Reading Randi’s post, How to Stop the Cycle of Abuse (September 18, 2020), I was deeply moved by the level of insight and heart. Had those who raised me understood even one of her important points, my childhood would have greatly improved. Given the poignancy of moments like these, I can glow with appreciation that someone out there gets it. Another survivor is breaking the cycle! Yet another powerful soul is demonstrating the integrity, courage, and determination it takes to evolve beyond adverse conditioning. It gives me hope for humanity at times when the world often looks like a lost cause. However, I can also lapse into sadness and regret, mourning the loss of what I realized decades later could never have been. As I said in my comments to her, I have several inner children who wish she could have been our mother.
Conversely, and in notable contrast, I also feel a sense of empathetic parental pride in her accomplishments. After all, being the black sheep in my family of origin, I’m breaking the cycle of abuse too, and have some sense of the care and challenges involved.
Still basking in the glow of appreciation, my attention flits, wanders, and pauses within the catacombs and verdant acres of my mind. Once again I’m reminded of a forever haunting question. If I hadn’t been abused, who could I have become? I won’t ever know. I could again linger here, long and languishing, in this sodden, saddened place. However, what follows is a question I can actually answer. Because of the abuse, or despite it, who did I become?
With a past therapist, we discussed my higher than usual sense of empathy. This can mean becoming overstimulated by simple trips into town or visiting any crowded area or building. This is arduous on good days. But hypervigilance takes an already challenging predicament to nerve-wracking extremes. When I’m firmly in my resiliency zone, this same sensitivity helps me be more self-aware and insightfully supportive of others. As that therapist put it, “That’s your superpower!” His statement puts my trauma history in a whole new light!
In a life spent suffering, navigating, and overcoming the impact of multiple traumas, it can be really easy to notice the pain and hard to see the positive. When lamenting a loss, it’s hard to embrace the potential. Yet, seeing the positive – honestly, objectively, humbly – are crucial to recovery. Here are some key steps that help me find the good in the bad, shifting my mood from sadness and regret to one of appreciation, even optimism. Perhaps they’ll help you too.
Key 1: While this may seem counter-productive, for me it was a crucial first step. It’s OK to feel what I feel – whatever I feel. It’s understandable to resist or avoid painful emotions. They hurt! They are also how our being alerts us to inner conflict needing reconciliation. They are natural, normal, and meant to be part of the human experience just as physical pain indicates an injury. It’s the body’s way of alerting us to a need. Plus, to resist or avoid means to judge, even if unconsciously. And negative judgment is the exact opposite of helpful in healing, even if that’s the underlying intent. Self-acceptance means accepting all of the self, incorporating self-compassion, which is crucial to emotional well-being. If I can share my troubles with an understanding peer, one who can validate me and accept my feelings, I generally feel better. So compassionately “listening” to our own emotions, like sadness or regret, will help them lessen, even dissipate entirely. Certainly, a new perspective can be gained. It is a way of being present with, consoling, and reuniting those hurting parts of ourselves, providing us with what we may have desperately needed as a child, but failed to adequately receive.
Key 2: Much as I did in elaborating upon Key 1 – Redefine the meaning. I was told by someone far wiser than me, “All pain is an invitation for loving care.” The default definition may be, pain is “bad.” To define it as such, and react accordingly, is to be in opposition to oneself. However, if inner pain is defined as a loving alert that something needs attention, you automatically respond in a different, potentially far more effective way. Much as a baby with adirty diaper cries to be changed, so too do our painful emotions. Emotions arising from past trauma are the “dirty diapers” of the psyche. Yep, they stink. And anyone who’s smelled a dirty diaper knows just how stinky they can be.
Key 3: Ask yourself the question: How do I benefit (from my trauma)? Now, this can provoke extreme resistance, especially when in the middle of an emotional crisis or seriously triggered. So, it’s a question best asked only when in relative equilibrium. Even if the mind objects to the notion, it’s worth contemplating. Much like redefining pain to recognize it as helpful, it provides a way to see our experiences differently and respond accordingly. I doubt I’d be nearly as empathic had I not been traumatized into chronic hypervigilance. While the manner by which I gained this skill was really painful, the skill itself is an advantage I’d prefer to have – I have a vibrant inner life. I also may not have been as compassionate. Compassion cultivated from past trauma puts me in a better position to support myself emotionally and be of service to others. It’s not what happened to us but how we respond that matters. This is an opportunity to exercise empowerment.
Key 4: Remind yourself – “I have a choice.” One of my favorite insights ever – we can’t change what happened to us but we can change how we feel about it, and how we feel about ourselves. Trauma doesn’t define us unless we accept that conditioned default. Sometimes, when inundated by emotional pain, it can seem like that’s all there is. It can seem like it will go on forever. It can seem to mean something really bad. And we can seem inadequate or unworthy because of various struggles, especially when others seem to manage similar conditions just fine. Reminding ourselves that we have a choice of perspective, even if we don’t see another choice or feel like we can embrace other options, facilitates progress. Just admitting the possibility of another, a potentially better option can help relieve the intensity of whatever we’re experiencing at the moment.
When practicing these skills, find the way that works best for you. I first did so through journaling more than proactive thinking or speaking. Of course, I was harshly discouraged from speaking as a child; they cared nothing for my perspective. So I suppose it was inevitable that I’d prefer writing, and wanting to share what I’ve learned. Today I say to survivors that I’m both sad and grateful for the circumstances that brought us together. It’s meaningful in ways not everyone can appreciate. I believe it’s also mutually advantageous.
I’d like to close with the following quotes. Though the origin of the first quote is disputed, it’s commonly attributed to Kahlil Gibran, one of my favorite mystical authors. “Out of suffering has emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” and from me, since I’ve never heard it elsewhere, “If you’re here, you’re a badass. Rock on!” Yes, indeed. Rock on!
J Bradley O 2020
J. Bradley O is a writer, peer mentor, and author of the forthcoming memoir, Shimmering Shattered Self – Reclaiming Treasure from the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse. He has devoted over 30 years to investigating the devastating personal impact of childhood abuse trauma. Using the uncanny perception of an empathic introvert, he identifies and reveals obscure factors critical to personal recovery. As a salvaged wood crafter, he revels in demonstrating the inherent value, purpose, and splendor of materials invalidated by status quo standards. For more insights and updates on his forthcoming book, subscribe to his blog at dancinginthemaze.wordpress.com.