Healing Is Never a Solo Journey
Developing intimate connection with even one other person can create fertile soil for social transformation.
Is it selfish to focus on healing my personal trauma? Shouldn’t I care more about people who have it far worse? The very question comes from the heart of a spiritual warrior, someone whose history makes them acutely aware of injustices done to other people. Such a person is primed to question the status quo. The good news is that healing from personal trauma is an intensely social, even a political act.
Healing is a movement from isolation to connection. As psychotherapist Matt Licata, PhD, points out, virtually all trauma involves relational wounding. Someone we should have been able to trust has violated us. Trauma makes us “other,” “weird,” brutally aware of our separateness. Perhaps the essence of trauma is shame. There’s something wrong with me.
In fact, even the most self-toxic symptoms offer a hopeful message: A wound is pressing to be healed. Even something as painful as self-hatred is trying to help me in some way. Believing I am loathsome might protect me from the potential dangers of intimate relationships.
When trauma symptoms are so fused to our sense of self that we don’t seek healing, our view of reality is extremely limited. It’s as if we live on a flat earth. I am hemmed in by a fear of approaching the edge — the edge of my tolerance, the edge of my image before the world — and I can’t experience the beauty of life beyond my prison of safety. This is especially true if we were traumatized as children. Young children see the world in simple polarities: good and bad. Our mandate was to survive, our dependence almost total. If our parent figures failed us, in order to keep seeing them as trustworthy, we had to make them “good” and ourselves “bad.” It was my fault. I brought it on myself.
As adults, we may hold this view fiercely. They were good. I was bad. People are good or bad. Just as we were “othered,” we “other” people who don’t look like us, think like us, vote like us.
As we heal, we learn to take risks. Walking in an unknown landscape, we don’t fall off the edge. The ground continually opens beneath our feet. There is always a horizon ahead to frighten us — Watch out! That might be the real edge — but, as we navigate a healing path, the world supports our exploration. We can see dangers more realistically, not in the abstract Someday of our disaster scenarios, but on a human scale. The sidewalk ahead is broken — we can step into the street. A fog is coming. We can wait it out.
It’s true that life can be dangerous. It often is. It’s even more dangerous for groups of people whom society has marginalized. But we become better at protecting ourselves as we develop skill in healing the no-longer dangerous dangers of the past. We become less reactive, less prone to re-traumatize ourselves. By learning how to love the hardest person of all to love — myself — I can drop the binaries that force humanity into arbitrary camps composed of People Like Me versus Dangerous Others. Trauma pioneer Bessel van der Kolk says that we must forgive ourselves for the things we did in order to survive. Doing so gives us freedom: Freedom to trust ourselves, and freedom to navigate a web of relationships outside our self-imposed walls.
This can feel like a big ask. After all, we were deeply hurt in relationship. Shame can be buried deep in the body, only to emerge, painfully, when we draw close to another person. We might not recognize it as shame. We might not understand our own reactivity. We might blame ourselves or the other when the relationship becomes challenging. We might fight. We might flee. We might freeze. One of the less-talked-about facets of healing is the need to allow ourselves time to assimilate healing’s changes to the nervous system, to our bodies, to our thinking about self and the world. It takes patience.
But healing isn’t a static thing. After years of healing, what does it mean when things suddenly become more difficult? It may very well be a good sign. We’re ready to go deeper. We are learning to connect with people in ways we couldn’t before, to reveal more of ourselves. To trust more fully.
There’s no shame in seeking help — humans are wired to need help and to help others.
Relationships are messy, multi-dimensional, frustrating, and gorgeous. There will be hurt, but we can learn the ways in which resolving conflict strengthens relationships. We discover there’s no shame in seeking help — in fact, humans are wired to need help and to help others. Compassionate friends can help us own our mistakes without spiraling down into shame. When a relationship can’t be salvaged, we can walk away without playing the blame game. We share our self-nurturing practices with others. When one of is overwhelmed, we give that soul space to heal.
Healing is radical. Our capitalist society is predicated on isolation and individualism. It’s another kind of flat earth, overpopulated with either/or, binary driven notions of success and failure. Either you are about to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in (insert your dream vocation) or you are a hopeless piece of shit. At best, as Thoreau said, you lead a life of “quiet desperation.”
That desperation comes from loneliness. But as our traumas drove us into separation, our healing frees us to join hands as spiritual warriors, resonating together with healing wisdom. Connecting with just one other person just might be the beginning of a new community. Together, we share the courage it took to face our past demons. We speak out against injustice. We take on the demons of inequity, racism, and greed.
Together, we heal, and together, we can heal our world.