December 12, 2012

A Beyond Survivor's Story: Filling an Empty Tank on the Road to Recovery

Today I share with you the final post by Cynthia Krainin. It has been a real pleasure learning from her. Enjoy!

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At the very least, traveling the Road to Recovery is exhausting.  As survivors, we feel our energy and resources being depleted on a daily basis as we try to escape the hold of our abusive past.  Many describe themselves as running on fumes! 

Each one of us has our own issues and reactions based on our abuse histories.  We get triggered (something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting us back to the event of our original trauma) through our senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.  Different things trigger different people.  We react with an emotional intensity that is similar to that at the time of the actual trauma.  For many this is draining.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we expend much energy trying to avoid situations and stimuli that trigger us.  My goal has been to identify my triggers and devise step-by-step methods to manage each reaction at the moment it occurs.  A personal example:

Trigger: I hear two people arguing. I automatically start sweating and shaking. I feel intense blame, shame and guilt. If this were Star Trek, Scotty would have recognized my trigger and immediately beamed me back in time to the traumatic event when I was blamed for two people arguing.

Trigger Management: First, I need to disconnect from the argument, the source of my trigger. I do this by forcing my eyes to look elsewhere and coughing to drown out the sound. Through discipline of my senses I am able to refocus my awareness. Next, I ground myself to bring me back to the present moment. I take three deep breaths and, if need be, silently count backwards from 100. I repeat to myself, I am safe and these feelings will pass. The feelings pass and the episode is over in one to two minutes.

As abuse survivors, we learned that the world was not safe.  Most of us share the belief that we were somehow to blame for what happened to us; we did something to deserve it; or conversely, we were hurt because we did not provide what was required, etc.  None of this made sense.

Our sense of what was happening was in stark contrast to the reality we were forced to believe.  We were deeply wounded and many types of pain were our constant companions.  Not knowing what we did or did not do to cause our abuse, we learned that we could not trust ourselves.  We were not okay.

Without trust, how could we feel confident in ourselves and our abilities?  What did we have to feel good about?  We had no foundation from which to build self-esteem or a positive self-image.  We were left with what felt like an empty tank.

With a strong negative impression of ourselves, how could we believe our boss at work when he said “great job on that report."  We cannot trust what he is saying because on a scale of 1 to 10 our self-image is at a 2, while the feedback is at an 8.  The disparity is too great to be able to hear or take in the compliment.

For some of us it is next to impossible to acknowledge that we did something well or feel deserving of anything good in our lives. When something good happened to us we called it a fluke ... we were just plain lucky.  When our self-image and our reality are so far apart, the result is that we go through life feeling like a fraud.

Many of us have spent our lives looking over our shoulders knowing that at any moment, someone is going to discover what we have known about ourselves since our abuse started: we are not who they think we are.  We are a fraud.  We have nothing to give and we are exhausted from the stress of waiting to be “found out.”

Throughout my abuse, I was used to morphing seamlessly between an innocent, na├»ve child who was a sponge for love and affection to a building contractor who had to put up walls with steel reinforcement beams that could bear the load of childhood abuse.  I felt like a fraud.  I am so grateful that I have built up my self-esteem and no longer have to build walls!

Fast forward many years and we find ourselves driving down the Road to Recovery with an empty tank.

So this begs the question: How do we fill our tank along the Road to Recovery when there are no service stations around? 

We fill our tanks by transforming old beliefs and behaviors into healthy, nurturing acts of kindness that we bestow upon ourselves.  Every kind act raises our energy levels, builds our self-esteem and changes our perspectives.  Each time we are gentle, nurturing and take care of ourselves, we add fuel to our tanks.

Nurturing and self-care are critical to creating a healthy, balanced life and need to become part of our daily routine.  These practices enable us to move from being reactive in our lives (which we learned as children of abuse) to a proactive way of being.  Ultimately, we will replace sabotaging behaviors with new healthy behaviors. 

At first, making these changes might feel awkward, forced and uncomfortable.  With a little time, you will come to treasure the respite and count on it to refill your tank. 

Some ways I routinely nurture and take care of myself are listed below.  In addition, every difficult task or challenge on my to-do list is assigned a treat or reward.  This helps me get things done while at the same time nourishing my spirit and filling up my tank.

Nurturing and Self-Care: starting my day by sipping my favorite tea and repeating an affirmation; looking at a favorite picture; performing a comforting task; making a list of my positive attributes.

Treats: spending twenty minutes using social media; taking a walk; fantasizing about taking a vacation; calling a fun person; doodling; eating a favorite healthy food; performing a random act of kindness for someone else. 

Rewards: taking a day off; going to a movie; trying a new restaurant; getting a massage; visiting my sister; eliminating a stressful activity from my life; lunching with a friend following a nerve-racking meeting.

Make your own lists.  Each time we do something positive for ourselves, we feed our souls and add a cup of fuel to our tanks.


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Cynthia Krainin is a Certified Work-Life Coach, Writer, Presenter and Workshop Leader.  She recently celebrated her 30th year as President of Career Resources in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Cynthia has written many articles on living and working with the effects of past trauma for national and international publications.  She is co-author of the book Thriving At Work: A Guidebook for Survivors of Childhood Abuse, which will be sold exclusively through The Surviving Spirit Web Store starting in 2013 http://www.survivingspirit.com/index.html.

Cynthia holds the belief that it is because of our past, that we have the strength, courage, resilience and spirit to leverage our experiences and learn techniques that will allow us to thrive at work.  She can be contacted at survivingatwork@gmail.com.

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