After a negative, violent, or traumatic life event, you may feel frozen, stuck, or like a completely different person. It may seem impossible to trust, to love, or to live a normal life again.
This experience is totally normal, and psychologists have recognized there are certain hurdles everyone faces in the healing process. Without addressing them specifically, it’s no wonder we struggle to heal from our trauma.
With wisdom from Dr. Judith Herman, M.D., Harvard professor and one of the world’s most qualified trauma experts, we dig into how you can focus your healing efforts, feel empowered, and feel whole again.
Research-backed steps to heal from trauma
- Rebuild trust in the outside world.
- Recover a positive view of yourself.
- Mourn your past while constructing a new life.
At face value, it’s kind of hard to see how you can follow these steps to tackle your scars. Below, we break down how you can achieve each of these goals to heal from trauma – whether it’s recent, ongoing, or buried under years of repression.
Rebuilding trust with others and yourself
To fully heal from trauma – whether a single instance or prolonged traumatic environment – you have to build evidence that the world around you is safe.
A big part of that includes knowing that your community understands, accepts, and cares about your traumatic experience.
“Sharing the traumatic experience with others is a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world,” foremost trauma expert Judith Herman, PhD, of Harvard, states.
You experienced what you did, and you shouldn’t have to hide this new part of you.
Dr. Herman indicates that sharing your trauma doesn’t have to happen only with close confidants; it can also happen within the broader community you feel a part of.
This could be your family (if you’re lucky), your closest friends, your church group, or a support group (we at Supportiv do tend to understand these things…).
When deciding who to share with, Dr. Herman suggests that “assurances of safety and protection are of the greatest importance.”
So be sure that the people you confide in will have your back, won’t spread gossip, and want to help advocate for what you need to recover.
Learn to trust yourself
Many trauma symptoms revolve around one’s personality and interaction with the outside world.
Trauma survivors often feel at fault for what happened to them, which can lead to internalizing other negative beliefs about oneself. These negative beliefs make you lose trust in yourself:
- The way I acted caused someone to hurt me.
- My personality invites mistreatment.
- If I had been smarter/funnier/prettier/etc, this wouldn’t have happened.
- I must’ve deserved what happened.
- If people don’t notice me, they can’t hurt me.
The aftermath of trauma can block your personality and social skills by making it feel unsafe to be yourself, by making you feel like you don’t know how to be.
Because trauma impacts your entire world, you also might feel ‘different’ or ‘broken’ for having experienced it. You might feel like it’s hard to relate to others, or that nobody would understand the kinds of things you now think about.
These feelings can make it even harder to interact like you used to.
The goal is to convince yourself that it’s safe for your trauma to remain part of your identity.
Along with the pain, you’ve probably experienced growth. You may have gained new wisdom through your trauma. You experienced what you did, and you shouldn’t have to hide this new part of you.
Instead of forgetting that your trauma ever happened, it helps to make it known in safe spaces, so that you can find a community that supports you.
Once you have trust in the acceptance of those around you, it becomes easier to be yourself, to trust yourself, and to heal.
Recovering a positive view of yourself
Experts propose that we can only re-develop genuine self love with the help of trusted others. Emphasis on the ‘trusted‘…
According to Dr. Herman: “In the aftermath of traumatic life events, survivors are highly vulnerable. Their sense of self has been shattered. That sense can be rebuilt only as it was built initially, in connection with others.”
Here, Dr. Herman refers to the concept in child development, where very children internalize messages from caregivers in order to develop an internal voice and form a picture of who they are, how lovable they are, etc. (this concept also ties into why so many of us feel self-hatred and low self esteem…).
The research behind psychological development holds a lesson for trauma survivors – the people surrounding you impact how you view yourself.
Our behavior often changes when we’re traumatized – and often in ways we don’t like, or in ways that deviate from ‘the norm.’
You might start feeling…
- fawning, or
…after a traumatic experience, and though these may be mostly outside your control, you might feel guilty or ashamed of your behavior. Or, you just might not feel like yourself.
Judith Herman speaks to the role others play in rebuilding your self esteem: “[Healing from trauma] requires that others show some tolerance for the survivor’s fluctuating need for closeness and distance, and some respect for her attempts to reestablish autonomy and self-control.”
Takeaway For Rebuilding Self-Esteem
People who don’t make you feel guilty, who see good things in you, and who show patience for your situation, are the right people to help you heal from trauma.
Others can help realistically validate your situation, and reaffirm that you are not to blame for what happened to you. And the after-effects of your trauma are not your fault.
“The survivor needs the assistance of others in her struggle to overcome her shame and to arrive at a fair assessment of her conduct. Here the attitudes of those closest to her are of great importance. Realistic judgments diminish the feelings of humiliation and guilt. By contrast, either harsh criticism or ignorant, blind acceptance greatly compounds the survivor’s self-blame and isolation.”
Trauma survivors need nurturing, understanding connections in order to fully heal.
Mourning your past and constructing a new life
You can’t just go straight from a traumatic experience to how things were before. If you try to keep up the charade, you may crash and end up even more traumatized than you started.
“Failure to complete the normal process of grieving perpetuates the traumatic reaction. Lifton observes that ‘unresolved or incomplete mourning results in . . . entrapment in the traumatic process,” explains Dr. Herman.
Make a point of engaging with your experience (with the help of a therapist or other mental health professional), or at least letting yourself feel emotional about what’s happened.
Think of how you used to be, and how the trauma has impacted you. Consider how you might use what happened to you. How can you integrate what you’ve experienced into how you approach the world?
Post-traumatic growth: motivation to heal from trauma
Your experience might give you ideas for things you want to change in life. It might have changed your value system and what you prioritize day-to-day.
The good thing about a big traumatizing event, is that it can be an opportunity to start fresh.
You can move forward knowing that the only important people in your life are the ones who would never hurt you; the ones who support you and understand; the ones who obviously value your wellbeing, not for what it means to them, but for what it means for you.
According to Dr. Herman, “the role of the community” is a major determinant in healing from trauma: “The response of the community has a powerful influence on the ultimate resolution of the trauma.”
So carefully curate who you keep close. Pay close attention to how you spend your energy. You can use what happened as an opportunity — to rebuild a life that allows you to heal from trauma and to live more happily than before.
And a huge part of that is finding a community that supports you wholeheartedly.
More information like this can be found in the book, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, PhD.
If you want to talk about trauma, how it’s affected you, how you can help a friend with it, or anything else, we’re here 24/7.
We can bear witness to what you’ve been through, and you can be sure we’ll listen without ascribing blame.