It's so easy to fall into the trap, where all you do is complain about all the challenging things that happened in our lives. And yes, we have to talk about all those things. Because we have to embrace our truth, and go through our story to make sense of it. But, if you get stuck in that place, you can get bitter.
This particular idea of letting go of the past came up a few years ago when I was doing a writing course. There was a discussion about finding your voice. One of the things I said was: I want to be able to write about my experiences, but I don't want to be a victim or a survivor my whole life. It just gets too much. It gets very tiresome to write from that energy all the time. Even though all this stuff happened to me I don't want to have to feel it all the time. Then I would be re-victimizing myself.
Survivor is a Stationary Concept
In her TED Talk Debra Jarvis talks about this idea that being a survivor gives you no room for growth. Once you've survived something, you are going to be a survivor for the rest of your life. There is no evolution, no growth. You have survived, that’s done. Now, that’s the status for the rest of your life. Obviously that's not how life works. Or at least I don't think it should be how life works.
This is not only true for survivors. It goes for all the labels we stick on ourselves. Once it's stuck on, it keeps us stuck in that place. So, in order to move on we may need to let go of some of the labels that we have relied on to identify us to the world, and to ourselves.
What Do I Bring Forward?
I know some people do say: I wish xyz never happened to me. I don't, because if I say I wish that my past never happened to me, I wish away the first 30+ years of my life. In essence I would ask for me not to exist. After all, how could I exist without all those experiences? Without everything that happens to you, everything that's said to you, everything you manage to overcome. It all somehow shapes you. So wishing that all away? You would wish yourself away.
I would rather say: Yes, this happened to me, but I want to be more than a survivor. So what can I take away from this?
There's Always Positive to be Taken, Even from the Worst of Experiences
In fact, when you think about it, the experiences where we grow are usually not the fun stuff. Having a picnic on a sunny day with your favorite people in the world… You're probably not going to learn a lot. You're not going to be doing any soul-searching. I mean, you will probably be having great fun, but are you going to be a better person at the end of the day? You may be a more relaxed person and maybe a happier person. But you're not going to have learned how to deal with life, it's not the answer to Life's Big Questions.
What if it wasn't for all of drama? The way in which I view the world, the way in which I approach people and even some of the choices I make in the work I do… So much comes from those experiences. Taking them and making them into something positive. Growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, one of the things that I know only too well is what it feels like to feel completely unloved, unappreciated and unwanted. Right? All of us, everyone who has experienced emotional abuse knows what that feels like.
I Try to Make People I Meet in Life Feel Seen, Appreciated and Loved (Including Myself)
If I go into a store, I want the person that assists me to feel that they are appreciated. Maybe not loved… I have a pretty good relationship with the people in my Supermarket, but maybe not love… I've seen you, I've acknowledged your humanity and I've appreciated the fact that you have helped me today, that you made me a coffee or cooked my lunch.
I’m trying to make my world a better place, just by trying to positively affect the people I meet. I try to let loving kindness be the underlying force for everything.
Like in my illustration work, I try to make diverse illustrations, including people with different ethnicity or characters with disabilities… Hopefully it will make people feel that they are worth my time, attention, and effort. You are worth being made to feel appreciated and you are worthy of acceptance.
That is really the guiding principle of what I do in my life and how I interact with people. It is the basis for my friendships and obviously my relationship with my husband.
There's always stuff that you can take from bad experiences, no matter how bad they were. But it takes time to get there. You can’t rush this recognition. It's not going to happen on the day after you've left an abuser, or the week after you got the all clear in the hospital, or an hour after you were harassed for who you love. You need to be patient for it to work out. You need to get through the icky stuff first.
Appreciation through Adversity
Andrew Solomon focused his TED Talks on adversity. The point he is trying to make it that if you've had to work really hard to get where you are, then you're going to appreciate it so much more.
He talks about being gay and having been able to marry and adopt children, something he had not expected ever to be able to do because of his sexuality. For him not to have come through and now have those things, makes him appreciate his husband and children even more.
One of the things that Andrew Solomon says about that whole ‘I wish it never happened to me’ discussion we had earlier, he says:
When you banish the dragons you banished the heroes as well.
When you don't have to deal with adversity in your life, when are you going to stand up and be your own hero? When are you going to challenge yourself and learn to be the best of you? How will you learn to find who you are and who you're meant to be?
Make Changes, Big or Small
Now, the choices you make about your life can be big or small. I chose to help create and work on SwanWaters (a healing platform for abuse survivors), which I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for those experiences. I mean, if the other founding members and I didn't have the experience of abuse, that website and its community would not exist.
There are so many small ways in which you can take your experiences and say: “You know what? I'm going to make a change to my life, to the way that I run things because I have had this experience”.
My parents have very few friends, and the people that they call friends they barely ever see. So I've made quite a conscious decision about how I view my friendships. I don't need to have a lot of friends, but I want to have really deep and very good friendships. Luckily, I have! That's how I've build a new family around me as well.
This can be sort of a small change, but it can have a big impact.
Consider: this was my experience and I am going to make a conscious choice to change that about my life.
For me the underlying idea of loving kindness being the basis for what I do in my life, that's a small fine-tuning, but it has a huge impact and a very positive impact on my life. Because as it turns out the people who you make my coffee, like that I talk to them as if they are human-beings. Seriously, baristas like that and they responded very well. It even gets you free coffee every so often. So if for no other reason, treat people with loving kindness, and you might get a free coffee or pastries when they reach their sell by date (just sayin'). It is definitely a win-win.
And, it means that I don't have to go around being a survivor. I can go around being someone who learned from a bad experience and is turning that around. Someone who is reaching out to other people and helping them too.
We Are All In This Together
Of course, it's not just people who have experienced abuse who are traumatized. There are so many people who have bad stuff happen to them, and are survivor of something. They are survivors of cancer, are survivors of car accidents, survivors of racism… We all survive things, and sometimes it's really nice for someone to just say:
Hey, gorgeous! You know what? You’re doing well.
I like who you are, and I appreciate that you are here, trying to make my life a little better.
That's how I've come to be able to accept that all that stuff happened to me. It happened, and it did influenced my life in many bad ways. But it also influenced my life in a lot of good ways, and it's looking for those good ways that I was influenced.
Are you aware of your incredible strength, your sense of humor, your kind heart… That will make it easier to move past it, and to let your past behind you.