Telling Your Survivor Story: From Trauma To Transformation

by Al Siebert, Ph.D.

Anyone who survives a traumatic experience will never be the same again. Some survivors remain emotionally wounded for life. They relive and re-experience distressing moments again and again. Many survivors recover fairly well with the help of an accommodating family and friends.

A few do more than recover, however. They heal and grow and become even better than they were before. They become transformed in ways they value highly.

Every transformational journey is unique, but the heroic survivors have two things in common. First they integrate the traumatic experience into their identity and make the experience a defining part of their life story. Second, they talk or write about it in a way that is helpful to others.

The transformational process of recovery from deeply traumatic experiences into being a helpful resource for others, follows a sequence of steps and phases:

Free Fall Phase: Reliving fears and memories

  • You reluctantly admit that trying to suppress the old memories and feelings is not working. For years you have suppressed what happened, kept it secret, didn't tell anyone. Had flashbacks. Wondered "Why me?" Faked being "normal." Easily upset by certain statements made by others. Felt isolated, lonely, with very few close relationships. Avoided situations that might stir up old fears. May have attempted to suppress feelings and memories with drugs and alcohol.

  • You take the courageous step to talk about your traumatic experiences with a therapist or a support group of people who have been through similar experiences. Uncork your old memories and feelings. Write about them in a journal. Relive the experiences. Have nightmares. Feel like you are falling into a bottomless well. Find yourself reliving the experience during conversations, at movies, in the store, almost any place. Wish you never started this.

Taking Control Phase: Wrestling for control of your spirit

  • You repeat, relive, and talk about the experience again and again with good listeners. Discover that after awhile you can tell a shorter version, a summary, with less emotional charge. You feel moments of relief, sleep and feel better.

  • You face up to fears, challenges, erroneous beliefs, and assumptions. Defiantly build positive self-regard. Experience breakthrough insights into yourself and others. Give up old scripts, "games" and ways of manipulating people. Feel embarrassed about what you used to do. Feel joyous about what you learn about yourself and are accomplishing.

  • You dismiss suggestions that you forgive the offender/perpetrator (if any). Still feel angry. Do not want to forgive. May want revenge, punishment, justice. May need to take some action to confront, report, or publicize what happened.

Transition Phase: Awkward efforts in unfamiliar territory

  • You regress, slide back, or repeat an old pattern you thought you'd left behind. You find that old mental and emotional habits are hard to break. You accept that you are human, forgive yourself, and start over again.

  • You decide that for your own well being you will to try to forgive, but are very clear this does not mean condoning, approving, or excusing what happened. You don't try to forgive because others say you should. You will forgive only when you feel ready, if you ever do.

  • You experiment telling your story to others outside your self-help group and circle of closest friends. You discover that people either cannot handle listening for more than short time or become overly sympathetic and distraught about what you went through. Both kinds of listeners have to be coped with, are dissatisfying to talk with.

  • You struggle with assimilating your traumatic experience into your identity. How do you deal with people labeling you by your experience?

Reemerging Phase: Publicly declare and validate your new identity

  • You now control your experience, it no longer controls you. You can stop thinking about the experience when you want to. You gradually develop the ability to choose to:
    1. not talk about your experience even when asked.
    2. give a short, "Reader's Digest" summary and then change the subject.
    3. talk in detail with the rare person who is sincerely interested, is a good listener, and will take time to listen.
  • You notice that you have more self-confidence and better judgment than before. Your relationships improve. You have an ability to see through people who are suppressing deep emotional pain, trying to fake being "normal"--and you let them do that.

  • You make yourself available to others who are just starting to deal with similar traumatic experiences. You are able to listen to them without falling back into your old pain. You encourage and coach them without trying to rescue them. You can talk about what you did and learned in a way useful to them.

  • You talk with various people about your transformational process and your learnings in away that does not subject listeners to the pain or distress you went through. You can talk about your experiences as an observer and learner. You confess mistakes, bad judgment, weaknesses, and laugh at yourself.

  • You discover that you have valuable messages for a wider audience, that you have acquired important learnings in the school of life that you want to share with people facing many kinds of difficulties. You realize that without the traumatic experiences you would never have accomplished so much beneficial personal growth. You appreciate that you have managed to convert misfortune into good luck.

  • You find your voice. You talk to groups about your experience and what you learned. You may write an article. You may think of writing a book about how the worst thing that ever happened in your life was also the best thing that ever happened. You want others to know that something very good can come out of something very bad.

  • You work at making your story of your experience and your healing journey a small part of your larger identity. Avoid letting your experience become your primary identity in your own mind, even though it may be how others generally refer to you.

  • You find that you are immune from comments and statements made by others that used to upset you. You recognize and connect with other survivors who have been through their own transformative journey. You appreciate and validate each other's spirit.

  • You discover at times that you've gone many days without thinking of the traumatic experience or your long healing journey. You appreciate that you truly are free of the trauma.

Al Siebert studied mental health for over forty years. He is author of The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties...and How You Can Be, Too.

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