missing. The experience showed me that even though we can plan our path, as I had done climbing the corporate ladder, our greater purpose often lies beyond our plans.”
Andersen found that following her feelings instead of denying them led her to the peace she had long been searching for. “I simply decided to take one step at a time and follow what felt right—that took me in a new direction because there was a feeling of peace, happiness, freedom, and meaning. The hardest thing was following a feeling, rather than ignoring it, which is what I had come to do as a result of my childhood,” she explained.
Following her feelings led her to travel. As she traveled through poverty-stricken countries, Andersen began to realize she could offer assistance to other victims of sexual abuse. “I came to think that perhaps I could contribute most to those who had experienced a similar trauma as I experienced,” she says. “Sexual abuse is still a relatively silent killer. There is enormous fear and shame around giving voice to sexual abuse, particularly because most of the abuse is perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the family. I wanted to help give voice to those who were still living in a prison of silence from fear and shame, and to help provide a way out.” Andersen eventually settled in Miami, where she began a support group for victims of sexual trafficking. Her work with victims of sexual abuse is only part of her outreach efforts; she also leads workshops and retreats in which she offers tools to others to live their most gratifying lives.
She says of her own life’s happiness: “My joy and fulfillment come from helping myself and others continue to move from where we are to where we want to be, and not take a moment of this precious life for granted. I feel joy and fulfillment when I can do small things every day that I feel are part of helping all of us to find happiness.” Andersen’s advice for other sexual abuse survivors echoes her commitment to living a life of gratitude. “Choose to do one thing every day to make you smile and feel joy,” is her advice. “When you wake up, say ‘This is going to be a good, joyful day.’ Set the intention—even if you don’t feel like it.” Andersen knows this works from her own experience. “Our thoughts really do determine how we respond to the things that happen every day. Be your own best cheerleader and ask for help whenever you need it.” Andersen recommends that other survivors also find support groups that enable them to make connections and share their stories, as well as move beyond survival into a life filled with happiness.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse and would like to speak confidentially to a mental health professional, please contact the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or go to RAINN.org.