Developing Spirituality For Trauma Survivors – Part 1

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I’m passing along some interesting thoughts I recently heard in a teleseminar on Spirituality with Joan Borysenko, along with my own ideas on the subject. Spirituality is a part of our make up, but it is often obscured by painful events in our lives, remaining undeveloped.

In my own case, growing up in a violent, alcoholic family was confusing and painful and I just couldn’t make sense of anything. I was asking some pretty big questions from a very early age.

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Why was I born?
  • What is the point of life?
  • Is there a God?


With little guidance, questions like these can become a life-long search into the vast unknown. As time went on, my questions changed to, “Why does God make me suffer like this?” or “Why was I born into this family?” Without guidance, it can lead to a sense of despair, depression and substance abuse. But the worst thing that can happen to any of us, is a turning away from the part of ourselves that is longing for a connection to something greater.


When life is difficult, individuals can develop what Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic and helpless” explanatory style. In other words, you come to explain the world and your place in it from a very negative and powerless vantage point. It is the polar opposite of spiritual development. This ‘style’ begins to define the self because:

  • it’s Personal – “it’s my fault”
  • it’s Pervasive – “I’ve messed up everything”; and
  • it’s Permanent – “it will never go away; it’s the story of my life”.

When I began my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I was inexplicably drawn to learning Seligman’s theory of “Learned Helplessness”. I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt compelled because I had it. I had given up on the idea that I could affect any positive change in my environment. At the same time, I blamed myself for everything ‘bad’ that was happening around me. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. But for many of my clients, this is all too often a huge stumbling block.

It’s true that we all lose track of who we are to some degree, whether we grew up in a relatively good home or not. There is an innate drive to please others, to be accepted and loved, and these drives tempt us to be and do things that are not necessarily the clearest reflection of our true selves. We will do what we have to do to survive and stay connected to those closest to us. We can be proud of that. And when we are ready to move beyond survival to a ‘life worth living’, we begin our journey to a deeper, more spiritual understanding of ourselves, beyond what we have endured – and because of what we have endured.


When we begin in therapy or recovery, the journey we embark on is a process of transformation. We are letting go of the old self – the false self (the angry, frightened, isolated self), and becoming our new – and true selves. There are 3 basic stages to the transformation process – representing a beginning, a middle and an end.

  • Separation: from what was (known)
  • Luminality: not yet new, but not the old
  • Reintegration: coming back to the new

Once you start the process, you can’t go back to what you were. Once you decide to leave the old, living in the limbo of ‘in between – not yet’ – can be a real challenge. It can be an anxiety-provoking, especially if you have survived a hard life by attempting to be in control of everything around and within you. As Carolyn Myss says, “Surrender is not about giving up, it is an acceptance that you are not in control of the major events in your life, good and bad.” So, in order for you to change – you must surrender – engage in an ongoing, repetitive acceptance of what is beyond your control. Change takes time – you cannot rush to the safety of the new known – it must unfold in its’ own time. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it is a process – and you’re in it – and you will move through it, with the help of others and your own inner resiliency. The most important thing to remember is don’t give up.


Resilience has the following properties:

  1. The ability to face what is happening – called REALISM. If you are leaving a job, have a plan for how you will support yourself in the meantime. (In a storm, a realist will adjust her sails and an optimist will hope for the wind to change.)
  2. Making meaning of life – called FAITH.
  3. Being inquisitive about what is happening to you and others around you, including the world – and being open to new ideas and conflicting views – called MINDFUL CURIOSITY.
  4. Connecting with others who can support you in your transformation process – called SOCIAL SUPPORT. Having a sense of building a ‘community’ of like-minded people. Some even think about creating a new ‘family’ that is loving and caring.
  5. The ability to laugh at life and the flexibility to change ourse when needed – A SENSE OF HUMOR AND APPRECIATION OF THE ABSURD. It is a great sign of growth when we can begin to laugh at ourselves and some of the situations we create or end up in.


When we move toward answering the big questions in life, we are developing our spiritual selves. Spirituality is not a belief system. It doesn’t matter what we believe in, or what we chose to call It. All roads up the mountain lead to the same place. I love the definition by George Valliant that spirituality is a constellation of positive qualities which include;

  • Gratitude
  • Equanimity
  • Awe/wonder
  • Joy
  • Hope
  • Compassion
  • Love


Here is an interesting twist on the conventional gratitude exercise. Chose one thing every night that you can be grateful for before going to sleep. Here is the twist: it has to be something you have never thought of before. It’s totally new. It forces you to pay attention to your life – to be mindful – so you can notice what is happening or what you are aware of that you can later give thanks for. Try it as an experiment for 30 days and see what you notice. I’d love to hear from you.

In the following newsletter, I will elaborate on these qualities and provide some exercises for developing these aspects of your spiritual self. The next newsletter will explore the topic of forgiveness.

Until next time, I wish you all the best on your journey through life.

Sue Diamond Potts

This newsletter is meant to provide you with information and tips for improving yourself. It is not meant as a substitute for therapy or counselling. Please feel free to forward a copy of Emotional Sobriety Matters (in its’ entirety) to others who may be interested in personal development.

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