Updated: Jan 14
Back in 2013 I received an email that would excite any writer in the mental health arena:
Norton Mental Health (THE most prestigious mental health publisher) reached out and offered me the opportunity to write and publish anything I wanted.
They didn't have to ask me twice!
I'd long been wanting to write a book about identity and its role in healing trauma.
BOOM! — they loved the idea; I signed the contract; 1.5 years later the book was released.
I had the most amazing experience working with my editor:
She saw my vision for this book that combined the neuroscience of recovery with the psychology of identity — and then how to fuse those areas together to create deep, long-lasting and healing change.
The result became YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity
I hope you find it as useful as I loved writing it!
WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT
I love how the editors describe this book on the front and back flaps....
Restoring your sense of self after trauma.
“In 1981 as a thirteen-year-old child I was given a routine antibiotic for a routine infection and suffered anything but a routine reaction. An undiscovered allergy to the medication turned me into a full-body burn victim almost overnight. By the time I was released from the hospital I had lost 100% of my epidermis. Even more importantly, I had completely lost myself.”
Now a professional coach who specializes in helping trauma victims rebuild their lives, Michele Rosenthal struggled with the effects of medically-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for over 25 years before reaching a full recovery. Today, she is 100% free of symptoms of PTSD. In this book, she applies her personal experience and professional wisdom to offer readers an invaluable roadmap to overcoming their own trauma, in particular the loss of sense of self that often accompanies it.
If you suffer from the effects of trauma or PTSD, whether it was caused by a single-incident like a car accident, or from chronic childhood abuse, domestic violence, illness, or war trauma, you are well aware of how disconnected you feel from the person you most deeply wish to be. Trauma interrupts—even hijacks—your identity. To cope, you may rely on mechanisms to keep your emotions, triggers, and responses in check, but these very habits can often prevent the true restoration of safety, stability, and inner connection. How can you rediscover your sense of self so that you honor who you were before the trauma (even if that trauma began at birth), understand who you are at this very moment, and determine who you want to be going forward?
Like a therapist in your back pocket, Your Life After Trauma guides you in finding answers to these tough questions. Expertly written by a helping professional who keenly understands the post-trauma identity crisis that is so common among trauma and PTSD sufferers, it is a simple, practical, hands-on recovery workbook. Filled with self-assessment questionnaires, exercises, tips, and tools—not to mention insightful personal and professional vignettes—it takes readers through a step-by-step process of healing the identity crisis, from understanding some of the basic brain science behind trauma and why you feel the way you do, to recognizing who you were (or had the potential to be) before the trauma, who you are today, after the trauma, and who you want to become. With this book by your side, it is possible to regain a sense of calm, confidence, and control on your road to recovery.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"This book is fantastic . . . . I can say with certainty that [it] does live up to its promise and more. Readers will gain an understanding of how trauma affects their identity through moving, true-life stories. The book also provides insight into the science behind PTSD symptoms. . . . [R]evolutionary . . . . What makes this book stand out is that it . . . truly helps readers to create a blue print of their future selves." ― Psychology Today
"Your Life After Trauma . . . is a heartfelt and intelligent guide to finding yourself after trauma takes away your sense of security, control, and identity. . . . [T]he author’s approach to trauma makes identity the key to unlocking the power to heal and her book, which does double-duty as a workbook, offers a broad range of valuable insights and compassionate advice. . . . Therapy Soup gives Your Life After Trauma 5 Cups of Soup out of 5, because it offers thoughtful, practical, and grounding advice for trauma recovery."
― PsychCentral's "Therapy Soup"
"This book would be especially useful to therapists whose clients are willing to work to overcome their PTSD, but prefer to be more self-directed. Therapists can extract individual exercises to assist in servicing their clients, or even create their own exercises from ideas/concepts found in the book."
― Somatic Psychotherapy Today
"[E]ssential reading for anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder who wants to come back to life… For those who feel powerless, Michele provides paths toward greater self-understanding, awareness, and hope. I feel safer just knowing that whatever happens (and in life, something will always happen) that a blueprint for transformation like Your Life After Trauma exists."
― Patty Chang Anker, author of Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave
"Crisis in identity is a significant setback for many people following trauma, often occurring with debilitating shame and low self-worth. Your Life After Trauma not only provides a comprehensive approach to reclaiming or remaking identity following trauma, it fills a void in the literature on a central, but sometimes neglected aspect of recovery."
― "Trauma's Labyrinth" by Laura K. Kerr, PhD
"As I navigated my own journey post-trauma and sought to put together the pieces of my own 'new normal,' I would have loved to have such a clearly outlined path to healing and acceptance as detailed in Rosenthal's new book. No one ever expects the bad thing will happen to them, but in the aftermath of trauma we are all changed in profound and impactful ways. Rosenthal's important book provides us all with a roadmap for going forward so that we can gracefully accept and evolve into our own best next stage. This study of trauma and identity is really the cutting edge of where the field is going and Rosenthal's work has applications for all of us, no matter what the specifics of our journeys."
― Lee Woodruff, bestselling author of Those We Love Most
"There is life after trauma. My own PTSD taught me that the isolation and aloneness that are part of PTSD can be countered by companionship, community, and supportive love from others. Michele Rosenthal's Your Life After Trauma shows how PTSD, whatever the cause, can be transformed from weakness to strength, and how one can grow strong from the breaks."
― Larry Dossey, MD, author of One Mind
"Michele Rosenthal has written a wise, compassionate, and comprehensive book on the profound loss of identity that occurs with posttraumatic stress, and offers a grounded, realistic approach for establishing a new sense of self that acknowledges and integrates the trauma, yet isn't defined by it. Her many case examples clarify her ideas and demonstrate the depth of her understanding, and her self-coaching tips and stress reduction practices reinforce the practical, hands-on value of this impressive book."
― Belleruth Naparstek, author of Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal and creator of the Health Journeys guided imagery audio series
"We can all use life coaches to guide us through life's traumatic moments and experiences. Michele Rosenthal has lived the experience and her book Your Life After Trauma is an excellent resource for those trying to heal and find their authenticity. She shows readers how to eliminate what is destroying them to save their lives. Not until your mind becomes quiet and free of PTSD can you see your true image and your genuine beauty and value. When you are willing to learn from your journey it will lead you to nourish your life just as hunger leads you to nourish your body. Michele's wisdom can make it happen for you."
― Bernie Siegel, MD, author of The Art of Healing and A Book of Miracles
HERE'S A SNEAK PEEK
Now, it's your turn to experience what the book is all about. Check out this excerpt and let me know your thoughts!
Chapter 1: Trauma Has Changed You
To reclaim a comfortable, connected sense of self, find a release process you feel safe with; identify how you’d like to feel when you’ve completed the process; and then take the journey through the process . . . [T]he “secret sauce” to full recovery is in making the decision to take control of your life!
—Tom Kavanaugh, MA
When an electrical fire started in the basement of Curtis’s old, wood- frame house, it didn’t take long for it to completely char the three-story home—and all of Curtis’s life with it. Before the disaster, Curtis was a working musician living in a suburb of Chicago. The graduate of a prestigious music school, he played four instruments, had a collection of twenty-five acoustic guitars, composed music, and was finally sketch- ing out the concepts and preliminary tracks for his first album. At for- ty-two, happily married to Patricia and supporting a pack of rescued canines, Curtis felt secure and confident in his profession and life. Then the house burned to the ground while Curtis and Patricia were at a show where he was performing. Gone were the dogs he lovingly brought home from the pound. Gone were the instruments he’d been collecting since adolescence. Gone was all the music he had composed. With the exception of Patricia, everything Curtis valued and everything that had defined who he was had vanished.
“It’s my fault,” he cries in relating the story. “I should have paid more attention to keeping up the house, making sure it was safe. I’m the one responsible for the dogs’ deaths and for us losing everything.”
In truth, the problem with Curtis’s house was that it was old and dry. Short of remodeling the entire home, which was beyond his bud- get, there was nothing Curtis could have done to foresee or prevent this tragedy. Still, Curtis shoulders the blame, which has made starting a new life a long and difficult process. The guilt and grief Curtis carries prevent him from going back to music. He hasn’t played since the night of the fire, nor does he hear in his head the stanzas of music that were composing themselves for his album. He doesn’t even listen to music for pleasure anymore. Now, five years after the fire, Curtis and Patricia live in a small apartment in the city of Chicago. Curtis works as a security guard in a museum.
“I like the silence,” he explains. “It’s the complete opposite of what my job used to be, which is appropriate because I’m living a life that’s the complete opposite too. I am one hundred percent a different person, whoever that is.”
With the loss of both his professional and personal sense of self, Cur- tis describes himself as feeling “unanchored” and “unmoored” as he drifts through the days.
“The fire changed my sense of certainty. You can’t depend on or trust anything. Without the things I lost, I don’t even know who I am.”
The sense of losing your grip on who you are is a common experience after trauma. Whether you’ve experienced a life-shattering event, like Curtis, or a more subtle shift, like Erik in the following story, you probably know exactly what it feels like to lose the connection to your self-definition.
After Erik’s mother and father split up before his birth, Erik was raised in a city in Germany by his single Jewish mom. When he was three, she married Erik’s pediatrician, Theodor Homberger, and told Erik that the doctor was his biological father. It wasn’t until Erik was older that he discovered two important facts: his “father” was really his stepfather, and his real father was a man with whom his mother had had an affair outside of her previous marriage.
The news of Erik’s true family of origin disturbed him, knocking out of balance factors he had used to establish his self-definition, including family dynamics, plus a moral and ethical code and culture. As a result, Erik became confused about his identity. At his Jewish day school he was an outcast because of his Nordic features: his blond hair and blue eyes. Later, at a secular school, he was rejected because of his Jewish roots. Who was Erik really, and where did he fit in?
These experiences and questions became part of the driving force that shaped Erik’s identity as one of the twentieth century’s foremost psycho- analysts: Erik H. Erikson. In fact, it is believed that his own ongoing effort at self-definition is the reason that, when he became an American citizen, Erik changed his last name from Homberger to Erikson (a name he devised for himself, since he didn’t know his biological father’s sur- name). Erikson’s son believes the full name was Erik’s attempt to define himself as a self-made man: Erik, son of Erik.
Employed by Harvard, Yale, and other top universities, Erikson broke with the accepted Freudian perspective that personalities are set by age five and instead suggested that personalities (and thus, identities) continuously grow and develop. Erikson’s own identity crisis led him to develop the “identity crisis concept,” a theory that suggests that a crisis of identity is an imperative phase in development that precedes the growth of a suitable identity. Erikson outlined eight stages of development that span a lifetime and suggested that successfully overcoming each one allows a person to gain a strength that assists in future growth.
Of course, there are many theories about identity and development. Erikson’s is significantly applicable to trauma, as it helps to frame and reframe a common theme among trauma survivors: After trauma, you feel changed, and during that time of demoralization it can be tempt- ing to think the changes are permanent. They are not. Erikson’s theory and professional experiences proved otherwise. From a psychological perspective, you are an individual built for constant change. The same is true for you as a scientific entity. While trauma can make you feel as if you have been forever altered, the truth is that you have an inherent capacity to change again, and again and again.
What Is The Post-Trauma Identity Crisis? A Basic Profile and Definition
In trauma we are disempowered from ourselves. The recovery process is about restoring our inner power. If we follow the innate wisdom of the human organism, it knows its way back to integration and wholeness.
—Dr. David Berceli
Every trauma survivor spends a significant amount of time longing for the past. Suffering deep psychological pain and chronic digestive ailments, Gert wistfully sighs, “I didn’t realize I had it so good back then. I just want to go back and start over. I want all of that innocence and perfect health.” My friend Paul muses, “Who might I have been if I hadn’t begun my life in trauma?” We look back searching for an escape from the pain of the present, but there isn’t one. The present is painful, and you will have to move through it to find relief. Doing so will challenge your commitment, resilience, dedication, and beliefs. It will also make you stronger, more confident, more capable, more flexible, more creative, and more secure. When you have completed your healing process, you will shift out of this powerless feeling into a sense of being powerful, perhaps even more than ever before.
As you begin your quest for a new identity today, you belong in one of two categories. The first is for survivors who clearly see the break between their before-trauma self and their after-trauma self. If you belong in this category, this is a difficult conundrum, because you achingly remember the dynamic being you were and that you liked so much more before the trauma. While it may seem as if seeing the past versus the present so clearly can only bring pain, there is a gift: You have memories of what you loved about that self that offer clues to the terrific individual you were and the capabilities you had. All of that can be of use to you now. Knowing you have already possessed valuable things will help you to systematically recover them or develop aspects of them in new ways.
The second category pertains to those whose trauma began so early that there is no memory of a prior self. This paradox is particularly painful, because your past is full of lost promise and seemingly void of ideas that could be helpful in framing who you are today. The gift, however, is that you have an enormous freedom to create from scratch who you’ve always wished you’d had the chance to become. Unencumbered by “how things used to be,” your process roots in the now, plus the identity desires you ultimately give yourself permission to explore.
The real post-trauma identity crisis is this: Before trauma you were one person; afterward you have become someone else. Accepting, embracing, and redirecting the changes constitute the work of constructing your post-trauma identity. Who are you now? Who will you become? You cannot go back to who you were before, or who you wish you’d had a chance to be “if only.” Whether trauma occurred in utero or in life, your past self hasn’t had your experiences or learned what you did from them. To go back to your old identity, you’d have to trans- form into someone lacking your memory on both the psychological and biological levels. Of course, this can’t be done. As of this moment, stop trying. Instead, focus on what has always been true: You are a dynamic being. Trauma has only highlighted the fact of change, plus your need to expand and deliberately engage your capacity for it.
Trauma Changes Beliefs
[What has helped me feel more connected to my identity after trauma is]. . . [a]ccepting my scars by looking at them and reminding myself [that] it is what it is and to be thankful I am even here.
A belief is a statement or concept you hold to be true based on ideas you willingly accept. Your whole life you’ve been forming beliefs about many things, from simple concepts like the color of the grass to more complex ideas like religion. Some of your beliefs have developed through a sort of osmosis because of the people you’ve been around. It’s very common for children, for example, to embrace the religious beliefs their parents model. Likewise, there have been things you’ve witnessed and experienced that have formed and even altered your beliefs.
You are who and what you believe, because perceptions create your experience of yourself and of your world. For example, consider how Craig’s trauma-related belief shows up in daily life:
Raised in a horrible situation of child abuse, in a home in which any kindness was merely a setup for pain, Craig developed the belief that “kindness is dangerous.” As an adult, anytime someone was kind, Craig immediately became suspicious of her or his motive and feared future destructive action. One day in the coffee shop Craig frequented, the waitress added a free piece of pie to his meal. Even when he tried to pay for it, she insisted it was on the house because he was such a great customer. Disturbed by this act of kindness, Craig never visited the coffee shop again.
To be sure, trauma introduces questions and concepts that are difficult to integrate into a functional life. In doing so, it challenges and can even alter beliefs about your sense of self. You are faced with inevitable questions like:
How do I live knowing I am vulnerable?
How do I accept the fact that I can be victimized?
How will I protect myself in the future?
Your responses ultimately redefine how you perceive yourself, others, and the world. In doing so, they change your identity by shifting your belief systems, which in turn shifts your choices, changes your actions, and alters the experiences you bring into your life.
Change Your Core Beliefs
What has helped me . . . has been the incredibly rare time spent with a friend who talked with me as an equal, morally and intellectually. He didn’t try to “fix” me, cheer me up, or interrogate me. We actually shared a few laughs, the first I’ve managed with another human in months.
At the center of all of your perceptions lie core beliefs. Identifying them is as easy as expanding your awareness and as action oriented as deliberately making a change.
To identify a core belief, notice your behaviors and follow your emotions. Whenever you have a feeling or behavior you don’t like, ask yourself either (1) “What thought created that emotion?” or (2) “What thought made me take that action?”
Then, notice how much you believe the thought behind the feeling or action. Rate it on a scale of 1to 10 (10 being strongest). If the belief is in the 8 to 10 range, then it operates as a core belief.
To begin shifting your beliefs, question them. Consider each belief individually and ask:
How do I know this is true?
How possible is it that the opposite is true?
What evidence is there that it is true?
What belief would I prefer to hold?
What evidence is there that this new belief is true?
If I hold this new truth, what action does that invite me to take?
Trauma Alters Meaning
. . . I was never going to go “back” to who or what I had been before the trauma—you can’t go “back.” I found someone willing to walk with me to make meaning out of the meaninglessness of my trauma, and together we found the new me.
When we talk about beliefs, we have to also take into account the presence of meaning, which is the significance you give to an idea, fact, or event. After a trauma occurs, identifying what is significant becomes incredibly important. This is partly an automatic process your brain employs to learn new survival techniques. Partly, too, the process of making meaning derives from consciously examining an idea, deter- mining what you believe is true, and then living in alignment with, honoring, and respecting the significance of that belief.
The key to meaning lies in the roles of perception and interpretation. Perception is your ability to become aware of something through your five senses. When you perceive something, you become consciously aware of a realization or understanding of it. Interpretation happens when you explain the meaning of something. This process is tremendously pliable according to the decisions you yourself make. For example, let’s say yesterday you went to the store:
You left home, followed the familiar route, entered the store, purchased what you needed, and reversed your path to reach your home again. Nothing odd happened; no surprising incidents occurred. Today, how do you feel about that little outing? Pretty calm, probably. You understood it all. You felt the familiarity of the neighborhood, the lay- out of the store, and even the anonymous people you passed. It was just another mundane errand. Everything felt okay, so you went on with your daily schedule without calling anyone and reporting, “I just went to the store!” You didn’t sit down afterward and reimagine the outing from the moment you exited your front door to the second you entered the store, all the way to the moment you relaxed once again in your living room or kitchen. The trip was too unremarkable for you to share or reexamine once it had ended.
Now imagine this alternative scenario: When you reached the store, tornado sirens suddenly began to sound, everyone in the store panicked, people screamed and dove for cover, and a fellow shopper knocked you to the ground in a spastic effort to beat you to a place of safety. Then you found yourself locked in a dark storage closet with four strangers, two of whom were so terrified they were physically ill. When the all-clear sounded, how would you feel if the five of you emerged from the closet to find death and destruction strewn about the remnants of the store? What if the five of you were the only survivors? How possible would it be for you to just retrace your steps home and go about your normal day?
The answer is, you wouldn’t experience the rest of your day as if it were any other hour. You’re human, so you have a keenly functioning sense of logic, analysis, and reason. You would review the memories to see what you could learn, should have known, and would do differently the next time. You would also probably feel an urge to tell people what you had survived, and perhaps to connect with others who had survived similar experiences. During and after trauma, part of the survival response is to “tend and befriend”; when your brain is stressed, its response is to release chemicals that drive you to bond. It would be nat- ural for you to want to connect with others. It would be natural, too, for you to interpret this unexpected and frightening event as a meaningful experience in your life. After all, your life was threatened; that’s very meaningful indeed.
Now let’s consider this scenario from a different perspective. A professional tornado chaser, for example, would have a completely different reaction. His job is to witness and participate in tornado events. His livelihood depends on it. His blood races with excitement when the sirens sound, and his mind calculates the opportunities this storm will bring. While you consider the tornado to be “dangerous” and “scary,” a professional scientist ascribes to it completely different meanings, including “anticipation, “great video footage,” “success,” and “money.” The different perspectives and interpretations of the event create different experiences of its meaning.
What’s Your Story?
I was watching the sun set in Tucson, Arizona. When its orange glow reached me, I knew the only way “out” of the turmoil I was in was to stop, take a deep breath, and start over. I needed to be brave enough to dare to not know and go with that. I needed to dare to start a new adventure, and I was the adventure.
—Monique H. Greven
A story is the narrative you construct about everything you experience, both related to trauma and otherwise. It’s informed by your beliefs and meanings, perceptions, and interpretations and shapes how you under- stand and interact with yourself and the world around you. You either say, “I went to the store and the most frightening tornado hit and I had an awful experience!” or “I was at the scene of the most extraordinary tornado today; you should have felt the energy in the air!”
The same happens with your personal trauma narrative. Curtis, whom you met earlier, says, “I lost my house and with it my entire life, and now I can’t get back any of it.” The story that Curtis tells is one of pain, sorrow, grief, culpability, loss, and hopelessness. To be sure, any- one could find those elements in the objective facts of what happened. However, the more Curtis repeats this story to himself, the more he solidifies that as his experience. Likewise, the more you tell yourself a negative and distressing trauma story, the more you create that experience for yourself.
There’s another reason your story has power: It fills in the blanks that trauma creates. Maybe there’s a gap in your memory, or perhaps you feel the break between your past and your present. Living with discontinuity causes feelings of great disorientation and disconnection. Crafting your story and the details of it can facilitate a sense of control, connection, or reorientation—if you craft a healthy story.
After my trauma, it didn’t take long for it to seem as if the real me had been so decimated that I had become someone else. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a new person. The story I told myself was that I was a new girl now. And that my original self, the one who had not suffered, was dead. The new survivor identity became very much alive and lived according to a story that celebrated not my survival of the trauma, but the fact of the trauma and my survival of every moment afterward. I no longer saw myself as a regular person, but as a “special” person, separated from everyone else because I alone had suffered and faced death. In her book Faith, Sharon Salzberg writes that “sometimes . . . I secretly build a monument to [my distress], as though I am really very special in [it].” That was me. In fact, the more I suffered further traumas, the more connected to myself I felt. My story became, “I’m incredibly special in how unsafe I am in every moment and everywhere. Horrible things can happen to me and no one will be able to help. I could die at any moment much more quickly and severely than most people.” Year after year this story kept me chained to expecting the worst and finding myself in experiences that corroborated my story.
What negative trauma story do you tell yourself? Jot down a few sentences here:
Change Your Story
After . . . dozens of healing modalities [and] years of therapy—my healing was instant. I . . . realized I had spent my whole life trying to rescue or protect my inner child . . . [W]hen I realized that I am lovable and acceptable just as I am, the child in me is safe with ME, that day, 99%of the symptoms disappeared completely.
Every event contains the seeds for multiple stories. While the story Cur- tis tells is accurate, at any time he can change the story. For example, an equally true story would be, “I’m being challenged to recreate my life and it’s hard as heck, but I’m going to do it.” I could have changed my story, too. A much healthier story would have been, “I was strong enough to survive, which means I’m special and ready to do great things in the world.” The story you choose is the story that defines you. Even when you don’t wholly embrace or feel comfortable with a new story, learning to tell it can help you learn how to live it, which can introduce you to its truth.
Of course, there are major challenges to changing your story. By now, your story has become comfortable, familiar, and offers a sense of unique individuality. However, you want your story to do that in a supportive, life-affirming way. You may notice that your current story offers many benefits that make you feel as if you should hold on to it. Some of those benefits may include:
A sense of safety. When you feel disconnected from yourself, the emotions evoked in your story (e.g., futility, depression, victimhood, anxieties) can make you feel as if somehow you really are connected to yourself, even if in a negative way.
An identity. Your old self is gone. Who are you now? Defining yourself wholly and solely as a trauma survivor gives you an immediate frame of reference for your existence.
A dependable worldview. The world will always serve up bad things; expecting and then experiencing them helps the world seem trustworthy and reliable. Take a look at the story you jotted on the previous page. What benefits does your story seem to offer you?
While your current story has been appropriate and even necessary in getting you where you are today, constructing your post-trauma identity will require you to relinquish it. Now you have the opportunity to create a new story, one that is even more powerful, beneficial, and useful in helping you feel better.
Changing your story can begin with just slight adjustments. For example, look at this tiny change in my story that actually makes a big change in the long run:
I'm incredibly special in how unsafe I am in every moment and everywhere. Horrible things can happen to me and no one will be able to help. I could die at any moment.
Like many other people I am unsafe in every moment and every- where. Horrible things can happen to me and no one will be able to help. I could die at any moment.
The story hasn’t dramatically changed from negative to positive, but it has changed from a feeling of isolation to a feeling of being part of a larger group. I am not so uniquely special; there are many others just like me. That one small change alters a lot in the feeling of the story.
Another small change could be:
Like many other people I am unsafe in every moment and every- where. Horrible things can happen to me and no one will be able to help, but I've learned a lot about my ability to survive even disastrous moments.
Again, I’m keeping in line with the truth of the danger, while also teasing out another truth in the form of my personal strength and fortitude.
You, too, can change small parts of your story, revising one element at a time as you work up to changing the whole story itself.
If you were going to change your story, even slightly, what might you change it to?
Play with this concept more fully over a period of time in your notebook until you have a complete revision.
Trauma Shifts Your Self-Concept
I have repeatedly done what I thought I couldn’t, or what other people thought I shouldn’t, to prove to myself I’m strong.
Helen Keller is a great example of a survivor who elevated change and success to an art form. Born a completely healthy baby, she contracted an illness at the age of nineteen months that left her deaf and blind. Since she had never had the chance to learn to speak, Keller’s illness left her a wholly disabled invalid, mute and unable to communicate in a mature manner. Surely, Keller’s experience of losing her ability to see and hear was traumatic and dramatically altered her perception of her- self and the world before she had a chance to make any positive choices. Yet, “a trauma victim” is not how we remember her. We remember Helen Keller as a groundbreaking, highly accomplished author, political activist, pacifist, suffragist, lecturer, and recipient of the Medal of Free- dom. We remember Keller the way she created herself: as a woman who burst out of the confines of what she experienced and decided not only who she would be but how she would live and what she would accomplish. With the help of her teacher, Ann Sullivan, she built herself from scratch.
If self-definition is determined by you, then trauma cannot change your identity. Any change in how you experience who you are is caused by your response to the trauma. As you’ll see from the science in Chapter 2, you are, in fact, more in control than you feel or think. Your body and mind possess huge potential to physiologically change and adapt in both positive and negative ways. The psychological process by which you create your identity is filled with similar opportunities for change.
How you understand, experience, express, and visualize who you are, think you are, or would like to be is your true source of identity. Do you describe yourself (to yourself or others) as a survivor? How does that make you feel? When you describe yourself, do you like the image of the person who emerges, or do you feel uncomfortable with it? When you describe yourself, do you feel you’re being honest or misleading? Do you feel you’re telling the truth or fabricating? Your answers to these questions let you know whether you’ve designed a healthy identity or one that needs to be updated.
Building a concept of who you are demands that you look at all the things that define you—not just the facts in relation to the trauma. Other elements include physical, social, economic, emotional, intellectual, professional, experiential, and relational aspects, plus the beliefs and meanings you ascribe to them. From these and other accumulated assortments of details, you choose the descriptors you want to represent what it feels like to be you and facilitate the development of that identity. While the outside world can label you, only you have the power to choose your identity. It is a self-referential process based on what you see, think, and feel about your presence in the world.
The decisions you make about which elements define your essence come from two acts:
Stepping into making choices about what defines you.
Stepping out of allowing distorted thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and the opinion of others to make choices for you.
Which of these options do you feel ready to attempt?
If you feel prepared to step into making choices about what defines you, a simple place to begin is with descriptive words that either are true or you want to be true about you. Take a moment to write down some of those now.
If you feel ready to stop allowing trauma’s myths or others’ opinions to define you, take a moment to clearly imagine what that means. Write down some specific, negatively defining ideas that you’re willing to step away from:
What Does a Post-Trauma Identity Look and Feel Like?
I am connecting to my new identity. It will never be what it was before, but perhaps [in it] I can help [others] to find themselves again.
Right now you’re inhabiting a trauma identity. Or, as I often call it, a survivor identity: a way of seeing yourself and your world through the perspective of victimhood, threat, danger, symptoms, and the need to keep yourself safe. This type of identity means that you can experience:
Intrusive thoughts and/or memories. Unwelcome ideas, facts, snippets, and full recollections repeatedly pop into your mind. Nightmares and flashbacks are also included in this category.
Avoidant tendencies. You stay as far away as possible from anything that reminds you of your trauma, including sights, smells, tastes, sounds, people, places, thoughts, and feelings.
Acute stress. Within one month after a traumatic event, you find yourself feeling extreme anxiety, a decrease in emotional responsiveness, a decrease in your desire to participate in previously pleasurable activities, difficulty concentrating, disturbed sleep (insomnia), and behavioral disturbances.
Increased arousal. You experience “hypervigilance,” that is, the need to be on the lookout for danger. Your senses are particularly sensitive and your approach to threat-detecting and safety-oriented behaviors becomes exaggerated.
Dissociation. You live with a feeling of detachment from yourself, others, the world, and the present moment.
Given the way trauma changes your brain (as you’ll see in Chapter 2), plus how a traumatic experience changes your perceptions, for a long time afterward it seems as if remaining in your survivor identity is the smartest thing to do because you believe you are safe and in control. Unfortunately, that rigid, high-stress way of living actually causes enormous harm. You’ll be more flexible and adaptable when you shift out of your survivor identity and into something more life sustaining: a post- trauma identity.
As I’m specifying it, a post-trauma identity is how you perceive, define, and understand who you are in relation to yourself, others, and your place in the world when you are cognizant that you have survived a trauma but have released the need to be driven or motivated by unhealthy actions, beliefs, or behaviors related to the past. It is the per- son you feel most alive and comfortable being according to the messages coming from your innermost core self, and who you are when you carry out thoughtful decisions and empowered choices derived from a sense of what is most important for your happy, healthy, successful, productive, and meaningful life.
Your trauma identity is the state you’re in right now: seeing yourself most clearly in the role of a survivor dealing with symptoms, uncertainty, and a visceral feeling of powerlessness. Evolving into a post-trauma identity occurs when you release a trauma-centric perspective and replace it with a perceptual shift that allows you to see, connect with, and act from the whole person you in fact are—that is, a person who contains traumatic memories of the past but operates from a place of strength and courage in the present. The success of achieving a post-trauma identity means your trauma self functions as a small part of the overall healthy, stable, and in-charge post-trauma self. The success of this process does not mean your future life will be devoid of fears, worries, challenges, and apprehensions. Rather, you will be equipped to manage them from a powerful versus powerless position.
The transformation from a trauma to a post-trauma identity can happen in a variety of ways. Rick and Angelique show two different but equally successful processes:
Rick, a man in his early fifties, was one of the most beloved and successful account executives at an advertising agency in Los Angeles. Then one summer he and his wife, Angelique, were bound, gagged, beaten, and burglarized in their bedroom in the middle of the night while their kids were away on a camping trip. After the event, Angelique, who had been a shy stay-at-home mom, found it hard to be in the house alone during the day. Despite the newly installed state-of-the-art alarm system, she constantly imagined hearing windows rattled and locks picked. She began experiencing anxiety attacks and developed a rash that no prescribed medication eliminated. To get out of the house, Angelique found a part-time job at the local green market. With a place to go every day and a team to work with, Angelique found herself making new friends, developing a safe network in the community, and shedding her shyness in the warmth of connection. The more she blossomed in her role outside the house, the more confident she felt inside it. Gradually the anxiety attacks subsided, the rash cleared, and Angelique found her- self able to be at home without thinking of potential danger.
While the trauma ultimately led Angelique through post-traumatic growth that led her to become more of herself, Rick was having an opposite reaction: He found it hard to exit the house and go to work each day. Afraid to leave his family in a vulnerable position, he bought a gun and took lessons at a local range.
“The minute I drive away from the house, I break into a cold sweat,” Rick explained. “My heart starts to race and my mind just keeps flash- ing back to that night: what the two men looked like, what their sweat smelled like, the sound of the ropes being tightened and the tape being unrolled. Sometimes it all seems so real I have to pull off to the side of the road.”
Eventually Rick began to dread the time every morning when he would leave for work. He developed morning migraines and an upset stomach. He was awake most of the night anticipating having to leave the house. Sleepless, irritable, and feeling out of control, Rick found his performance at work faltering. He missed deadlines and client meetings and was unable to properly manage his team. When the launch of a new client’s advertising campaign was bungled by Rick’s lack of attention, the client withdrew the account, costing the firm substantial profits.
“I knew then that I had to take a leave of absence and find some way to deal with all of this,” Rick said. “I’ve never destroyed a campaign or lost a client. That guy is not who I am. I’m the guy who gets it done, wins awards, and has new clients beating down his door. At least, that’s the guy I was. I’m not sure I can ever be him again. That guy seems gone.”
Until the trauma, Rick had had no reason to consciously assess who he was, or why. He hadn’t paid attention to how he made decisions, what beliefs and meanings drove his behavior, or which specific details shaped the type of man he wanted to be every day. Like most people, he had simply lived from day to day without much thought. In his quest for recovery Rick made a serious effort, for the first time, to discover his whole, core self—the part of him that was bigger than any experience, tapped into his deepest wishes and most innate strengths, and lived with a sense of purpose.
Rick began this process of self-discovery by imagining that his small survivor self was held in the lap of his much larger core self. From there, he imagined what type of larger self would hold something as emotion- ally fragile as his survivor self. Together we made a list of attributes as he thought more and more broadly about what kind of man would shelter a wounded individual. During his daily meditation, Rick began visualizing his core self and engaging in conversation with it. One day, at a deep point of meditation, Rick felt himself expand into the body of the core self he’d been imagining. This marked a major shift in his recovery.
From that day forward Rick embraced and embodied the idea of living from his core self: a man of strength, power, and vision. As he became comfortable with this new role, the morning migraines disappeared and Rick began sleeping restfully through the night. Eventually, he went back to work. Over the following years Rick became so much more successful and productive than he had been previously that he was asked to assume the role of CEO of the advertising firm.
To feel safe, you may have attempted to shrink the world and your- self to a tiny size to make them easy to manipulate and control. Actually, however, the opposite is true. Being able to see more of the world in its context can save you. Imagine this: You’ve been walking in a maze, bumping into walls and leading yourself down dead ends because you can’t see where you should be going or the quickest way to find the exit. Now, imagine this: How would things change if a part of you were so tall it could see above the maze and view it in its entirety? That part would easily see how to navigate with efficiency and could effectively guide you to freedom. You would actually be safer because a part of you had a metaview versus the microview to which you’d become accustomed.
In coping after trauma, you have learned to live from the small amount of information collected by your small survivor self versus the information of your big core self. Balancing your perspective so that you can see the microview but with the added information of the metaview is a major purpose in constructing your post-trauma identity.
Higher education self-empowers me . . . , provides me with a community of seekers, thinkers and support . . . and . . . awakens my authentic voice.
To imagine how you can create a post-trauma identity, it helps to under- stand the characteristics of identity in general. As I’m using it in this book, identity relates to the conceptual idea of who you are and what defines you as a person in the world. It’s how you describe yourself and choose the specific characteristics that make you the unique person that you are. The identity development process ebbs and flows in response to experience and provides the lens through which you view not only yourself but also others and the world at large. In the spirit of continued identity formation, your only choice now is to progress your identity development by going forward, making new choices about who you wish to be and creating a post-trauma self that restores and combines all of the best of who you were before (even if you can’t fully remember) or who you had the potential to be (if trauma occurred before you had the chance for any self-expression) with the best of who you are now and the vision of who you wish to become in the future.
A main factor in how you define yourself is the context in which you understand where and how you belong. Naturally, your identity has changed since your trauma(s), because your understanding of who you are and the world in which you live has dramatically altered. Losing a sense of safety, control, and certainty shifts you into a less than feel- ing. Perhaps today you see yourself as someone robbed of innocence, trust, love, well-being, and the feeling of being able to protect yourself. You may imagine and even deeply feel that you are physically damaged, emotionally or psychologically disfigured, or undesirable. This new self-definition impacts how you see the world, think about yourself and others, and make choices and take actions.
Though your new identity seems bleak, another part of you sees the bigger picture. That’s the part that inspires and motivates you to move toward (re)claiming a more positive, solid, stable, and proactive sense of self. While your less than self may dominate who you are today, your more than self gains ground in every moment you work toward restoring yourself. It is your more than self that forms the basis of who you will become when you (re)construct your identity.
Though the process may feel uncomfortable, the forward-only prescription works to your benefit. Consider this: What if who you are is a function of what you decide and has zero to do with what you have experienced?
Your personal identity develops according to your perception of experience. You are an individual and your perspective of the world is unique to you; what feels traumatizing to you may not feel that way to someone else. Likewise, what feels traumatic to someone else may seem unimportant to you. If perception plays a key role in trauma, then it can also play a key role after trauma. While it doesn’t feel this way at first, how you perceive yourself becomes an element of choice. Who you are is . . . who you decide you are.
The Building Blocks Of Identity
[M]usic healed me . . . [S]oothing sounds . . . helped me feel understood and reconnected to my body and soul . . . [and] able to actually feel again. The sounds were deep and meaningful in a world that I found shallow and unmeaningful.
When we talk about identity, we focus on how you define yourself, including:
Featured characteristics. Which dominant, distinctive qualities most describe your beliefs and perspective, social status, professional direction, personal dreams, and family associations? These details lay the foundation of your personality.
Context. If you were asked to describe yourself to a friend in the comfort of your own home, you would answer differently than if you were asked to describe yourself to a new colleague in the conference room at work. Environment influences your self-perception, which leads to differing definitions of your position in the world.
Narrative. Since the day you were born, you’ve experienced a million moments, all of which have contributed to forming your character and personality; none of them defines your identity. How you arrange the details of those experiences into an account that tells the story of your history builds a picture of who you are. • Values. Your focus and attention will always be pulled to what you define and hold as important. This focused attention will result in behavior motivated to honor those things, which will define you as a person who places respect in those areas.
These four categories provide a basic framework for sketching out your identity. You can expand this list to include other factors that you find applicable to how you explain and express who you are.
Get Reacquainted With Who You Are
One thing that helped me reconnect to my identity was taking the time to do yoga and meditate. Both helped me to look inside and see that what was really there inside had not really changed. My character was the same.
Unlike other losses in life, when you lose your old self, you don’t completely lose your old self. While it’s impossible to actually be that specific person again, elements of who that was or could have been still exist in you. Pause for a moment and experiment with this.
Note: Many of the exercises in this book suggest closing your eyes so that you can more easily focus. If closing your eyes does not feel comfortable to you, the exercises can be done with your eyes open. In that case, find a focal point on which to train your sight for the duration of the exercise. Later, when you feel more comfortable with the material and your process you may revisit the exercises and experience them with your eyes closed. If at any time an exercise causes you to feel intolerably uncomfortable open your eyes, pay attention to your breath, and use your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) to ground yourself in the truth of the present moment.
Sit in a quiet, safe space.
Close your eyes and breathe in deeply and slowly.
Go inside and imagine you are sitting in a serene and beautiful room. Take some time to use all five of your senses to become acquainted with the room.
Take a deep breath in and let it go, slowly. Again.
Notice what in the room makes you feel safe and secure. Bring it closer to you, so close you can touch it.
Now, think of one thing you love or value about who you used to be or could have been. Name it. “What I love/value is ____.”
Bring into your mind that aspect; remember or envision as much about it as you can.
Feel the feeling of that quality now as you recall it.
Imagine you can see and feel that quality as clearly as you can feel the intake of your breath.
How would it make you feel to embody that quality right now?
Pretend that quality has a wonderful scent; inhale it as easily as you just inhaled your last breath. Follow the scent as it enters your nostrils and goes down into your lungs.
Sit with the feeling that quality creates for ten to thirty seconds; breathe it in again and even more deeply as if it were oxygen.
What object represents that element? Imagine it appears. Hold it in your hand and feel its weight, temperature, texture, and other details.
Imagine there is a shelf in your mind; place the object prominently where you can see it.
Imagine there’s a movie screen in your mind; see yourself going through the rest of the day with this quality resting there on the shelf inside your mind. How does having that element affect how you feel inside yourself? How you behave toward the outside world?
When you’re ready, take one final deep breath in, sealing in every good feeling you’ve just seen, thought, and felt, and exhale out any disturbances.
Gently begin to shift your awareness from inside yourself to the details of your body in the position it’s in. When you feel fully ready and reconnected to the present moment, open your eyes.
To make this and all following exercises easier, consider speaking the prompts into your computer or cell phone recorder so that during the exercise you can listen to the replay without distraction. Or, visit YourLifeAfterTraumaBook.com to download the complimentary audio of this and other exercises throughout the book.
With this exercise, as with all the exercises in this book, you may experience resistance or other feedback that causes you not to achieve the results you wish the first time you follow the prompts. Whatever you can do (even if that’s just thinking about but not even attempting the exercise) is perfectly fine. With each subsequent approach, you will develop your unique process for success in carrying out the full sequence.
Rate this experience in terms of intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being “I felt the aspect that I love/value very intensely.”)
You are able to feel something only when it’s inside you. Whether you would rate that feeling a 1or a 10, feeling it even faintly proves how much you do contain that quality. As a matter of fact, you proved its presence in your willingness to read about and even do the exercise. The moment you imagine something, you already own the seeds for having and experiencing it completely.
Note: Even if you didn’t feel or experience anything, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t possess the quality. It can mean that (1) you don’t yet feel safe enough to experience it, (2) you haven’t given yourself permission to own it, or (3) you are still so emotionally numb that such a feeling cannot yet come through. Rather than seeing such a situation as an obstacle, see it as a challenge. Your desire for this feeling indicates that somewhere in you, it already exists. Proceed into the book and circle back here at a later date.
Resolving the Post-Trauma Identity Crisis
Identity . . . is a sense, a new feeling of presence, a connection to yourself and others . . . that is unalterable yet transformative when cherished and set free.
When you’re mired in post traumatic stress and symptoms, it can seem as if your life will always be this exhausting, frustrating, limiting, out of control, damaged, and memory oriented. You may wonder if healing the parts of you that feel broken is even possible. Can a post-trauma identity crisis be resolved?
The answer is, absolutely. The process contained in this book offers a way to update how you define and perceive yourself so that your sense of who you are is more relevant to your present and future than to your past. What I’ve learned from my own recovery, plus years of work with clients and as the leader of a large trauma community, is that while we are all individual in our traumas, we are universal in our post traumatic experience, and then individual again in our healing journeys. What you do in your healing and identity work will be unique to you. For some survivors (including me), resolution means an identity that is symptom-free and offers you the liberty to create who you are in the world in any way you choose. For others, resolution means a persona that manages symptoms and allows you to be functional socially and professionally. Your process will be guided and based on what definitions make sense to you. Later chapters will walk you through exactly how to define and work through a post-trauma identity transformation. Let’s look at some preliminary examples, concepts, and exercises to get you in the mindset before we delve in further.
Clarice grew up in a happy home. Her parents were full of love and thought everything she did was marvelous. They encouraged her to take risks, supported her dreams, helped her overcome obstacles, cheered her successes, and soothed her failures. Her younger sister was her best friend and confidant. While every childhood has its bumps and scrapes, Clarice grew up believing the world was basically fair, that she was safe, that her parents could protect her, and that she was capable of making judgments and forecasting outcomes for herself.
It was within those beliefs that Clarice defined who she was. “I was the girl who was confident,” she said in one of our first meetings. “I could figure out how to achieve pretty much anything I set my mind to. Whether it was becoming an honor student, getting into the college I wanted, or landing a job, I knew I could do it. And then my trauma occurred, and all that changed. I went from seeing myself as someone who could to someone who can’t. It wasn’t a logical progression. It was just a slow and subtle shift that came from feeling completely disconnected from my can-do self.”
Survivor of a severe accident in which her car was hit by a drunk driver, nineteen-year-old Clarice sustained major injuries that included a broken pelvis, dislocated shoulder, and concussion. By the time she emerged into regular life after being hospitalized for weeks, she knew she would eventually make a full recovery. Although her physical wounds were healing, however, emotionally she still felt shattered. More than that, she felt like a different person.
“When I look into the mirror, I can see the same face I’ve always seen, but it’s not the same person looking back. This is someone else, a girl who looks hollow, skittish, and afraid. A girl who is closed, uncertain, and without joy. I don’t look forward to anything. I don’t enjoy the things I used to like doing. I used to be very social, but now I’d rather be alone.” Clarice sighed. “I’m just so different from who I used to be.”
Maybe you, like Clarice, have experienced a single defining event at a time in your life that you can look back to to clearly see the difference between who you are and who you used to be. Or maybe you’re more like Terrence, who can’t remember a time before trauma. He explains:
“My trauma started before birth. Pop didn’t want me, so he beat up Ma while she was pregnant hoping she would have a miscarriage. She lived in total fear of him every day. Eventually, she moved out and went to live with her parents, who were very strict and religious. They told her she would burn in hell for the sin of having a baby out of wedlock. She had nowhere else to go. A few times she tried to reconcile with my father, but the meetings always ended in beatings. When I was finally born, my ma was a real mess emotionally. By then she didn’t want me either. I don’t have a Before self. I never got to have a self that was pure. From the very beginning my life has been marked by trauma. Who I am has always been based on that little baby who survived the beatings and then came into a world where he was unwanted and neglected.”
Regardless of which scenario resonates with you, trauma can cause mutations in who you are and often leads to profound “dis-ease” when it comes to assessing your identity. The question I hear most from clients and others in the survivor community is, “Who am I now?” Coping with post traumatic symptoms, plus your response to (and interpretation of) the meaning of the experience, throws into question all of what you knew or ever suspected about yourself. The “Who am I now?” question sums up the biggest part of the post-trauma identity crisis and is the question that will be answered by the end of your successful transformation.
Until then, it’s important to remember that no matter what your trauma was or how long you’ve lived with the aftereffects, change is always possible—especially change in who you are, how you live, the way you see yourself, and the way you present yourself to others. The process of identity change is subtle and happens gradually over time, either by isolating particular details you wish to change or working toward an overall concept. In keeping with the nature of healing, these choices are unique to you and guided by what feels right, comfortable, and good in your process. They can be large or small, involving others or only yourself. The key to change is undertaking and executing plans you feel ready for.
Take my client Margaret, for example. Her family had called her Maggie her whole life. To her, that name had come to symbolize a child sexual abuse survivor whose family did not protect or support her (even after they discovered the source of her trauma), and a girl who had accepted herself as being less than, damaged, and undeserving. Through our work together she developed a different self-view, one of a woman beginning to make strong and deliberate choices about profession, relationships, romance, and geographic location. With all of the changes she was experiencing and the empowerment they instigated, she evolved from a child to a fully mature woman; “Maggie” no longer seemed like an appropriate name. That was the name of the abused child, the silent adolescent, and the young adult who accepted being devalued. As she moved into a newly empowered state, Maggie decided she wanted to be known by her full name. Today, she goes by Margaret.
While changing your name may seem like a small shift, as you saw earlier with Erik Erikson it’s an action deeply tied to your self-creation. Your name is how you’re known. Choosing how you are known deeply impacts your sense of who you are and also how others relate to you. Another of my clients, Vick, was molested between the ages of seven and twelve by his father and the priest his father invited to join him. When Vick told his mother what was happening, his mother refused to believe him. Instead, Vick’s mother and father began telling everyone in the community that Vick was prone to lying. Accomplishing his healing two decades later, Vick married and decided to legally change his name to his wife’s last name so that his original name was no longer attached to him at all. “Part of what feels right to me for my new identity,” he explains, “is being completely free from my family of origin. That means not speaking to or seeing any of them, and legally severing all connections.” The process of changing his name presented new challenges for Vick. He had to fill out forms, go to the courthouse, and even have a lengthy meeting with the judge. Every step of the process introduced Vick to uncomfortable fears, anxieties, feelings, and thoughts. As he shared with me later, these challenges proved to be terrific experiences. “They ultimately helped me step even more solidly into my new identity because they made me consciously confirm and validate my choices and fully consider each action prior to taking it,” he confided.
The large effect a name change creates points to how much impact choice, plus seemingly inconsequential details, have on self-perception. By thinking of herself as Margaret, one survivor began turning herself into a thriver. Now when she introduces herself, she says her full name and feels the weight of what it means: a woman creating a life undefined by the past. Margaret smiles more, stands up straight, and looks people squarely in the eye. By legally changing his name, another survivor took responsibility for redefining his past, present, and future. Vick freed himself from ties to his trauma and in doing so discovered how able he was to protect himself.
Your post-trauma identity development process will seem exciting, invigorating, challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable. Because you are emotionally invested in the outcome, you will naturally ebb and flow through the changes. Those around you, however, may not. To this day, Margaret’s family refuses to adapt to her decision. To them, she always has been, and always will be, Maggie. They decline to recognize the changes she is making to her whole self. They pretend not to notice that she has reduced her oversized breast implants, uses less garish makeup, and wears more modest clothing. Instead, they say she has “lost weight,” looks pale, and needs to go shopping. For a while Margaret patiently reminded and corrected her mother, father, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins about her full name. For a while she chafed and was hurt and disappointed that no one would honor her request. When it became clear that her family simply would not engage in her personal development, Margaret had a choice to make: Give up or go on. Margaret chose to go on, keeping the contact but letting go of the need for her family to support her actions. She identified friends, work colleagues, and new acquaintances who complied with her request. She gathered from non family sources the support and response her family refused to provide. What remained most important to Margaret was being true to her vision of who she wanted to be.
Until today, you may have sat back and allowed your identity to create itself in all the chaos of a swirling winter snowstorm. Today, however, you are beginning to consciously create changes in your identity—changes intimately tied to your image of, and feelings about, who you truly want to be and can be.
You may feel all alone, but the truth is that you larger, calm, confident, and omnipresent self remains with you in every moment. You have an opportunity now to make contact and experience what it feels like to be safe inside yourself:
Sit in a quiet, safe space.
Close your eyes and breathe in deeply and slowly.
Go inside yourself and imagine you are sitting in a serene and beautiful room. Take some time to use all five of your senses to become acquainted with the room.
Take a deep breath in and let it go, slowly. Again.
Notice what in the room makes you feel safe and secure. Bring it closer to you, so close you can touch it.
Notice that while at first you may have thought you were sitting on a conventional piece of furniture, you are actually sitting in someone’s lap. This person is much bigger than you, breathes quietly and rhythmically, and feels familiar and safe.
Imagine that the support against your back, which up until this moment you may have assumed was a piece of furniture, is actually the torso of this larger person. Notice how it provides a comfortable and firm brace behind you.
Bring your focus to your breath and notice how it times itself to the gentle rise and fall of the body behind you.
Notice the arms that encircle you and rest comfortably around you. Notice the feeling of comfort and security this presence introduces. Recognize it’s another version of you.
Focus fully on the details of this person who embraces you. Notice any scents, sounds, feelings, or other sensory details you can discern.
Allow yourself to quietly sit in the presence of this self for as long as feels comfortable.
When you feel ready to return to your day, thank this part of you for spending this time with you. Agree you will return to deepen the connection whenever you wish.
Slowly withdraw yourself from the serene room and bring yourself back to an awareness of the present moment and the physical space you are in. Focus on the sounds you hear in your environment, even if they are silence. When you are ready, open your eyes.
In your notebook, write down everything you remember about what you saw, felt, heard, and experienced.
When you look at the following picture, what do you see? Where is it, what is the railing for, and what kind of purpose does the structure serve?
Since you are able to view only this one small part of what is surely a larger picture, it’s impossible to have any idea about the location, use, or safety of the structure. It looks alone, fortified, and disconnected from any greater whole that would define it or offer a clue to the meaning of its existence in the world.
Now, look at this picture:
This is a picture of the fishing pier on Juno Beach, Florida. It’s a partial view from one of my favorite spots on the sand, where I spent many difficult hours of inner work during my PTSD healing journey. It’s also the spot where I now spend many luxurious hours basking in the sun and my psychological freedom. Looking at the photo from this perspective, suddenly you understand that the structure—with an incredibly fortified and reinforced foundation—is the anchor for the entire pier: a place from which the view of the sky and horizon are naturally beautiful.
How much of your whole self do you see in this moment? To con- struct the identity you want, it will help to see the larger parts that make up the entirety of who you are. Like Rick, when you see your full self in context, you will be able to identify distorted beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions that create your experience in any day. Choosing how to shift, release, and change these elements infuses you with power in determining who you are and how you live, plus gives you a road map to alterations over a period of time. When you successfully construct a post-trauma identity, you call forth the selves you most want to influence your life and integrate them into one functional overall self. This is part of what leads to post-traumatic growth. You have within you a part that can stand up and see the big picture above the height of the trauma maze. If you let it guide you, this part can play a big role in moving you forward.
Let Yourself Grow
The part that can see the big picture is your strength, your courage, and your bravery. It’s also the part of you that wants you to feel better. It can assess situations, see opportunities, figure out alternatives, and problem-solve in healthy ways that keep you safe; it is present in every moment. You have an opportunity now to make contact and begin experiencing what it feels like to have this inner guide and mentor:
Sit in a quiet, safe space.
Close your eyes and breathe in deeply and slowly.
Go inside yourself and imagine you are sitting in a serene and beautiful room. Take some time to use all five of your senses to become acquainted with the room.
Take a deep breath in and let it go, slowly. Again.
Notice what in the room makes you feel safe and secure. Bring it closer to you, so close you can touch it.
Notice now that another presence has entered the room. You remain calm and curious. You recognize this person; it is a part of you. In fact, it is the part that wants you to overcome the past. It is strong, proactive, determined, brave, courageous, and committed.
Look at that self: How is it dressed? What does its voice sound like? How does it move, walk, and gesture?
Imagine you stand face to face with this self; look. into its eyes. Put up a hand; notice it mirrors what you do. Practice lead and follow. Notice how easy it is to connect with this self. Feel its secure energy. Notice that being near it you feel safer, as if some- one is protecting you.
Now, notice that self begin to grow one foot taller, and then another, and then even another foot taller still. It continues growing a full story as you feel its energy increase and as you witness the ease with which it grows. As you stand below looking up at it, watch as it continues to grow another story and then even another story taller while a new energy emanates from it like the glint of the sun, until it stops growing at just the perfect height.
See how easy it is to grow bigger in your form and energy and body. Now it is your turn: Bring your attention to feeling yourself grow, slowly at first as you get used to the feeling of growth. Feel yourself grow to the height of one extra story while you become more and more comfortable with change, so that it becomes easier and easier to feel yourself grow. The more easily you feel yourself grow, the more quickly it happens, and the more quickly it happens, the more easily you feel yourself grow, so that you grow as tall as the part of yourself that stands before you.
Take a look at the other part of you now that you are face to face again. Then take a look around you and observe how different everything seems from up here. See how different your whole life looks from this height, with all the things in the past so small below you. Notice how different your body feels in this shape. Even how different things sound from this height.
As you bring your focus back to that strong self that stands in front of you, notice that it wants something from you. What does it want?
It has a message for you. Listen to it; what does it say? What is your response?
If you have a question for this part of yourself, ask it now. What advice do you wish it would give you?
You can connect to this stronger part of you in an even deeper way: Move around to stand behind it. As you stand behind, notice the feeling of energy that emanates from this part of you. Allow yourself to soak it in. Then, take a step forward, and then another and another, as many as it takes to get right up close to this part, as if you could breathe right onto its neck.
Count to three and then step right into this part. Feel your feet slip into its feet. Feel your shins inside; your thighs, your hips, and your waist settling; your belly and chest and your arms all the way down to your fingertips settling into this self and your fingers wiggling; your neck and your head settling into place with a small snap. Now you are connected to a Super You, with new ways of accessing all you need to accomplish what you want in moving forward. Stay with this feeling as long as you like. Imagine what it would be like to move through the day as this self.
When you feel ready to return to the present moment, thank this part of yourself for spending time with you. Agree you will return to deepen the connection any time you wish.
Slowly withdraw yourself from the serene room and bring your- self back to an awareness of the present moment and the physical space you are in. Focus on the sounds you hear in your environment, even if they are silence. When you are ready, open your eyes.
In your notebook, write down everything you remember about what you saw, felt, heard, and experienced.
What to Expect From Your Post-Trauma Identity (and the Exercises in This Book!)
I surround myself with good people, including fellow trauma survivors who share an understanding of human suffering and have personal insights into healing. Their compassionate souls and empathetic hearts help reestablish my connection to the world and restore my belief in humanity.
During an interview on my radio show a few years ago, Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a renowned trauma expert and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, answered a question by saying, “Michele, there’s a reason we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads!” She meant we’re not supposed to keep looking behind. Understandably, after trauma you may have become a bit compulsive and even obsessed with that perspective. Since you don’t have eyes in the back of your head, however, you have to turn and face that direction in order to look that way. When you do that, you can’t see what’s happening in front of you, which means you miss opportunities to grow, heal, and move forward. Because your attention may feel pulled by and compelled to turn to the past, it’s imperative that you develop a process for, and commitment to, forcibly turning yourself to the future. Constructing your post-trauma identity helps you do this in three important ways:
1. Shift from powerless to powerful. If you’re struggling after trauma, you’re experiencing a sense of powerlessness, guaranteed. In this state you feel disconnected from abilities, talents, and skills that would allow you a feeling of being able to protect yourself. Experiencing disempowerment means you lack confidence, a key ingredient in ably making decisions. Paradoxically, making choices is one of the quickest ways to feel empowered. Choosing your identity offers a process for very firmly taking back control, both over who you are and also how you live.
When you choose, gain control, and shift into a state of identity efficacy, you transition out of powerlessness into an ever-grow- ing sensation of powerfulness that alters how you reconstruct and experience your entire life. Incorporated in these results will be a reclaiming of aspects of yourself that constitute the person you most wish to be. Sometimes that will mean going far back into the past and bringing qualities forward. Other times it will mean looking to the recent past for valuable elements you’ve mistakenly released. Or, it may mean imagining what you wish you had a chance to possess long ago, and finally possessing it today. Last, it may include looking at characteristics you’ve accepted that you wish to eliminate. In developing your ability to make decisions and self-regulate, you will recalibrate the experience of what it means to be you. Transforming yourself from a state of discomfort to a state of comfort shifts you into a place of feeling calm, settled, confident, and in control. All of these changes reorder your self-sensations from chaos to equanimity.
2. Transform loss into connection. After trauma, many things can vanish. In addition to your sense of self and safety, you can lose loved ones, a career, financial security, relationships, and spirituality, to name a few. If you loved what’s been lost, then you will feel sadness and even prolonged grief. One of the ways we overcome these feelings is to create new experiences that restore good feelings in the areas in which loss has occurred. In terms of your sense of self, that means bridging the loss of self in the past with a deep and meaningful connection in the present that lays a foundation for creating your future. It means finding new meaning, purpose, gifts, lessons, rewards, and value in yourself and in your life.
Connection requires you to reintegrate your self-definition with your internal experience while educating others to recognize the new you. Teaching your fragmented selves to relate to each other in more dynamic and trusting relationships (which creates a sense of internal stability) becomes a key element in this process. When you feel stable, you can begin to redefine your thoughts, feelings, actions, behaviors, perceptions, and desires so that your entire perspective shifts to a new experience of the world and new ideas about your place in it. With this combination of changes, you relocate the locus of control (which trauma has placed out- side of your intention) inside your deliberate choices. This moves you directly into a present full of possibilities, opportunities, and dreams.
3. Replace confusion with clarity. Chaos (emotionally and physically) reigns in the post-trauma experience. The lines blur between past, present, and future; safety and danger; real and unreal; good and bad; meaningful and not meaningful. The world looks even messier when your internal space is cluttered and overwhelmed by erroneous, flooded, overreactive, and disjointed input. Letting outside sources—people, experiences, symptoms—define your internal landscape places perspectives that are not yours at the center of who you are. Slowing down your emotions, responses, and actions, and making deliberate decisions about what you want yourself and your world to look like, helps bring the world back into focus. Being detailed in identifying who you want to be and how you want to live creates good feelings and clear images that can be used to navigate your movement through both recovery and the world. The result: reduced anxiety, a deeper shift to powerfulness, and a sense of safety and control that rests within you the way a pearl rests within an oyster.
The launch of the clarification process begins with how you reinstitute meaning, purpose, direction, and focus. What is your mission in life? What do you feel you have to offer the world that would help someone or something? The process of introducing yourself back as a member of society forces you to release any remaining inner rigidity. To collaborate in the world means you must enter the flow of the world at large. Doing so refreshes your connection with both the world outside trauma and also the larger world in which you exist. When you achieve this, you reenergize as the flow of energy from others to you, and from you to others, creates a source of creativity, emotional sustenance, intellectual stimulation, motivation, and inspiration that comes from the larger natural forces operating throughout the world in every moment.
Working With Your Many Different Selves
I knew that the only part of my identity that felt like it had a part of me left was my relationship with my daughter. I packed the precious few pieces I could fit into my car and left the States to . . . restart my life close to [her] . . .
For weeks in my work with twenty-seven-year-old Augusta, she entered every session with a peppy, cheerful attitude wanting to discuss her bouncy two-year-old baby boy, or her distant husband, or her all-consuming job. She wanted to talk about friends, her love of poetry, her irritation with her mother. To sum it up, Augusta wanted to focus on everything except the reason she’d sought me out: to overcome post- trauma issues related to childhood sexual abuse.
“What happened in the past doesn’t really bother me,” she said, wav- ing away the topic with her hand.
“Th n why are you here?”
“Well,” Augusta paused, thinking. Then her eyes filled with tears. “It bothers . . . her.” Blinking hard and forcing a laugh, Augusta settled back in her seat, her shoulders slumping forward slightly.
After a moment, I gently asked, “Who does it bother, Augusta?”
Another silence. Then, “The five-year-old.” Augusta sniffed, and with that one sentence—plus all the tears that suddenly spilled from her surprised eyes—she finally stepped into her post-trauma identity and recovery work.
While she cried, Augusta described her five-year-old self: pigtails, blue eyes with long blond lashes, favorite polka-dot dress and favorite doll carried everywhere. Augusta described the girl’s innocence and purity; her trust, faith, and belief; her sense of comfort and ease in the world.
“I can sense her pain. I feel so badly for what happened to her,” Augusta sobbed. “But she’s so far away from me I don’t know how to make her feel better.”
I asked Augusta if it would be all right to try an exercise; she agreed. I asked her to close her eyes and take some deep breaths. She complied, and after focusing on her breathing for a few moments, Augusta reported that she felt calmer, at which point I asked her to imagine the little girl, however far away she might seem. When Augusta accomplished this, I asked her to invite the little girl to move closer. What happened next surprised Augusta: The little girl very willingly moved closer and closer until she was so close she crawled into Augusta’s lap! This made Augusta laugh. She began rocking in the chair as if holding a small child. She soothed the little girl, and a happy smile spread across Augusta’s face.
“I had no idea I could do this,” she whispered.
I guided Augusta in a conversation with this past self. Then, before letting the little girl go, I asked Augusta where the little girl would feel most safe, loved, and secure. Augusta chose a small chair at a tiny table in the bedroom of her little boy. She took the girl there, letting her explore the room and come to a place of rest in the chair. Augusta promised to visit, and then she came back to the present moment and we ended the exercise.
When Augusta opened her eyes, they were filled with amazement, plus a new tranquility. The pain and the little girl had always seemed so out of reach, while in fact they were very accessible. More than that, they were very willing to come forward, be assuaged, and then integrated into the present moment. Augusta learned she could handle their near- ness, and also discovered the value of being willing to step forward and engage. Especially in matters of healing, Augusta had avoided this kind of proactive action. Inspired by her younger self, however, she adopted an attitude of more open willingness in fixing the problems in her life. The little girl became a guide and a role model; by developing in herself some of the little girl’s attitude, Augusta became stronger, more decisive, and more action oriented.
While Augusta’s process was extremely fluid, Jake’s, though similar, was more complex. Having grown up in a religious cult, Jake had experienced extreme emotional, physical, and verbal abuse at the hands of the cult leader when he was seven. At the age of twenty-three he left the cult and went on to become a successful entrepreneur. A year prior to our meeting he had sold his business after a trigger rendered him agoraphobic. Now fifty-two, Jake lived alone in a large house with all the shades drawn. We worked via phone, and almost immediately Jake mentioned that his seven-year-old self (Little Man) was crouched in a corner and would neither turn around to face him nor step away from the wall. Little Man, Jake reported, was furious with him. Why? Because Jake, having shut down his life, wasn’t doing anything to help either himself or Little Man.
Coaxing Little Man to engage took a couple of weeks. First Jake and I strategized to come up with ways to move Jake into a more proactive, empowered perspective and state. As Jake began following through on some of the exercises I designed (at first, just simple things like going outside to sit on the porch or take a walk around the house), Little Man became more attentive and eventually came out of the corner to sit on the bed in Jake’s bedroom. This was a landmark event, connecting Jake to an important source of his disturbing emotions.
During his years in the cult, he had learned it was safer to suffer silently and not show any emotion. Little Man, however, was completely the opposite. He was loud and aggressive and tearful and bossy—he held a self-protective power Jake longed to have. Over subsequent weeks, Jake’s dialogue with Little Man expanded. He found himself joining in with the little boy’s passionate responses. The more he mimicked the little boy, the better Jake felt and the more the little boy trusted him. Releasing the pent-up anger allowed Jake to replace it with an internal compassion and connection: He developed a buddy feeling with Little Man that reduced his sense of loneliness and disconnection while allowing him to become more expressive of his emotions.
The whole of who you are is made up of parts, all encompassed in one personality. You can think of these parts the way you think of parts of a car: They each have an individual function and combine to make an operable vehicle. For every age you’ve ever been, there’s a part. For every kind of person you want to be, there’s a part. For every kind of person you already are, there’s a part.
Normally, all of your parts collaborate the way the bees in a hive arrange their lives and work around one central member, the queen. Ideally, all the parts inside you arrange around your core authentic self, contributing to your being or becoming the person you most wish to be. Trauma, however, is like splitting a hive wide open—with a demolished structure, none of the parts have a central focus; the whole becomes fractured and splintered into many selves (still within one personality) that no longer work together. Each disconnected part buzzes around on its own, a situation that can make you feel unhinged, distracted, and even crazy. This is especially true when the trauma parts buzz more loudly than the rest.
Your selves (both past and present), however, contain enormous value and can act as guides in constructing your post-trauma identity. They contain knowledge you may have forgotten. In the post-trauma lockdown you may not remember how to love, connect, hope, and anticipate, but your inner six- (or two-, or ten-, or one-) year-old does, or at least, can imagine how. Plus, these selves can teach what you need to (re) learn to become the strong and vibrant person you wish to be. The purpose of these selves, in their fleeting or constant existence, is to remind you of your options and opportunities, plus the capabilities, interests, passions, gifts, and skills you possess. Gleaning and combining the knowledge of many selves educates and informs your overall core identity in ways that allow you to develop strength, clarity, and productivity.
A major aspect of constructing your post-trauma identity will be recreating a sense of order and integration among all of your selves. This begins by pulling your past selves into contact with your present self. The purpose here is to identify what elements of your past selves you want to have present in who you are today. This process has three phases: connecting to that past self or selves in ways that are gentle and declarative; borrowing qualities to exhibit in your daily life; and choosing to consciously employ these facets of your past self in your present self in the way you approach, perceive, and behave.
In their quest to develop one self with core control of their identity, many of my clients discover that the self they choose needs to develop additional skills before it is truly ready to take control. Kate’s story is a great example of what happens when you combine the power of your past and present selves.
Kate married her college sweetheart. Supporting them while her husband followed his dream to become a surgeon Kate deferred her desire for a family until Hal was securely on the fast track to success. Eventually, they had twin daughters. This should have been a happy time for Kate, except for the fact that Hal had changed since their college romance. Success had made him demanding, controlling, ego-driven and often mean. When she tried to speak to him about these things he derided and snarled at her, then slammed out of the house, often disappearing for several unaccountable hours. When Kate discovered Hal was cheating she finally decided to leave. With that decision she entered a battle for her freedom. Hal’s financial and social power in the community massively overshadowed any resources Kate had been able to develop. Twenty years later the wounds of her divorce were still fresh.
“I didn’t gain my freedom,” she says sadly. “I lived in a prison of Hal’s control. Because he could afford better lawyers than I could the terms of the divorce were in his favor. I had no job and two little girls to raise. Hal threatened me constantly with phone calls and letters and emails that claimed he was going to take the girls from me and leave me home- less and penniless. On a couple of occasions he got so angry he shoved me up against the wall and made his threats verbally. I lived in constant fear.” Feeling helpless and powerless Kate developed a large distrust of men and her own ability to choose a man who could maintain a healthy relationship. By the time she reached her mid-fifties she’d been alone for over twenty years. She was a single woman desperately wanting to be in a loving relationship with a man but too traumatized by her divorce to imagine finding a partner. Reclusive, Kate rarely went out socially, preferring her animals (three dogs, a cat, and a parrot) to interacting with people. When our work together brought her to a sense of healing that allowed her to trust herself again and consider being more social Kate decided it was time to open herself to finding love.
Her first forays into her community did not go well. Out of practice with just the basics of being social, Kate found herself at a loss for words, uncomfortable meeting new people, and lacking confidence that any man would want to speak with her.
“I just don’t have that social ease I used to have,” Kate commented one day. “You should have seen me when I was twenty—I was a hell- raiser!” She continued to describe the free spirit she had been in college: dancing in bars, inviting other students to join her table of friends, and having a reputation as the most cheerful person on campus. When I asked Kate to describe to me the qualities of that twenty-year-old self— what made her the strong, vibrant woman Kate remembered—she readily listed many.
Healing from trauma requires focus, dedication, and commitment. To help support my clients in developing these traits, at the end of every meeting I give them an assignment for the upcoming week. On this day, my assignment for Kate was to identify three qualities that she most loved about her twenty-year-old self and find ways to embody them in her present-day life. The purpose was to connect Kate with a part of her identity that she valued and from which she could deliberately draw strength, inspiration, and action. She did this and returned the next week, breathlessly exclaiming, “That was fun!”
Having established a comfortable connection with this self, Kate expanded her work to include getting to know and then inhabit every aspect of who that twenty-year-old had been. She listened to her music, ate her favorite foods, adopted her hairstyle, dressed in her updated fashions, and even spoke with her energy. With constant connection to her younger self, Kate’s present self relearned how to enjoy, be bold, lean in, and stand out. She joined a new church, through which she developed a vast and active social network. She also joined a dating website, through which she is currently exploring group get-togethers and individual dates as she seeks The One.
Establishing your connection to and focusing on your past and present selves sets you up to create your vision and then a strategy for becoming the future self you most desire. As you construct your post-trauma identity, you’ll notice that one self naturally leads to another and another and another, with an authentic core connection that continues to strengthen. My grandmother collected elephant figurines with their trunks up for good luck. As a world traveler, she’d picked up different depictions of elephants from places as close to home as California (she lived in San Diego) and as far away as Spain, Portugal, and India. When I was a child, what I loved about her collection was how it spread around her apartment like several herds. Of all the individual figurines, my favorite part of the collection was the elephants walking in a line hold- ing each other’s tails. I liked the connection of the many individuals through just one simple gesture. Your selves can create this same kind of connection, holding on to each other loosely to form one long line of traits, qualities, and characteristics that make up the overall you from past to present and on into your future.
While trauma can make you feel as if you have been forever altered, the truth is that you have an inherent capacity to change again, and again and again.
Accepting, embracing, and redirecting the changes constitute the work of constructing your post-trauma identity.
You are who and what you believe you are, because perceptions create your experience of yourself and your world.
Any change in how you experience who you are is caused by your response to the trauma. That response can change, and so can your identity.
When you successfully construct a post-trauma identity, you call forth the selves that you most want to influence your life and integrate them into one functional entity.