Monday, September 14, 2009

Thriving Because and In Spite of Past Traumas

By Amy Phillips-Gary

Way too many of us have experienced trauma in our pasts.

It looks different for us all, but the effects can be quite similar.

When trauma happens, it almost always leaves a mark. This can be a deep and multi-layered wound that never seems to fully heal.

The challenge for those of us who are survivors of trauma is to recognize where we are and what has happened, but not get so caught up in the past that we remain stuck there.

The language we choose to talk and think about our past traumas reflects and sustains the beliefs we have about ourselves and our ability-- or inability-- to move toward the future we want.

The emotional and even physical sensations of trauma tend to stick with you and re-surface when triggered on anniversaries or when similar conditions arise.

Past trauma can affect our relationships, our capacity to succeed in the workplace, our health and our overall ability to live the lives we desire.

I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor and a date rape survivor. For years, these labels were at the forefront of my conscious mind. I needed them to be.

For a long time it was my priority to prove to others how insidious sexual abuse and rape are and also that a person can survive these atrocities and be a “normal” person in a loving relationship able to parent children with safety and healthy nurturing.

I worked with different therapists over the years and completed exercises in The Courage to Heal Workbook. I found support and felt empowered at “Take Back the Night” marches. And I talked and cried a lot with my partner, close friends and family.

It has been a long, winding path of healing for me-- and I know it's not done. I have no doubt that there are more layers to acknowledge and that there is further processing and releasing ahead.

What do you call yourself?

It used to be a point of contention for me to assert to others that I am NOT a victim of anything; I am a survivor.

Behind this assertion was an insistent sense of taking back my power.

I defied those who violated my boundaries and body as I claimed that I survived. As much as this contention helped me, I can also see why others feel an amount of soothing when they call themselves “victim.”

Yes, there are just words.

They do not alter the fact that particular acts were carried out in particular ways. But depending on the meanings we attach to them, these specific words can make all the difference in our ability to move ahead and release what happened.

If there has been a traumatic event in your past, think about the labels you apply to yourself. There can be value in just about any label-- as long as it is one that does not cause you further pain and as long as you don't become so attached to the label you are limited by it.

What do you want for your future?

I no longer find it so crucial to call myself a survivor. Instead, I prefer to see myself as a thriver.

To me, thriving is the next step. I am no longer satisfied by merely surviving the trauma of my past. I intend to thrive despite and because of what happened in my experience.

As I expand my view, I can see that there is a lot that has happened in my life-- including and not limited to the sexual abuse and date rape.

I do not want to, and probably could not, erase the past and return to pretending that these traumas did not occur. But I am less focused in on them these days.

Today I can acknowledge the richness and vastness of my life up to this point. I can also create a vision for the future I want for myself-- partly because I am consciously orienting myself toward that vision.

Yes, there are times when I feel fear, sadness or grief that connects to my past. When this happens, I allow the emotions to surface and I am especially gentle and loving with myself.

As a thriver, I don't spend more time than I need to there.

Changing the language you use about your past may seem to be pointless to you. And if it is merely a linguistic exercise without an accompanying shift in belief, you will probably not benefit from the improvements you seek.

I believe that words-- when backed up by belief, expectation and action-- are powerful. Take an honest look at your life and the labels you use to describe yourself.

In which direction do they point you?


  1. "To me, thriving is the next step. I am no longer satisfied by merely surviving the trauma of my past. I intend to thrive despite and because of what happened in my experience."

    Amen. You said it, sister!

  2. Very powerful thoughts and words--thanks!

  3. What a powerful post, too. It's something I learned in therapy early on, it was really important to MJ (therapist) that I got this right way and it was about choice. About not being able to change the past but being able to choose how to deal with it in the present. It sounds trite because it's often advice, but really, it's a hard concept.

    I think we need labels to differentiate our experience from our self (ego-self, I) for a little while, but yeah, if not careful it's so easy to wear them for a lifetime, you're so right. And then the experience defines the person, instead of the other way around.

    I was speaking with RW about this last week and remembering a time when I wasn't sure who I was if I wasn't those words I thought defined me. I wasn't sure at one time in my life if I was anyone at all without them.

    I can really relate to this in many ways, well done.