Transformative Trauma

As Published in USA TODAY ✫ July 2016 ✫

By Jo Standing

“The self that lies within us is a cornucopia of ideas, new beginnings and
adventures to be lived. It always is our choice whether or not to connect to
this great and unconquerable self.”

WHEN most people hear that a loved one has experienced a life-altering, totally unpredicted traumatic event, they almost immediately respond with, “That’s horrible!” With this reaction, they are shutting off their minds and hearts to learning what the event really means to the survivor. The truth is, in this moment they have forgotten to listen and be present without labeling the experience as being one thing or another. People who learn of someone’s hardship too often are so appalled that “it”, (whatever “it” is) has taken place that instead of cultivating presence with the survivor as attentive listeners, they sit in a disconnected stupor while the story of the incident is being told.

As an alternative approach, try, “I am here for you” or “What might I be able to do to help?” We often think that we automatically know the facts of a situation when we hear of someone dying, or being murdered, raped, or robbed. When we hear the news of a traumatic event we may think about it for a flash of a second but, then, more times than not, we forget about it. We fail to think more deeply about the people behind the experience. What was that like for them? Of course, we recognize that traumas are oftentimes horrible occurrences. Some of us may even send out prayers or sympathy, but, when we do it, it often is from a distanced, non-empathetic place; we judge other people’s traumas as something that happened to them and hope that the same never happens to us.

For survivors of trauma, perhaps one of the greatest advantages gained from accomplishing their own forward steps of healing is that they may respond differently when in connection with other victims in the future.

A teacher of mine [Greg Gurel] once said, “When you have a feeling, and I identify with your feeling, it is called empathy.” Empathy is an internal process that we very much have command over. It is not a passing feeling that may come or go as it wishes. It is something that we cultivate out of love for the people both new and old in our lives.

What does not help with the healing of our loved ones’ traumas or the self-created drama that will potentially result is sympathizing with the circumstances and events. Stating the obvious, “What a horrible event,” does not help the survivor realize anything beyond what already has occurred. Sympathizing with the actual physical events and circumstances energizes the survivor’s victim story and builds on the negative aspect of the experience.

By contrast, empathizing, which is identifying with the feelings and emotions of another, serve that individual in the process of recovery without stirring up or stewing in the particulars of the events they have experienced. All of life is an experience. Nothing more. Nothing less. Feelings and emotions by nature are transient. So, rather than being scarred by the full range of what a survivor is experiencing, support the rising and falling of each of the feelings and emotions as they come and go.

“Oh, she’s a rescue.” An expression of pity swept across the pet store shoppers’ faces as if something irreversible had happened to my dog, Maya, when I told them she had been abused by one of her previous caretakers. This phenomenon brought me to a realization that it is how people and things are interacted with over time that changes them, not one moment alone. You do not have to define yourself by your moment or moments of trauma. You will benefit from treating yourself well on a regular basis. Everybody does. We will also benefit in our relationships and society by reconsidering how we react to people who have experienced abuse or injury, whether it be sexually, physically, mentally or emotionally. So, always be kind to others, too, as you never know what kind of traumas they are healing from.

When we treat the effects of trauma as a byproduct of someone’s experience, including our own, compassion is warranted. At the very least, understanding is created. By contrast, if and when the effects of trauma are treated as an end product of a person’s experience, it is like handing a death sentence to the individual. Be mindful that you do not use the story of your trauma to define your identity, or anyone else’s. There are no permanent problems in life, even though trauma may sometimes seem permanent because of the echo effects it produces.

Trauma only holds the power of us that we give it. Just because it can trigger fear does not mean that we must forever live afraid. In order to survive and thrive after trauma, it is crucial to understand the echoes of our trauma. An echo is a memory that seemingly appears out of nowhere and its effect is to influence thinking in ways that may not serve the highest good. An echo can lead to disconnecting from the moment and sometimes from yourself altogether. When disconnecting from yourself, I mean disconnecting from the sensations in your body, from your rational mind, and from being able to feel anything outside of how the memory feels. In disconnected moments, you only can feel what you felt during the traumatic event, whether it be rage, helplessness, or whatever else.

The decision to put the past behind you every time a memory of it comes up is the key to the door of healing. Sometimes we need help getting to the door. When we exercise the mental muscle of letting go, the subconscious will take note of it. The subconscious brain, also known as the super brain, is said to watch over everything that our conscious mind thinks and says. So, it will acknowledge each time you make the conscious choice to switch up your response to the moment. This constant repetition of shifting focus and awareness will trick the body and mind systems out of falling into old patterns of being, thinking, and speaking. A lot of life’s successes and failures can add up to repetition.

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