There have been many times in my life when I’ve been asked, “How can you do the work you do, listening to such upsetting stories about the terrible things that people endure?” My answer is always the same- it is a joy and a privilege to bear witness to someone’s healing journey. I feel so inspired, on a daily basis, by the courage, resiliency, and grace that my clients exhibit. Their goal for treatment is not merely to ‘survive” but rather, to thrive. Like other clinicians, I am sometimes astonished by a client’s determination to overcome seemingly impossible odds and overwhelming difficulties. Traumatized clients often have an additional unfair vulnerability towards subsequent abuse and pain. If they have not yet learned how to listen to and trust their own instincts or don’t know how to use their own voice to self-advocate and self-protect then they are often taken advantage of by toxic people who have radar about their fragility. As a result, these clients have a long list of adverse and life-changing experiences that can create a state of learned helplessness, perpetuating the cycle of being mistreated and misunderstood by others.
And yet, so many of these clients can and do overcome their traumatic experiences and eventually learn to access their own inner wisdom. How do they do it? How do they keep getting back up, even when they’ve been repeatedly knocked down? Although every client is unique, I think there are some common denominators that exist in clients who are able to transcend their painful past experiences. It may be that they inherently have certain positive cognitions and resources for support that can help mitigate the pain. Certainly, the process of being in a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship is key in helping them access those internal and external resources that make healing possible. Along with a remarkable refusal to “not give up,” there are some additional dynamics that help shift clients from surviving to thriving.
Clients who thrive do not let their trauma narratives define them. Painful events are things that have happened to them- not who they are. These kinds of clients are eventually willing and able to get off the “why me?” hamster wheel. They understand that focusing on “why” will keep them perpetually stuck. They shift from “why did this happen to me?” to “what can I choose to do with it?” Doing something with it and finding meaning in it are key concepts in healing work. Clients who thrive actually do find meaning in their pain, and that can lead to eventually paying it forward and inspiring someone else in their healing journey. In fact, for many survivors, the true definition of “thriving” is being a role model and source of hope for someone else. Clients who thrive don’t look at their trauma as “proof” that people are bad or the world is unsafe. They understand that there is still goodness and kindness in the world, and they seek it out and practice it in their own lives. Ultimately, survivors who thrive have a deeply held sense of gratitude and an appreciation for whatever coping strategies they needed to use to survive. They move beyond self-recriminations, marvel at their own resiliency, and use their anger to create positive changes in themselves and in the world. They don’t allow adversity to put a glass ceiling on new possibilities: an admirable and powerful lesson for us all!
Please share your inspiring examples of clients who’ve overcome adversity in their lives.