Dr. Laura Radio talk show host and best-selling author, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, known as Dr. Laura, has been giving advice and helping people with personal, work, and family problems for 30 years. Her new book, "Bad Childhood, Good Life," is geared toward those who harbor pain from an unhappy childhood and explains how anyone can  and should "conquer" the bad and lead a happy life.

Listen to Dr. Laura:
  • Why Religion Is Important
  • 'Conquering' a Bad Childhood
  • Living Outside of Yourself
  • Returning Christians to Their Faith

  • Why does a relationship with God help so many people work through their troubled pasts?
    First, I should say that I didn't go into writing this book with that notion in mind. I went into it wanting to find out what were the keys to people deciding to take the journey from a bad childhood to a good life, because a lot of people just stay in bad childhood mode their whole lives. So of the people who did take the journey to whatever degree of success, I would say at least 85 percent of them said, "a relationship with God." I was pretty surprised. I expected to hear [them say] therapy.

    Generally, when people have had bad childhoods, it means they didn't feel loved. If there's one thing that made a wonderful difference it was, "God loves me." Period. "My mom and dad may not have loved me but something bigger and more extraordinary [does]. God loves me unconditionally." That is like being hugged. Being told you have some value. "God is forgiving, so the stupid things I've done and said because of my own hurt…God forgives me but has the expectation that I'm going to do better, that I'm not going to hurt other people out of my pain, that I'm not going to do damage to myself and others because I'm so self-absorbed." They have a sense of responsibility based upon the forgiveness they're getting. Because a lot of people who have had really bad childhoods get out of control—drugs, or alcohol, prostitution, getting arrested for doing bad things, whatever it was—they don't always know what to do with a situation. Well, scriptures tell you. You get a list of how-tos--they're called the Commandments, the best how-to list ever written. So they get kind of a blueprint for how to do life right.

    You say you're cautious about suggesting therapy to people who are angry and hurt over their childhood and that instead you suggest prayer. Why?
    The feedback I got is that when people got their emotions churned up like they were in a washing machine and they went into therapy and had to relive it, and then do confrontations with parents and all that kind of stuff, all it did was keep it all too intense. What I like about prayer is that the person calms down, sort of accepts the reality that that's the way it is, and makes commitments to rise above it. So what I say is that we don't get over a bad childhood, we get on with our lives. But we carry that garbage with us. It just gets less and less powerful the more we commit ourselves to moving forward.

    Why Religion Is Important
    One of the things I have always told depressed people is go do something for someone else, because one of the main problems of feeling bad is that it's all about you. Religion and scriptures are deeply focused, intensely focused, on you caring about somebody else.

    There's an old rabbinic story which sounds awful when you first tell it until you explain. Jewish things often need a lot of explanation. [laughs]

    This rich guy lives in this town, and he goes to work every day in this big factory that he owns, and he goes by this very crippled old beggar in the street. And he always gives him a couple of shekels every day. This goes on for years. Well, the business starts doing poorly, and the rich guy is not so rich and he goes to work that day and he may or may not be able to keep the company open and doesn't give the guy any shekels. And the guy says, "Excuse me, where are my shekels?" And the [rich] guy says, "Well, I'm not doing well." And the beggar says, "Well, what does that have to do with me?"

    Now at first you go, "A beggar being so self-centered?" But Jewish stories are very deep. You can't look at them on the surface, you always have to go beneath. What it says is, no matter what you're going through, you owe others. Your responsibility to others does not diminish no matter what you're going through. And that sounds ridiculous. Isn't there a time when I can just sit here and lick my wounds? But that's what you're doing—licking your wounds. And if no matter what you're going through, you pick up a phone and call somebody at home sick, or go down to the shelter and help somebody learn to read, that you are ennobled and your depression is lifted.

    So these are the points that make religion so important, whereas psychotherapy dwells on "Let's go over what happened; let's talk about your feelings." Now, I am a shrink, and there are times when it's necessary, but more often than not I think it helps people solidify being a victim than helps them to move on. Whereas religion demands it of you.

    Look at the Mormons. I am very big on how the Mormons, for example, handle charity. They do not give handouts. What they do is, you have a problem, you're going to lose your house, OK, we'll take care of that. We will pay the mortgage. You will come down here and make bread to sell, because they have the stores where people of lesser means can go and shop. So they always keep the person's sense of pride healthy because they're not getting handouts—their obligation in being rescued is to rescue someone else. I love that mentality. That's the mentality that religion gives you, whereas therapy would say, "Poor baby. See you next week."

    People who come from religious traditions are often told they need to forgive and honor their parents. This could be a problem for those who might not have had such great parents.
    I'm a nice little Jewish girl, but I've had plenty of education from Christian laypeople of all denominations and pretty much, except in the rare circumstance, people are clear that forgiveness is not to whitewash, go belly up, accept everything, and look like a good person. I think most of the forgiveness today is to look like a good person. I forgive you, therefore I am good. So it's really self-centered.

    Forgiving somebody when there is no repentance, no true remorse, no true attempt to repair it, no attempt to make things different, I think is absurd. I think it's ridiculous, pseudo-religion. To say, "I'm going to let this go and not be obsessed with it every day so I can go on and be my own decent person," that seems to me to be emotionally and psychologically healthy. But to risk further injury or to say, "Therefore there should be no justice," to me is…I see that stuff as blasphemous. I use that word on the air a lot. When people call me and say, "I'm in an abusive relationship, he's beating my kids, having sex with the dog, but I'm forgiving him and God says I shouldn't leave," I say, "You're using God's name in vain." It's using the name of God to justify bad behavior. That's using the Lord's name in vain. And there's a lot of that going on, because people don't have the courage to face realities and fight for justice and stand up against evil. I think standing up against evil is one of the toughest things to do, and most avoid the effort.

    Does that go with what you say in your book: "Never seek love from the devil"?
    Right. You've got to let it go. You have to understand, they're evil, they're bad, and they're destructive. Even an amoeba has defensive motions, and it has no brain. It rubs against a chemical that's noxious or a point that's sharp, and it turns around and rushes off in another direction. In the New Testament, certainly Jesus was not a laid-back kind of guy. All the way through scriptures, God is very clear on self-defense and standing up against evil.

    You talk about the notion of conquering one's bad childhood as opposed to simply surviving it. Why is it important to conquer rather than simply survive?
    'Conquering' a Bad Childhood
    Because you have to get on with the life that you design. If we're constantly [saying], "I'm a survivor of childhood abuse" or "I'm a victim of childhood abuse," that's your identity. And our identity becomes awfully comfortable. It also demands that others require little of us because, after all, "I'm suffering." And we're not obligated to do anything for them. I think it's not a place where we could ever really find joy, peace, or a sense of accomplishment. Without those things, how do you ever feel your life has purpose? And without feeling like your life has purpose, how can you survive?

    It sounds like it takes a certain kind of person to want to conquer it rather than survive it.
    It takes guts; it takes grit.

    I remember one patient, I worked with her on and off for about 12 years. She was just a real, forgive me, "psycho-case." She was on every drug and drink and doing God-awful dumb and destructive things in her life. The first day if you'd asked me if she was going to get better, I would have said, "I don't think so." And here we are, 10 years later, and she's become a licensed nurse.

    One day she stopped acting ditzy and stupid in session, and she said something that was so brilliant that I almost fell out of my chair. I looked at her and said, "You're smart. Holy cow. And you've been hiding it with all this nonsense." So I said, "You're going to school." She went to school. I said, "You have a whole world in front of you, and you're going to do it or I'm just going to bust you. I am going to be behind you, nagging you, but I'm going to be here."

    This went on for about 10 years, and then one day she came in and I had an ego attack. I thought I created a miracle with this woman. And I said to her, "Let's just look over the 10 years and what was it that I said or did that made the difference for you?" And she looked at me and she said, "You believed in me." I was so humbled. Humbled out of my brain.

    I have never forgotten that, and that makes all the difference. Somebody she respected believed in her. Well, if she respected me and if I respected her, well then she must be worthy of respect, because I wouldn't respect dirt; I would only respect something worthy of respect. So she took my faith in her to heart. That's what gave her faith in herself—that I believed in her.

    So you'd say she conquered her bad childhood?
    She conquered it, because I believed in her. So you don't do it alone.

    Should an adult always try to make amends with a parent?
    No, a parent should always try to make amends with the kid. [When people] call me and whine about how [they] don't have a good relationship with their adult children, I say, drive over there or call them on the phone, hand them the book or send them the book, and tell them, "I acknowledge that I messed up. I caused you pain. I was self-centered. Dr. Laura and I want you to get better. I regret the pain but I admit to it."

    A lot of parents say, "I did the best I could." It's more cruelty. So own it. Say, "I screwed up. I'm sorry."

    A real, sincere apology must include taking responsibility, acknowledging out loud, in words, what you did—not trying to make your kid feel sorry for you. "Well, my dad beat me so that's why I went through so many husbands and I'm sorry two of them molested you. But you know, I had my own pain." That's a no-no.

    How should an adult who had a bad childhood approach a parent who is making excuses?
    Minimal contact. You can't approach it. That's who they are. Until that parent is willing to do different… I tell these parents when they call me, "Your kid is not going to call you or come visit you until you own your stuff." And I've got to tell you, almost 100 percent of the time, the parents resist me.

    Humbling oneself seems to be very tough for a lot of people. "I had you out of wedlock, I shouldn't have done that, I was a bad person." Say you're sorry. Don't give excuses. Just say, "I did that to you and I see that it has caused you pain and I regret it." It's a responsibility as the parent. The child's responsibility is to get on with his life and not reproduce it in his own home.

    Why do so many men and women who were physically or emotionally abused seek a mate with the same qualities as their abusers?
    They're trying to relive it and have it come out different. They're trying to get it under their control. If I could make a difficult person change into a loving person, then life is under my control. Everyone wants to think they have control. It doesn't work, by the way. That's what we call neurotic behavior.

    If you had to pick one or two tips from your book that are most important to getting on the path to a good life, which would they be?
    Living Outside of Yourself
    The most important is to decide to live for something outside of yourself. There are people who are physically handicapped now because they were so battered and bruised. They can only see out of one eye and they're crippled and all kinds of stuff. How do you let go of that? You just turn around and say, "With what body parts work, I'm going to do something for somebody else. And I will see myself through their eyes, and their eyes will be filled with love and gratitude." When that comes to you through somebody else's eyes, you are uplifted. You become your fully human self again.

    Do you feel your faith influences or assists you in the way you give advice--as opposed to if you were looking at it from purely a scientific perspective?
    It's the other way around. I use their faith on them. Because I will say, "Jesus would go with that? You think so, huh?" [laughs]. I give them back their faith. It doesn't matter what mine is. It matters what they need from their heart. Obviously, since the country is mostly Christian, mostly Christians call me. I feed them back what they need to eat.

    Returning Christians to Their Faith
    As a Jew, I have no problem telling Christians, "Do you want to walk with God, or complain about God? Do you want to feel Jesus in your heart, or do you want to rail? What do you want?" It doesn't matter what my faith is, because then I could only talk to Jews. The matter is, what their faith is. And if they've lost it, I try to give it back to them. I have converted more people to Christianity than the pope.

    Profoundly serious, ferociously religious Christians call me oftentimes before they call their own minister. I believe that I have more credibility than most Christian ministers, because I think most of them are trying to be camp counselors and keep their jobs. They're being politically correct. If I were up there at the pulpit, people would be hearing from me expectations of how they [should] walk with God. These days it's kind of watered down and careful. So when people want it straight from the hip, they call me.

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