We are typically not our normal selves when coping with a traumatic experience. Sometimes it feels like trauma has taken everything away from you, including your sense of self and character. But contrary to how it feels, you’re still you- you’re just a different version of you right now, and for valid reasons.
I made a promise to myself that I would not let my circumstances change me. I tried cracking jokes whenever I could, say yes to social outings to stay that spontaneous up-for-anything girl people remembered, while also maintaining the strong image that people saw and sought help from. But the more I slipped into depression and anxiety, the more these self-expectations became impossible to live up to. I wasn’t my ideal self. I didn’t know who I was anymore if I was ever going to get ‘me’ back, and it caused me to question whether I was all of those things to begin with.
“The most powerful force in the human psyche is people’s need for their words and actions to stay consistent with their identity – how we define ourselves.”
Cognitive psychology teaches that the way to understand behaviour is to understand how the brain processes information. It shows us that the human psyche is highly influenced by the world and circumstances around us, and this is likely to change our behaviour. This ultimately shapes how we define ourselves. I credit the main influence to this change in my behaviour to my circumstance. I just wasn’t happy.
You change with your Circumstance
Please note the possibility of you attaching qualities of your pre-trauma life to your identity. That image of yourself that you hold in your head is probably of a much happier you. At this moment, you are living in the midst of trauma, and you can’t expect to be all of the positive traits that you see and miss about yourself when you’re struggling emotionally.
Understand that you are allowed to feel sad, depressed, moody, anxious, and angry – even if those feelings drag on for years. This is what grieving looks like. When things settle down, because they eventually will, you’ll understand just why you felt the way you did.
This isn’t all you; this is just a sad version of you- one that is more affected by your circumstance, and that is completely okay.
Keep in mind that your emotions are circumstantial.
All feelings pass, alter, and change day-to-day, it’s just a matter of degree as to how heavy we feel them, and for how long. Small everyday life events can cause us to lose sight of ourselves. A promotion can send you on a power rush turning you into a world-class dictator, a heated argument can make you lash out in some not-so-nice insults with your loved one, a fresh new love can make you develop interests that are not so “you” to begin with. Each of these instances is a result of circumstantial changes that can alter your mood. Yet also in these instances, your core is likely still intact. Your weird sense of humour, your stubbornness, your compassion for others. This is what makes you – you.
Being sad will alter your mood, but it will not alter your core. I promise you, underneath that ugly mask of depression, the anxiety, the fear, the overthinking, is you. I hope you’ll eventually see this to be true, just give yourself time to overcome this challenge.
Accept that You will change.
As you heal, you will find yourself in a new circumstance, one that may be better- but different. Once again, this change in circumstance will not diminish your core, but, you will evolve.
When you reintegrate back into this brave new world, interact with more people, and get back to your new ‘normal,’ you may learn that you’re still not on the same page as your peers, and nor should you be. This may send you searching for bits and pieces of yourself that you think you still lost, and I hate to break it to you, you will be equally confused as to who you are, but that’s okay. This time, you’ll be in a much better place, and the process of rediscovering yourself will be more enjoyable. Once you’ve realized how circumstantial your emotions are, you’ll also be better in self-acceptance. Acceptance of your reaction to your circumstance, acceptance of the things you have learned about yourself along the way, and acceptance of this new you.
Yes, there will be repercussions. If you’re like me, they might be both physical and mental. But it won’t matter so much anymore. You will remember how you survived your trauma, survived your depression, survived your pain and loss, and how you are so much better now, and so much happier to be so much better.
You will eat, sleep, and breath gratitude
People tell us to stop and smell the roses all the time, and while I do believe I have always been thankful, I can’t say that I always took the time to reflect and appreciate my life. Life moves fast. As we try to keep up and strive to make it better, we don’t always realize how great it is as it stands. Roses smell a whole lot better when all you’ve smelt for years was a pile of dump, and the distinction is undeniable. Now I reflect on my life daily, and unintentionally.
Going back to school, driving in my car to where I need to be, or visiting my favourite spot by the lake where I practically lived while I was sick, I have these moments of pure thanks and serenity that not many people take the time to feel, or feel as deeply as I think that I can because of what I’ve experienced. It’s a beautiful and overwhelming feeling that I wish I could share with those around me, and I am so thankful to be able to feel it to the degree that I do. In the back of your mind, you may know that this is true, and you know that you will be a better person because of the life course you involuntarily signed up for, but it might not matter so much to you right now, and that’s okay. It’s hard to avoid your reality right now and it’s effect on you and your emotions. Know that the pain may last long, but it can’t last forever.
In the meantime: Dream
I may sound crazy, but as you navigate through this traumatic life experience, dream about this “you” that you want back. Fantasize about this happier you and all the things that you will do. Remember that goofy, laughing, and lovable version of you that you still are, and you’ll get there.
Your destruction is a form of creation.
I came across the metaphor of a seed and personal growth during my treatment that I’ll never forget. Excuse my not so poetic translation, but a seed needs to be covered in crap in order to grow, and it’s quite a long process – but the results are always beautiful.
A more poetic translation:
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
― Cynthia Occelli
You are in the process of growth. You will remember your uninvited friends of pain and confusion. You will remember how lost you were, and how sad and anxious you felt all the time, and you will credit them all for making this new you. It takes some time to get used to, but hey, get used to it, because you’ve got the rest of your life ahead of you, and lots more self-discovery along the way.
Although it’s a slippery climb, I promise you’ll get there, and love yourself- and life, that much more. Just wait for it.
Until then, we’re rooting for you.
Have any personal experience with the challenges of trauma and self-identity, past or present? What emotions or instances were especially hard for you to overcome?
Everyone’s got a story,
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