I think there are too many inspirational stories about trauma. You turn on the Today Show or Oprah and you see a person who “survived” trauma. You have soft music, a tell-tale story, and you feel inspired. However, the bigger picture is that they worked hard to thrive after their trauma. They worked on their relationship with themselves, the trauma, and the person/people who got close to them in this time.
Trauma and the relational process
Recently in my NYC therapy practice, I decided thriving after trauma is built by other people being in relationship with you. Knowing someone and sharing your experiences not only create empathy, but also an important relationship that lets you know you can talk about trauma. And when you need to talk about it less, you can trust that you can create a life outside of trauma.
I Will Survive (Trauma)
If you’re surviving, you may not be present in relationships and in life. You might feel muted, hushed, hurt or rushed. There’s not much room for other relationships since the trauma feels bigger than your husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, friends, children or therapist.
The Middle Step: Existing
When we are existing, you need others to be with you, around you and in process with you. This helps the existing not hurt so much. It means letting others start to get to know you outside of the trauma and getting to know yourself as well. You grow in your relationship with yourself–both in silence and relating to old and new things. It’s not just managing life like surviving. You begin to lead a bit more in your own life.
It’s also letting others take care of you in a way that you lacked care before. Sometimes, this can be obvious and others, subtle. Existing means sitting and not thinking about the traumatic event(s) or person. You and friend, partner, group member, or therapist can have a cup of coffee, a conversation or a free-formed thought.
An example of existing might be new parents who went through birth trauma. They realize they and/or their baby are not going to die anymore and they’re ok. They can walk in the park with their partner, and begin being. They are able to talk in a way that feels less rushed and trust the safety of the relationship. The focus is still on the day to day, but they’re leading it.
What Does Thriving Look Like?
When merely existing is no longer fulfilling, it’s time to thrive. I think to move from surviving to thriving, you have to connect with yourself and others who will make space for you. Not just as a survivor, but you and the multiple complicated parts of being you. You see yourself and someone sees you. You let them care about you and you both decide how you can shift, feel and move things.
Thriving comes in relationships when you’re open to being pushed and pushing. You’re able to say, “I want more,” “help me more,” or “I know what I want to work on.” You ask yourself, your therapist, your friends and/or your partner for what you need and want. Not only just relating less to the trauma, you utilize your combined energy to help you do more while still feeling cared for.
From Surviving To Thriving In Therapy
Therapists in our practice are particularly skilled at connecting with the patient to help them thrive. We open up an active conversation that helps motivate the patient to want to do more and more. As an NYC therapist, I know what surviving looks like (it often looks isolated and lonely). I let my patients know that I can hang with surviving, for a while, but then I’m going to help them build.
Therapy, in particular, can help by being a consistent presence and relationship in someone’s life. The therapy session is a set time, place and relationship where the patient knows it is about them and their relationship with the therapist. The therapist can be someone who cares for you and watches out for you. It’s all about this relationship in that hour and what we agree to talk about, sort through and create.
I help patients reorganize and get to know the story, shape and process of the trauma, event, abuse or neglect. It is especially important that I let patients feel that I won’t abandon them if they don’t “get it right.” There’s not a “right way,” but a relational way of reorganizing their lives post-trauma and post-surviving.