Be Who You Are: Moving Past Trauma

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

Like many people, I’ve had traumas in my life. The specific type of trauma is not important for this post, and I lived through them, worked through the pain, and came out the other side a strong woman. But it left scars, and one of the scars was not knowing who I was–knowing my personality instead of my shields.

I sometimes think I’m a walking feeling. It’s not that I cannot think logically, I just feel first, then think about it. I have fought this part of my personality for most of my life. Feeling is dangerous in a traumatic situation. It leaves you vulnerable to pain, both yours and that of the people around you. Feelings make it hard to rationally analyze a physically or emotionally dangerous situation and get yourself to safety. Feelings make you react, when you need to be in charge of your actions.

But feelings also inform all the good things in life. The joy of love, of friendship, or something beautiful–you cannot analyze the way it feels to have a loved one take your hand and get the most out of it. At least I cannot. Even hard feelings, like anger and sadness, have a good place. Anger fuels action, and directed properly, it leads to appropriate self-defense. Sadness allows you to sift through events and relationships, and know what to keep and what to release.

The degree to which I neglected my feeling side in my youth came to me recently when I read a poem. When I was younger, I had a hard time with poetry, especially the best poetry, which layers visceral images to create a feeling. I loved complete sentences. I liked Emerson over Whitman. I disliked songs with lyrics that didn’t make a coherent story. When I got married, my husband introduced me to poetry with feeling–disjointed phrases that teased my subconscious, that spoke in whirling scenes instead of paragraphs, that I felt in my body instead of dissecting in my mind. 

It took a few years, but gradually I integrated the two. Embracing my feeling side along with my thinking side has made me a more whole person. I do not have to second-guess my reactions as often, because I am not approaching life while hiding half of myself. 

Part of acknowledging your whole self is learning to be honest. When you live through trauma, especially as a child, or for a long time, you learn to hide the scary parts of life from yourself and others. You learn to be ashamed of your circumstances. So you lie–if not in word, then in deed. You pretend things that bother you really don’t; you let people believe you are in control of life when you aren’t, and you deny vulnerability at every turn.

The energy you spend lying keeps you from seeing the truth. Most things that bother or irritate you are not the big deals you make them in your mind–and the ones that are completely unacceptable are usually easy to solve once you get past the initial terror of upsetting someone. When you spend a lifetime pretending to be in control, you never see that no one is completely in control of life–by its nature, life is uncontrollable. We all learn on the job, so to speak–some people are just able to walk an unknown path with confidence, others have to learn confidence by tiptoeing into new things. And it is only in our vulnerability that we really grow and live. Acknowledging you have something to lose makes life precious–pretending you are impervious to harm locks you away from everything that gives life wonder and awe and fun.

In Chinese medicine, we talk about “pathogens” that sometimes get caught inside of the body and can’t escape. Illnesses like malaria, strep throat, and shingles are sometimes described as “an evil” that gets into your body, and then your body clamps down to protect itself, and the evil cannot get out. So you may recover, but the symptoms recur, over and over. You may never fully expel the pathogen, but you can learn to build your system, deal with physical and emotional things that stress you, and get appropriate help from the outside in the forms of herbs and acupuncture, you can greatly improve. The same is true for recovery from trauma. Few people completely lose every effect of a traumatic event. But if you reach out to professionals and others who have walked the same path, learn to use proper self-care, and address the things weighing you down in life, you can get better. 

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The Dirty Little Secret. . .

photo credit SheCat

Life is messy. It rarely works right, and most things you try will go wrong the first time. Learning something new is frustrating, and skills take time to develop. People will disappoint you–repeatedly. Sadness is a part of existence, and happy times will not last forever.

Ok, go out and enjoy life!

No? Ok, then let’s say a little more. I am a self-help junkie. I have been about self-improvement since I was little. Somehow, I missed the memo that says people don’t start out perfect at anything. I got discouraged and quit when I did not show instant talent for music, sports, and the world of fashion. I avoided things that I didn’t immediately master, and missed out on a lot of fun and useful skills and experiences. 

The books I read were very linear. Their format: 

  • This is how horrible my life used to be.
  • I tried XYZ Strategy.
  • After a short amount of work, things got better.
  • Now I’m a millionaire/in amazing health/smarter than you, etc.

I read these books as completely factual accounts of the author’s struggles. It never occurred to me that no one falls once, gets up, and walks on with nary another problem. So I would try XYZ Strategy, and when it didn’t work, I felt that I had failed.

As I grow (relentlessly) older, I have hit snags. I believe marriage is for life, so when I hit walls in my relationship with my husband, I had to roll up my sleeves and learn to get along with another human being. When my health would not improve with my quick-fix changes, I had to begin a slow process of changing everything–how I thought, what I ate, my activities, and my expectations. 

Finally, I realized the truth that some people are blessed to see in their youth: life is hard, but well worth it. All those points in that first paragraph are true. There are a lot of things that will hurt you, disappoint you, and make you cry in the average life. 

But there are also daily miracles of shining suns, arching rainbows, babies’ cries, and making slow but steady progress on your own goals. People will disappoint you, but they will also surprise you, touch you, and humble you with their love, devotion, and kindness. A soothing touch, a small gift, a small but heroic deed. 

You may not succeed at everything, but the things you struggle with will yield a sweet sense of accomplishment when you do conquer them, and will build resilience when you do not.

Accept that most things in life take work. In an interview with Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.comBrene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, talks about the importance of struggle in becoming a hopeful person:
 
Yes. I’ve seen again and again that hope is a function of struggle. People of high levels of hopefulness are very often people with deep experiences of adversity. Yet we see people doing things we admire and think, “I could never do that.” But most of us haven’t seen all the falls and scrapes and bruises it takes to get there.”

No one told me how the bitter times in life make us who we are, and give us the ability to appreciate the sweet things. Never despair in your struggles–they may just open your mind and heart to something wonderful!