When I feel now as I did then,
I but one way bend -
It is, as I knew it would,
Have you heard of survivor guilt?
I'll give you a high-level explanation.
People who survived situations in which others died sometimes feel or believe they have done something wrong by surviving when others didn't. They feel guilty for surviving.
The title of this week's poem "Survivor Tilt" is a play on the words and concept of survivor guilt.
The survivor in this poem has survived something traumatic, which could be a situation in which people died, but not necessarily.
When I titled the poem I was thinking of incest survivors like myself. I will explain later how this title is apt for other types of survivors as well.
I changed the word guilt to tilt, meaning a leaning or inclination toward a belief.
What is that belief? Let's take a look at the poem.
When I feel now as I did then, I say to myself
It is, as I knew it would, happening again.
It is common for survivors of sexual abuse to feel or believe that they will experience the trauma of this experience again.
As a child, this belief was a coping mechanism that kept me from letting my guard down. Telling myself it would happen again protected me from being further shattered by false hope that the trauma was over.
As I carried this belief into adulthood, its effect shifted from protecting me to limiting me. The event that inspired this poem is an example of how it limited me.
I wrote this poem when I was having an experience in which I felt just as trapped, vulnerable and powerless as I did when I was a child. The situation with something going on at work. Physically the situation was different from that of my childhood, but I felt the same emotions so I believed the trauma was happening again just as I had told myself it would.
In my mind, the fact that I felt the same was evidence that my belief that it would happen again was true.
What's more, I believed I was just as powerless to take care of myself in the situation at work as I was to protect myself as a child.
So there's my limiting belief as an adult:
If I feel the same, the situation is the same, and I am the same.
This interpretation of my feelings and perception of myself limited my response to this situation to one - get out, get out, get out.
My default response to the possibility of being in situations where I would feel the same was always avoid, avoid, avoid.
It took quite a bit of time and therapy for me to open my mind to these truths:
New belief - even if I feel the same, the situation is different, and I am different.
New approach for responding to the same feelings:
- Identify the triggers of the feelings
- Evaluate my interpretation of the triggers objectively
- If I am in physical danger, get out of the situation or fight
- If I am physically safe, be open to what the situation can teach me
My new default response to the possibility of being in situations where I would feel the same is that facing my fear will free me of fear.
For example, although the sexual abuse occurred in multiple locations, the house where I lived the longest symbolizes the whole experience for me.
Just the thought of returning to the house terrified me for over 30 years.I have avoided even going to the state where I lived.
Inspired by my new belief that facing my fear with free me of it, I have decided to return to the house and walk through it. I expect the experience to trigger the same feelings, but I also expect to be able to reframe my interpretation of the triggers because I am different.
I think I can safely say that everyone reading this email has survived some kind of trauma.
Your trauma may have been caused by a situation in which you felt powerless, embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated, incompetent, or less than to name a few.
What was your trauma?
What beliefs do you or did you have as a result of your trauma?
How do your beliefs affect you now?
Do you avoid the same or similar situations because you assume you will have the same experience?
How are you different from when your first or last experienced the trauma?
What options does this change in you open up that you didn't see before?
I encourage you to explore the answers to these questions.
I would love to hear your thoughts!
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Joyce Collins is a life coach who specializes in helping women who were sexually abused as a child to transform themselves into confident women who love themselves and lead fulfilling lives.