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“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” ~ Peter Levine
It’s no small thing to survive trauma, work to heal it, and find the strength to move forward in your life.
When we’re in the thick of healing trauma, it really does become our identity. We are a victim, a survivor, a warrior, a traumatized person. But as we heal, we hopefully form a new identity, integrating our experience into a stronger and more resilient version of our former selves.
However, there are some tender souls out there who, for whatever reason, hold onto their identity as a traumatized person. Some are perhaps not ready to deal with it, others may be reluctant because their identity really is wrapped up in being a victim of trauma.
Is this you? Are you nursing your trauma, carrying it around like a security blanket, wearing it like an arm cast waiting for people to ask you what happened? Has it become your identity?
It seems cold to ask a trauma survivor “What are you getting out of it? What’s the payoff?” But this is the thought I jump to when I see someone not making progress years after the trauma. I believe we have an innate drive to heal trauma, to seek help, to get better. But for some, there are underlying needs dying to be met that defy logic and reason.
When your identity is entwined with your trauma, healing it and moving past it is frightening. Who are you? Who will you be? You can’t go back to who you were, but you might literally have no idea how to form the new you. It’s especially difficult for war veterans whose strong identity as a soldier makes it difficult to separate that from their PTSD.
I have found the reasons for holding onto trauma fall into three large categories (with many sub-categories).
The thought processes are basically the following:
Moving past trauma lets the person who caused it off the hook.
Moving past trauma means I can no longer be let off the hook.
Moving past trauma means I will have to figure out who I am if I’m not suffering.
These are deep issues, deep and profound thoughts. They are huge and overwhelming and no wonder people are often reluctant to confront these feelings!
Let’s look at each thought process, along with a reality check.
“Moving past trauma lets the person who caused it off the hook.”
This thought is often accompanied by other, related thoughts. If I forgive, then they’ll think they didn’t really hurt me. If I move past this and become stronger and more resilient, they’ll think their actions had no effect on me. If I forgive them, I’m weak.
The reality check to this thinking is part logic, part spirit.
Logically, we have no idea what another person thinks of us; even if they have treated us poorly, it’s more about them than what they think about us. And when we second-guess others’ thoughts and motivations, we give them even more power over us, thereby remaining stuck in the past.
Spiritually, forgiving and moving on is something we do for ourselves, not for them. And you don’t have to do it to their face. It’s between you and your higher self. The longer we hold onto anger and withhold forgiveness, the longer we are in a state of inertia that we perpetuate. Moving past trauma doesn’t let anyone off the hook—it allows us to break the chains that are keeping us in a dark place, so we can begin to climb to the light.
“The sooner we heal our traumas, the sooner we liberate ourselves from the people who hurt us. By hating them, we hold onto them. We cannot heal.” ~ Vironika Tugaleva
“Moving past trauma means I can no longer be let off the hook.”
This second reason people might hold onto trauma is pretty insidious. Sadly, some of us find that in sharing our trauma, we are seen as a victim, and people around us often start to let us off the hook. If we have certain unmet needs inside us, this can feel pretty good. It also gives us valid reasons for not fully dealing with people and situations in our life. We can start to use it as a way to avoid life, people, and in the worst cases, work and responsibility. I think all of us who have gone through trauma have been through phases of this. With therapy and hard work, we can get past it.
The reality check to this thinking is realizing that again, you’re giving the trauma power to keep you from fully engaging in life. Every time we use it as a way to avoid life, we empower the trauma, not ourselves.
I’m not talking about the times we need to practice PTSD self-care and carve out safe, quiet time. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know the difference between self-care and avoidance. And if we’ve really gone down a dark path and avoid work and responsibilities, it will undoubtedly cause people who care for us to have to pick up the slack or bail us out.
It’s imperative to take a hard and honest look at how our healing impacts others, usually our family. If we have avoided therapy, or are playing on being a victim, not a survivor, we are denying our full and beautiful self from emerging.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“Moving past trauma means I will have to figure out who I am if I’m not suffering.”
This thought manifests as many different thoughts that allow the trauma to define you. “I’m a person who was profoundly hurt. Trauma is my identity; therefore in my pain, I feel safe.” We are victims and survivors of trauma. This knowledge, and identity, drives us initially to seek safety, help, and therapy. But this being our all-consuming identity should fade and assume a back-burner position as we heal.
If it doesn’t, as one of my therapists said, “Sometimes it doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar.” We know how to play that part, so we play it because it’s comfortable, it’s easier, and we’re tired. But the danger, the reality check to this thinking, is that you’re once again giving your power to the trauma, not the recovery.
You’re living a role, an identity, that was forced on you, not one you’ve chosen for yourself. Your true spirit, your true nature is on that back-burner. Invite it to come forward; try to open yourself to what the Universe has for you next. When you put a foot on this path of letting go of that old identity, new possibilities unfold!
Healing trauma is rich, unrelenting, exhausting, and rewarding. There are so many modalities now to help us heal PTSD: psychotherapy, EMDR, tapping, and utilizing spiritual resources can bring you to a place of releasing trauma and moving forward. Think of it as the skin of an onion: you only have to peel one layer at a time, at your own pace. You don’t have to do it all at once, but you do have to do it!
So, tell me, who will you become when you move past your trauma?
“We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong. The amount of effort is the same.” ~ Pema Chodron