In June 2016, the policewoman at the domestic abuse shelter looked at me and said “You’ve got to leave soon. You’re at medium risk of homicide or serious bodily harm.” I gulped. I’d played down everything in answering her questions; I knew I had to go, I’d already put the plan in-motion, but let’s face it, I’d become so desensitised to the danger in front of me.
I tell this story 6 years later, with no more hint of a shudder or fear. But that’s taken me active work.
You don’t need to have been through a relationship with a sophisticated psychopath or any form of hell to be reading this – it is not, and has never been a competition.
Studies have shown that the things that happen to us in life— from emigrating to promotion to childbirth – can cause us to have trauma symptoms. In other words, you don’t need to have had your life threatened, or seen someone go through that, to experience trauma.
And the thing about trauma is that it’s stored in your body – you can’t simply talk it away, or lie to yourself via reciting mantras and positive affirmations.
So the deal is, we’ve all had upheavals of some form happen – or as Taoist philosophy states, life is about ups, downs and everything in-between. From a crisis, to a collective event like COVID, to something that’s supposed to be joyous. It’s an upheaval because it disrupts the very nature of who you are, and you have no personal manual to get you through to the other side. And as it lives through you, you’re not quite the same person as when you first started. Having a panic attack changes the way you take your plane or train; from something you thought nothing of initially, it haunts you.
Then you judge yourself for being weak and having #firstworldproblems. It is a source of shame, what TED speaker and researcher Dr Brené Brown calls “that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.”
Back in the day, I told myself, “I’m a psychologist. I’m a smart woman, how could I have let this happen to me?”
If you’ve had a bout of depression, you might say the same things to yourself. Or you might ask yourself, with all your first world privilege, how dare you be depressed.
And so we hide these blobs in our life’s story with shame, secrecy and judgment.
But really, if you don’t own your story, someone else will write it for you. And you’re not gonna like it.
So, what if you collaborated with your reality, and let that upheaval invite you into taking stock of your life.
1. Understand trauma
Trauma is wired into your nervous system, so sometimes your body does things that sabotages you, because your brain wasn’t designed to help you thrive. Your brain was designed instead, to simply help you survive. And your memories of a traumatic event isn’t something coherent. They are stored in the fear center in your brain, meaning they tend to be fragmented and haunt you at the times you least want or need to be haunted.
And when you are triggered, it isn’t simply a memory. Trauma is how the past continues to play out in your body, in the present moment; and you pay compound interest from the cumulative memory. Now imagine the first time you felt sick after eating strawberry cake. The second time someone hands you that cake, your body will react viscerally, from this moment and from the old memory. And then imagine that happening over and over again.
Trauma leads us to act in ways that defy logic. This is why survivors of abuse break down in court when cross-examined, even though technically, we all know we should stay calm and composed. It may lead some people to play so nice, they cannot say no, even if their work load is exploding. And it causes some others to keep escaping into another world, because this one feels too overbearing for them.
So step one, really, is to understand trauma and your nervous system. And then, to learn to regulate your nervous system so you slowly regain control of your brain.
Simple day-to-day ways are to do deep breathing (for 3-5 breaths, whenever you switch tasks), body-oriented exercises (e.g. yoga, singing, and martial arts), and to take very good care of your nutrition and hydration because people who are in trauma don’t do that.
2. Understand repetition compulsion
When you’ve been through a crisis, your world of assumptions change. According to Janoff-Bulman, most people believe that the world is a benevolent place, and that good things generally happen to them. But crisis shatters that world, and rebuilds it haphazardly, with the blocks of ‘bad things happen to me’ and ‘the world is a dangerous place’. This isn’t just paranoia, because something difficult has indeed happened. And because the human brain is wired to remember negative things, you will keep looking out for bad things.
Repetition compulsion happens because our brains want to resolve the trauma of the crisis. To do so, it leads us unconsciously into similar situations, but within contexts where we cannot have resolution. For instance, if you keep getting into relationships with narcissists, you will never resolve the trauma because such people are incapable of doing so. In time, it feels like a bad magic spell, and your levels of hopelessness go sky-high.
To take care of repetition compulsion, we have to learn why we got into the crisis or stayed in it, in the first place. Sometimes it’s something from our past; at others, it’s sheer bad luck. Whatever it is, understanding the why helps our brains get closure, so we stop repeating these situations. We also learn to consciously look out for evidence that the world isn’t always a bad place.
3. There will be questions, and there will be naysayers
People will be curious, sometimes from a good place, and sometimes from a bad one. There will be those who will use your past against you, to prove their own superiority or put you down— you don’t need to engage with people like them, but brace for their existence. Only you choose to divulge as many or little details as you want, according to how comfortable you are. You can simply say “That’s all I’m willing to share”, and that’s your right.
Sometimes we look at people who give no holds barred sharing that may even feel uncomfortable, but we wonder if they are the brave ones, and we are the cowards. Oversharing is a form of trauma; having boundaries around who and what you want to say, is a sign of owning your story.
4. It is okay to feel like an idiot at times
Here, I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from The School Of Life:
“The way to greater confidence isn’t to reassure ourselves of our own dignity; it’s to grow at peace with the inevitable nature of our ridiculousness. We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots in the future – and that is OK. There aren’t any other options available for human beings.”
And as Alain de Botton quips, if you’re not embarrassed by your younger self, you’ve not grown.
I promise you, the cringing at yourself will get easier. And funnier.
5. Do vulnerability right
Everyone talks about vulnerability. And sometimes it feels like it’s been perverted. Sometimes it’s just used to justify victimhood, or tick a box – what I call performative vulnerability.
In the wrong hands, vulnerability is bad. Just like you don’t trust just anyone to take care of your dog whilst on holiday, you don’t trust just anyone with the gift of your life story.
Instead, you can ask yourself, who would benefit from your sharing, from learning from your experience?
For me, I thought that I wanted to be the champion my younger self never had. That was my start. And bit-by-bit, people wrote to me about how they themselves were inspired to own their stories and heal their trauma. And then one day, Simon & Schuster came knocking, saying they wanted me to write a book on forging a path forward from crisis.
6. Who have you become?
When Odysseus filled his ship back with treasures, sailing home, he wasn’t the same man he was.
How the crisis has changed you, has also filled you with treasures. And the only way to access them is to courageously look at them.
- Who have you become?
- What lessons did you learn?
- What strengths have you uncovered in the journey?
- And what were the spots that left you vulnerable in the first place, and what would you do differently today.
- What aspects of shame and discomfort do you still hold?
- And what could you do, to help yourself own your story?
These are questions that might feel painful to look at. It is a lot easier to think “must be nice to have time to reflect on those” and scroll through your phone, or go for another pizza.
But the thing about compound interest is that it works against or for you. The longer you let trauma and shame fester, the harder it feels to start.
Everybody is changed by at least ten things that have happened in their lives. Only you can decide to mutate that blob in your story, into a real asset.