Linda: Feeling like a victim frequently follows traumatic experiences. To move away from that disempowered position requires being proactive. There is a great deal that we can do to recover, heal, and learn from our suffering that will inform our life going forward. After the initial period of shock, we can allow time for feeling angry and hurt. Then the time may come that we appreciate the incredible lessons to be learned from the trauma. Learning about assessing trustworthiness, boundary setting, compassionate self-care, creating a strong supportive network of friends, and other essential teachings all contribute to make meaning of suffering.
One of the final stages of getting complete with those who have hurt and betrayed us is to actually feel sincere gratitude for the essential life lessons that they have brought to us. To hold a ceremonial dinner designed to toast those harsh teachers in our life may sound like an outrageous stretch when first considered. But for so many of those who have participated in such a ritual, the remnants of heaviness that they were carrying due to hurts by parents, siblings, former spouses or lovers, and cold-hearted employers can finally lift. Here are some examples:
Betsy grew up in a family headed by an old patriarch. Her dad periodically smacked the kids to keep them in line. He even hit his wife who would not fight back. He had strict ideas of right and wrong, and verbal attacks were everyday occurrences. Betsy learned that her best method of surviving childhood was to follow all the rules and be as invisible as possible. Many years later, after much healing, she was able to toast her father by saying, “Thank you dad for showing me so many things NOT to do. I learned from you how much pain is caused to others by violence, so I have dedicated my life to harmlessness. I learned from you how crazy-making secrets and lies are, so have dedicated myself to becoming courageous and honest to speak the truth. I learned from you how small and insignificant a person feels when they are controlled, bullied and dominated. So I have worked long and hard for years to co-create with my husband, a partnership where we share power. I did not raise my children with fear and punishment, insisting that they comply with my demands. Watching your black-belt grudge-holder orientation, and seeing how miserable it made you, motivated me to learn to forgive and let go. For all these things, and more, I sincerely thank you for giving me these treasured life lessons that now serve me so well.”
Consider my friend Jason who had his entire life savings invested with Bernie Madoff. Due to Madoff’s unethical and criminal behavior, Jason lost all his money. He was shocked, furious, frightened, and grief stricken for months and then pulled out of the obsessive thinking to create a different life. Jason was able to toast the crook who stole his money and sincerely thank him by saying, “I feel so loved and supported by numerous friends who gave me money to pay off the mortgage on my home so that I wouldn’t lose it. I feel so grateful to know how many people deeply care for me that I had no way of knowing before. In the time period just before I lost so much financially, I was winding down my career and moving into retirement. The devastating financial loss indicated that retirement was clearly not possible for me. Now I am enjoying a resurgence of passion and creativity in my career and my life in general that I would not have had. I am having a ball making a big contribution to my community. So thank you Bernie Madoff!
When Mathew changed careers from psychotherapist to personal growth seminar leader, he was assigned a mentor to train him. His mentor had a harshly critical, judgmental, and humiliating style of training everyone he worked with, which earned him the
Nickname Paraná. While toasting her mentor, Mathew says, “There was a time when I hated your guts. But I realize now that to become effective at challenging people to let go of their victim stories, I did need an additional skill set. I was already strong in the areas of support, empathy, compassion, and understanding. When you said, ‘you’re too soft; you’re a hand-holder. You have to toughen up if you’re going to be a change agent, I really heard you. Thank you for seeing that I had the capacity already within me, to do my job successfully, and helping me to recognize my resistance. I thought you were an asshole, but your ruthlessness pushed me to see that I could be a facilitator who was committed to not buying into my student’s stories and excuses that justified their impotence, so that I could call forth their strengths.”
When she was twenty years old, Libby lost her mother to suicide, and when she was twenty-two her father committed suicide as well. She had years of therapy and was still suffering from the loss when she went to a personal growth seminar. She was crying when she told the story of her deeply depressed parents who both took their own lives. It was a life-changing moment when the facilitator said, “And?” This is the toast that Libby offered to her workshop leader: “It was that one word that opened me to a new perspective. You shocked me and you were my harsh teacher when you said ‘and’. I had been trapped inside my own sad story, and that was exactly what I needed to break free. In that moment, I saw that I did not have to be defined or limited by these tragic life events. All the therapy before had been sympathetic, reinforcing my belief that I was irreparably damaged. In that moment, I understood that a whole future lay in front of me to create a fulfilling life. I understood that it was not their deaths, but the narrative that I was living in that was preventing me from having hope. Thank you for helping me to see that it wasn’t the events themselves, but the story that I kept reinforcing in my own mind. So many well-meaning people kept reinforcing and solidifying that story. That moment was the turning point that allowed me to go on to create the joyful life I have now.”
These are only a few examples of traumas that have provided real opportunities for learning, growth, and sincere appreciation. The timing is of utmost importance, and the earlier stages of experiencing the grief, sadness and anger is necessary to move through to come to such understanding. Coming to the place of lightness and gratitude is more accessible than we might think. Is there a harsh teacher in your life that you would like to toast?
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