Given that Christmas is such a tense and tender time for many folks, especially those with broken relationships or homes, I wanted to korero today about decolonising how we label ourselves as a result of trauma.
I didn't overcome. I didn't hover above of, I didn't remove myself of, I didn't try and leave parts of myself low or behind, I didn't move on. What I did was welcome in, the parts of myself, that had been hurt or dismissed or delayed by others. Let them in the door, whenever they arrived. Gave them a seat at my table. Like Christmas it was not 'why are you late?' or 'why are you dressed that way?' I just said, 'I'm so glad you made it.'
It's a strange thing, when you work closely with people (or even if you want to be authentic and a safe space for people in your life), so often, you need to wield your own trauma as currency. A kind of 'here is my shame, you are safe to lay down yours here too'. Not for praise or sympathy, but to give something valuable to those who extend their vulnerability to you: your vulnerability, too.
What I struggle with (and many do) are the semantics. A person will sign their book or email or report with MA, or BsC. or BA or PhD., the message being 'I know what I'm talking about and the time I've spent with this subject gives my words value.' This is important. We are, and should be, reminded.
In this work, or even throughout life, the question of personal semantics arises every time I enter this arena. A victim? A survivor? Someone who overcame? Is even mentioning it at all just asking for excuses, pity or attention?
None of it sits well with me, because all of it is based on other people validating my experiences and responding to them. If a person acknowledges their victimhood or pain, they are being 'weak', 'negative', 'enabling a victim mindset', 'not taking responsibility for their own lives', 'blaming others' and in essence, making others uncomfortable. I get it, the word connotes an image of someone not even trying to claw back whatever power was taken from them. But I also know how vital it is, in the age of shame and isolation, how important it is to own and quantify the traumatic experiences that did, indeed, make victims of us at that time.
To acknowledge victimhood isn't shameful. Alone, it's temporarily soothing, sure, but more importantly it invites further work. How to reclaim ourselves? How to rebuild life? What work needs to be done to provide safety and wisdom? Like any problem, it's very hard to solve without an accurate and encompassing diagnosis. Being able to acknowledge that something was hurtful, disempowering, unfair, awful and unwanted is simply defining the parameters of the problem that we are working with. Would you want a doctor telling you that you have a blister if you actually have a broken foot? How are you supposed to heal and improve it if you don't even know what it is?
The other thing, is that acknowledging victimhood in a situation, demonstrates a healing self-esteem. When people are unable to acknowledge that some painful event happened to them, outside of their control, what they're actually saying is 'I blame myself and I'm normalising awful things happening to me'. This isn't strength or being positive, it's a red-flag of someone lacking self-awareness and also, self-esteem. Remember that anger, sadness, grief, disgust, fear et al are normal reactions to abnormal situations. Knowing that you didn't cause or deserve a trauma (this has nothing to do with blaming somebody, just acknowledging that you were not the causation of your pain) is a sign of a repairing sense of self-worth.
There's something so earnest and inviting-of-judgement when a person publicly refers to themselves as a survivor. Again, comes the external questioning, comparison and validation (or lack of) from the outside world- what did you survive? How much? How bad? How does that compare to, say, my aunt who had cancer or a starving child in Africa? If you survived it so well, how come you're still talking about it?
And there are those, of course, who don't mention it altogether. A lot of society sees this as much more brave (aka, socially convenient for others) and 'forward-thinking': to never acknowledge or integrate experiences of trauma, to never let it inform our identity. What it does, however, is skew the studies and statistics that reflect back to us the state of our society (meaning that we are unable to address those issues effectively), and doom others to encountering these people in relationships of different kinds, unable to form intimacy or clear communication. And often, provably, repeating the cycles of trauma that nobody in the previous generation were even willing to acknowledge. Again, shame culture influences us as we view this as 'looking for excuses'. (And of course, if there's no further action on our findings, it can be.)
But what if we use these experiences as currency? Not to trade in order to bond addictively over our traumas, but to build wisdom about the different type of people in our world, how to be more mindful of each other, and how in fact we can more effectively address our traumas before they perpetuate more pain? We're human, and we're designed to thrive in relationship with other humans - friends, networks, colleagues, partners, pals. Shutting down literally isn't a valid option: It kills us. Every day we're surrounded by potential examples of all manner of people and what they're dealing with, that can teach us all so much about how to love and care for, work with and even have healthier conflict or boundaries with each other. As well as, more quantifiably, the sources of trauma and what we need to do as a society more effectively to tackle those sources.
(I remember several years ago, working in a city, taking multiple calls daily about heroin overdoses. There were NO public funds, government bodies, statistics or even society awareness that heroin even existed in that city, because it 'just wasn't spoken about'. Despite being, so obviously, an epidemic. Naming the source of a problem isn't 'looking for excuses', it's triangulating exactly where and what needs to be done to make it better. So, knowing the traumas of others isn't about giving people excuses to behave like dickheads, nor is it a free-for-all to dump all our problems onto each other without boundaries. It's about developing our understanding of what the problems actually are and what we can do about them together other than shame-blame-addiction-depression-loneliness-violence-death)
Children of aloholics. Ex-foster-care. Battered wives. Boys battling cultural machismo. People with borderline personality disorder, bulimia, from broken homes, with narcissistic relatives. First or second-generation migrant families. Transsexual, bisexual, asexual. Mixed-race. Chronically ill. People with STI's or ongoing injuries. Physically disabled. Combat veterans. Sex workers. Children of neglectful parents. Single dads. People who have experienced abuse. Refugees. Divorcees. Young mothers. Emergency workers. Non-neurotypical people, with ADHD or ASD. People with religious or spiritual vocations. Folks below the poverty line. 'Toxic', 'wounded', 'victims', 'survivors' - what about 'teachers'? 'Reclaimers'? 'Valuable voices'?
At the start of a yoga class, most teachers will address the room in general and ask if any students have prior pain or injury. Some very obviously do this as a box-ticking exercise with absolutely no insight or intention of anything other than covering their own behinds in the event of a mishap. For a long time, when yoga teachers asked this, I would never respond. I had seen too many ignorant or even judgemental responses to people who had spoken up about their pain, I didn't want to be seen as making excuses for myself, and it seemed easier to just try and 'overcome' my own injuries and fit in with everybody else, punishing myself if there was something I couldn't keep up with. Most teachers promoted their superiority, their thinness, fitness, flexibility, bliss, perfect relationships, zen minds, privilege, beauty, wealth, positivity, diet and labelling. There was absolutely no way that I'd enter that space open about my own 'weaknesses' and so for a long time, I learnt nearly nothing other than a vague sense of aspiration to be like they seemed, mixed with frustration that I wasn't.
One day, I encountered a teacher who talked about her own physical vulnerabilities and defined her own limits really openly. There were 'easy' things, that she didn't do, that didn't suit her body. There was no superiority, no desire to to impress or be aspirational, or anything other than to guide and create space. She then quietly spoke to each student, asking with curiosity and compassion about injuries. I told her truthfully - my ankles were shattered from a motorbike accident, tendonitis wracked my knees and feet, and so on. She was so passionate in explaining how to adjust, honour and support my body as it was, using props, patience and also my own personal boundaries (rather than trying to push it to 'keep up') that lifelong problems began to heal within days. What I loved was her expressed genuine excitement and praise for people who did speak up, who did seek ways to support and nurture themselves with props or even refusing to do certain poses, even people who taught her and explained to her what they knew they needed. How often do we really do this for people?
And it got me thinking about the people, who go out in the world, encountering either the public or their personal relationships like this. Offering their vulnerability as currency, owning (not disengaging from) their traumas, work and struggles; and allowing for others both to learn from the example and to show up in the same way.
At the end of the day, are we all responsible for our own therapy, seeking help for addiction and personal or educational growth? Yes. But do we, maybe, have a responsibility also to others, to not hide from our traumas, or try to package them as a 'challenge we overcame to be successful' (because what is successful? Success for one person, could be just staying alive.) in order to make others more comfortable and distanced from the things that hurt and shame. Do we have a responsibility to take up space, in order for that space to be made for others too? Like Bugs Bunny crashing through a wall in perfect silhouette, if we don't create space where there currently isn't any, there won't be any in the future. If we disengage from, hide, make pretty or wallow in traumas; instead of integrating them openly into our identity, we find no space for our WHOLE selves at the table, in society, in relationships or life.
Do we maybe have a responsibility to more openly integrate these experiences, without fear, into our public and private identity so finally - we can all see where we're really coming from? I believe so. And do we have a responsibility to hold space for others to show up, integrated with their positive AND negative experiences, without judgements of what semantics they choose to use - victim, survivor, someone who overcame.
I don't want to tie the sum of my achievements or experiences solely to the successful responding to various horrific trauma, but nor can I separate it from myself. It informs my work, my spirituality, my relationships, my politics, even the timeline of my life milestones. I am not my trauma, but like wood under the hands of a carpenter, it shaped who I am in a way that is unrecognisable from where I began. It made me what I am, and using whatever evolving vernacular grows over the years, I will continue to own it. As I claim all parts of myself, painful and joyful, with nothing but compassion.
Will you, this triggering and sensitive 'holiday' season, do the same?