A trauma survivor’s first reaction is self-preservation — to defend, to hide, to spend whatever remaining energy they have in order to control. Self-preservation is primary, even if it means they close off thoughts, emotions, and eventually isolate themselves from family and friends.
A survivor — unfortunately, yet understandably — becomes someone who lives in fear.
A survivor never wants to be vulnerable again, never wants to be powerless again. And, who can blame them?
Yet, Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, claims that it is only when we allow ourselves to become vulnerable that we can heal.
I realize she is speaking to the general public; however, as a trauma survivor myself and having counseled thousands more, I also understand how challenging this is for those who have undergone abuse, severe accidents, life-threatening illnesses, etc.
When we show others who we are, how we feel, and what we believe in, we bare our soul. For a survivor, what arises immediately is a deep and abiding shame:
- Shame that we couldn’t protect ourselves
- Shame that we believed ourselves to be weak
- Shame that we might have brought on the trauma, and so deserve the consequences, i.e., abuse
- Shame that we’ve let our loved ones down
I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture. Shame shows up physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and manifests differently for everyone. For me, my face starts to burn. When that happens, I feel like my shame is on display for all the world to see.
When we show everyone who we are, we worry that:
- We will be put down, teased, bullied
- We will dishonor our family
- Others won’t like us for who we are
So, we put up a front, or as psychology calls it, a persona. It is the mask that we hide behind, pretending to the world that nothing is wrong. The most unfortunate thing is that we hide so that we can be accepted, yet what happens is that we don’t accept ourselves.
We are strangers even to ourselves.
Hiding becomes a prison of our own making — the shame, the fear, the belief that we are not enough, that we don’t deserve some of the good things in life, and that we are doomed to an unhappy existence.
Therefore, I have to agree with Brené Brown that showing who we really are and taking risks, showing our strengths and weaknesses, is what sets us free. Exposing who we really are to others, and more importantly, to ourselves, frees our energy up to be more creative, to receive and give love more freely, and to have the courage for “daring greatly.”
In “daring greatly,” we then develop and increase our courage to take risks and truly make a difference in the world. How to do that is challenging. Here are some suggestions:
- I would suggest starting small. Take one thing that scares you, and make a conscious decision to change that. If it’s something you’ve avoided for a long time, or if it’s an ingrained pattern, be kind to yourself. Know that you will “mess up,” but keep making that decision over and over to change.
- Know that you will make mistakes and simply own up to them, rather than beating yourself up. Brene also states, in so many words, that trying to be perfect sets you up for failure.
- Make sure you have people around you who support this change in you, are honest with you, and cheer you on.
- If it’s something that comes from trauma — and this is crucial — go to a professional practitioner who can guide you and give you support. One thing that trauma survivors lose is the ability to trust themselves and others, so it’s important that you learn to trust again.
- In choosing a practitioner, find one who is a skilled trauma-based therapist, and with whom you are comfortable. In my 35 years of counseling, I find that what’s most important is the rapport between you and your counselor, and whether you want a more traditional therapist or someone who works with an alternative method. Also, I find it best to ask for a personal referral from someone you trust.
I also strongly suggest you read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. She has a PhD and LMSW in Social Work and is a renowned researcher on topics of shame, imperfection, and isolation.