Once upon a time there was a five-year-old girl named Stephanie. One day her mom took her to her Kindergarten registration. Stephanie’s new teacher was sitting just outside a room with a box of crayons and several sheets of blank paper. Stephanie’s mother smiled confidently when Stephanie was asked to choose her favorite color and write her name. The mother, who was sitting across the hall, thought proudly, “She can write all the names in our family!” But to her mother’s surprise, Stephanie just stood there. The teacher repeated the instructions, and again the child stood still, staring blankly at the box of crayons with her knees locked and her hands behind her back. In the sweet, patient voice that teachers use when they are beginning to feel slightly impatient, the teacher asked once more, “Stephanie, choose your favorite color, dear, and write your name on this piece of paper.” But still, Stephanie stood frozen. So the teacher kindly said, “That’s okay. We will help you learn to write your name when you come to school in the fall.” The mother was shocked at Stephanie’s behavior! On the way home she tried to ask Stephanie as nonchalantly as possible why she had not written her name. “I couldn’t,” Stephanie despaired. “The teacher said to choose my favorite color, and there wasn’t a pink in the box!”
Have you ever felt immobilized like Stephanie, particularly after something devastating has happened? Have you ever felt that there was one–and one option only–that should be available but that option simply was not there? After a trauma or a hard scenario, are there not times when we look in our crayon box and the color we so desperately need is not available? We want pink but no matter how hard we look, pink is not in the box! We get fixated on our one and only solution—the only right one!—and we topple over in despair. Oh no! What are we going to do now?
I felt this way for several years—and not in just my feelings of despair due to the belief that I had to stay in the Church even after it was so deeply traumatizing to attend. If you have followed my writing, you’ll know that I was once very rigidly minded. Black or white. All or none. That was my belief system. And it manifested itself in all aspects of my life. So because of this left or right mentality, I really struggled in another area beyond religion: with my children’s education. You see, when my two oldest were in 3rd and 1st grades, they both began to beg me to start homeschooling them. I thought it was such curious timing because I had actually been researching homeschooling during that same time and was so worried that it was something the Lord wanted me to do. I have a degree in education and experience in teaching but homeschooling wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, yet I felt it was God’s will for me so I felt compelled to obey. Hence, with a lot of prayer and faith (which I realize now was fear, not faith), we started on that path. It was pretty good for a few years but soon I began to tire out. Now instead of two children to educate, I had four and my heart just wasn’t in it. But I felt stuck. I would prayerfully labor over it again and again, pleading with the Lord to remove this cup from me. What once felt somewhat right, no longer did. But whenever I started to feel that way, guilt and shame overtook me as I would recall these words by Jeffrey R. Holland: “If it was right when you prayed about it, then it is right right now!” No deviation. Once right, always right. God didn’t yield in His ways so neither must I! I was stuck. Stuck in misery; stuck in shame; stuck in bondage; stuck in homeschooling.
It’s so sad that many people can relate to these feelings of being stuck, no matter the subject at hand—feelings of having to stick with something that isn’t yielding happiness—feeling that God wants us miserable because we don’t want to walk the path we feel He insists that we tread.
Thankfully, after many years of “victimhood,” I have climbed out of that thinking—I consider it one of gifts I have received from trauma. This increase in cognitive flexibility has made all the difference and I’m finding it is a common thread among many who move out of trauma into posttraumatic growth. For me, this growth began by debunking my fear-based belief system. I had to stop being so scared all the time—scared of messing up, scared of offending God, scared of not living up to His will, scared of disappointing others, scared of being insufficient, scared of not being “worthy,” scared of LIFE. As I did so, fear and shame began to fall by the wayside, allowing myself to see and accept ME. I began replacing fear OF me with trust IN me. In so doing, I began to love myself; I began to feel like I really did belong on this planet AS I AM. I started to believe for the first time in my life that I was truly okay.
Maybe not the case for everyone stuck in trauma, but for me, in order for any of this to start to happen, I had to rid the fear-based teachings I had been taught in the Church, for they went completely contrary to the rebirth I so needed. You see, before I could even walk, I was taught to submit and conform to the will of others and to deny myself the freedom to be the person God created me to be. I had to deny myself all the forms of godliness within me. My God-given soul was lost in the conformity process.
Reclaiming Our Power
Yet, I have discovered for myself that there is a way out! There is rebirth after death (which is what trauma is–a death)! We have all heard of posttraumatic stress—and many church trauma survivors have it! But we need to start talking more about the rebirth–the growth–that is available after trauma! We need to realize that we cannot only just survive trauma, we can THRIVE with an even stronger, purposeful heart after trauma!
How? How do we start to heal?
First, we have to intend to heal! Our intentions matter! We need to plan and create space for healing! We can begin by creating a happiness plan! What are some small, deliberate steps you and I can take right now to consciously bring us more healing and happiness?
I am going to list some ideas. Note that it does not include a therapist but consider that a given if you are dealing with significant, unresolved issues. But regardless of where you are in your healing journey, these idea can help. They may seem simple but they have been proven to improve mood so don’t review them too lightly. Consider each one to see if it might be a possibility for you! Start slowly but do start if you feel stuck. Because the truth is, happiness doesn’t happen outside of you, it happens inside of you! There is no running from ourselves. Thus, our choices, our little moments, count. And that’s where true living is—in the small moments and in our small choices. So here we go:
- Start singing every morning! Did you know singing every morning has been shown to lighten the soul and add a spring to your day?
- Think of three things you are truly grateful for before you get out of bed every morning. They need to be different things every morning. Doing this for 21 days has actually proven to increase one’s happiness—even for “grumpy” 82 year old men!
- Say a happy hello to people that you see.
- Send a short gratitude note to someone different every day.
- Make your bed. (Yes, little things like this help you feel better!)
- Connect with nature daily by doing something with your hands, even something small like doing the dishes or putting a puzzle together. Notice and appreciate the miracle of your body!
- Have a glass of water every morning.
- Listen to uplifting podcasts while driving or exercising. (I love SuperSoul Conversations and Eckhart Tolle.) Or read inspiring literature in your spare time. (I really enjoy The Untethered Soul, The New Earth, The Road to Character, The Four Agreements…)
- Be present in the moment and intentionally LOOK for the good and DO what makes you feel good!
- Notice small, daily choices. Ignoring what your soul is telling you comes with a price. So listen. Go inside. Discover the voice speaking within.
- Eat right.
- Reach out to someone who cares or someone in need of YOU.
- Get out of your routine. Do something relaxing and therapeutic. Be intentional about taking care of yourself.
- Don’t take anything personal because nothing is.
- Tell yourself every day that you love yourself–and mean it! If you can’t do that, just consider being able to say it until you truly can. Work on the idea. The ability will come.
- Have a personal pow-wow with yourself every night. Review your day. Notice the things you did right and congratulate yourself. Acknowledge areas that could have been improved. Envision yourself doing it the way you would have liked. By doing so, you are making a imprint for improvement the next time around.
Whatever you and I decide to do, we can each do SOMETHING!! Each of us can do something to promote our own healing and growth. It’s been said that the only person we can change is ourselves. This may seem like a frustrating truth but it’s really a beautiful reality because it puts the power in our court. Because when we change ourselves, we also change our world, our perception. By positively adjusting our vantage point, we start to see everything in life differently. We see hope; we see love; we see possibilities; we see light.
And during those dark moments when we struggle in our humanness—when it feels we simply cannot see and feel the good from life or our traumas, always remember that humans don’t just feel good all the time—the storms around you are real. Humans also feel pain and loss and anger and resentment and jealousy and … Embrace it. We need to allow ourselves to sit in the pain of discomfort. As we accept our emotions, we must remember that even though the clouds are present, the sun has never left us. The sun is always there. We just have to wait out the current storm—or rise above them—to see the sun once again. Often that starts by simply allowing the discomfort to exist.
So the next time life feels hard, look at the possibilities and opportunities for growth. Look at your belief system about what is happening. If you really examine, you can detect a possible light leading you out of the dark! There is always more than one option available on how to solve a problem. Be flexible and you will find that you don’t have to be stuck in trauma for the long haul! Intend to move out of trauma and into posttraumatic growth!
It is possible. I know it’s possible because I am doing it and I’m no better than you. 🙂
*Danna Hartline is the founder and creator of The Mormon Trauma Mama. She is actively involved in advocating for those suffering from church trauma. She has spoken at many events on the very real issue of church trauma in the LDS Church including the ADAM Conference, Sunstone Symposium, and the When Church Hurts summit. For more information on church trauma, find an overview on the MTM homepage which includes a presentation she did at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. You can follow Danna on her Facebook page The Mormon Trauma Mama.