Trauma ‘survivor skills’ and ‘how you already have them’ are not words we often see together. We are all-too-often led to believe we need to do more and be more in order to be resilient. And yet, all of us already have survival skills.
Rachel’s Purple Room
Rachel came to see me when she was buried under a mound of self-doubt, self-hate and trauma. She’d just separated from a partner whom she was discovering had used many techniques to control her. She was experiencing a huge amount of pain, sorrow and confusion.
It turned out that Rachel had been through a lot of trauma as a child as well. That child relied on her room as a safe retreat, which was hard because she moved house a lot.
In every new house she meticulously created her own room.
One of those rooms she even painted purple. That room was really special. She could recall it in great detail: every nook and cranny and what it felt like to be in it.
I wondered aloud if Rachel still ‘created rooms’. The Purple Room sounded like such a beautiful Rachel-esque ocean of calm amidst chaos. She laughed and said ‘Well now I have a whole house for me and the kids! And it’s perfect for us’.
Without minimising Rachel’s very real and painful experiences, it was vitally important to be curious about those rooms. They’d been neglected, gathering dust, as a seemingly-unimportant part of Rachel’s way if living. Did she have a trauma-survivor skill she didn’t know about?
We realised ‘Making Purple Rooms’ was one of Rachel’s survivor skills.We traced a whole history of room-making over Rachel’s life story and she began to feel proud of the order and unique flavour she gave to the spaces around her.
She also knew that when events were overwhelming or she felt chaotic it would help her to ‘design a space’.
She even pointed out some things about my therapeutic space that could be improved!
It’s an enormous privilege for me as a counsellor to be able to walk alongside people while we explore and discover the unique ways people survive challenging or traumatic experiences.
Highlighting and then nourishing those skills helps us not only to be able to use them with more agency and purpose, but also to appreciate and even love ourselves a little bit more as we learn that our own ways of dealing are really important.
So how do you find your own trauma survivor skills?
A great start is by looking for your responses to problems rather than just the impacts.
No one passively receives terrible experiences. Even if they startled you, violated you or made you powerless in some way, you always respond. Even if it was only in the tiniest way possible with what was available to you at the time.
No one can steal your identity. It always finds a way to emerge, to protect your ‘selfhood’ in some way.
The skills you cultivated tend to speak to your values in some way, they highlight what you care about and who or what you want to protect.
If you find yourself reflecting on or even stuck in or drowned by overwhelming and painful experiences, it might help to ask yourself some questions:
- What did I do when that was happening to me?
- What do I do now when these feelings are happening to me?
- Is there something that just jumps out at me, something that seems insignificant but for some reason I remember with lots of clarity?
- Is there anything- any unexplored part of my story- that might give an insight into my own Survival Skills?
Societal views of ‘strength’ are deeply flawed and limiting
Don’t dismiss things like:
- Freezing up to keep yourself or someone else safe
- Rearranging cupboards
- Defying a ‘rule’ privately when you were alone
- Hugging yourself
- Offering another a hug even when you didn’t feel like it
- Telling a friend your problems and crying about it
- Tossing a handful of leaves after a car that has already driven away
- Writing a story or blog from a place of raw authenticity
- Defy what is viewed as ‘attractive’ with alternative body adornments
- Screaming at the top of your lungs, even when no one could hear
These are all Survival Skills, and the possibilities are endless.
Societal limits are paralysing. They keep us silent when we should be safe to speak out. They stop us from seeking help when we want and need it. And most importantly, they prevent folks from recognising and sharing their own skills as survivors.
You deserve the opportunity to recognise your own untold Purple Room story.
Don’t be held back by what others might ‘think’ of the ways you survive. Allow yourself the freedom and the kindness to go on an adventure through your stories, to find responses to experiences alongside the impacts. Everybody has them.
I wonder what yours are?
Main image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay