Have you survived something very difficult in your life? A tough childhood? A major trauma? An abusive marriage?
It takes a lot to go through the steps of naming your pain and feeling your pain and moving from being a victim of something very traumatic or painful to being a survivor.
Just Surviving Is No Fun
The past is the past. You were a victim in the past. You are not a victim now. You are a survivor. And that is something to be proud of.
But it’s no fun just surviving, either. You’re setting the bar too low if survival is the only thing you’re aiming for once you are out of the situation you have already survived. To move past being a survivor, you need to thrive! And to thrive, you need a whole different set of skills.
Survival Coping Skills
The coping skills you learned to help you to survive in chaotic or traumatic times are not going to help you to be happy and healthy now that you are no longer in that situation. In fact, survival coping skills will often cause more problems now than they can solve. Being hypervigilant, always anticipating danger and disaster, recreating chaos because it is familiar, not trusting others, keeping yourself closed off and invulnerable to being harmed by others, not taking risks, not trying anything new, always doing things in extremes… these are some examples of survival coping skills.
There is an entirely different set of skills required to be happy and healthy once the priority is no longer that you just be able to survive. Being able to relax, trust other people, be open to learning and trying new things, being able to let go of the past and not worry about the future, finding peace and balance in the middle, and being able to be vulnerable and open with others are some examples of thriving skills.
You Want to Be Here Now!
One of the keys to thriving involves mindful awareness. (See: UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center)
Being able to truly be present and live today is the last step in healing from something bad that happened to you in the past.
You can leave the past in the past if you are here now and enjoying being in the present. But being in the present is not comfortable or “allowed” if you are still just trying to survive. You have to continue to anticipate bad things that could happen, using your knowledge of the past. Survival coping skills that keep you safe from harm do not work if the goal is to thrive.
Learning A New Way of Being
How do you begin to learn thriving skills? As in most things, practice makes (almost) perfect, and the goal is to be comfortable with imperfection.
You must learn to stop “all or nothing” thinking, adopt an optimistic way of perceiving yourself and the world, become willing to take risks to learn and try new things, and become willing to open yourself to others.
It isn’t easy. In fact, it will feel (to a survivor) that you are doing the “wrong” thing when you first practice a thriving skill, because you are making yourself vulnerable to harm, according to your survival be-on-alert way of going through the world. It can be so difficult to change this that I recommend you work with a seasoned therapist who knows how to help and support you, gently challenge and encourage you as you learn these new thriving skills.
Bibliotherapy and Online Resources
There are many excellent resources that you can explore online and by reading that will point you in the direction toward learning these new thriving skills, which include positive psychology, meditation, cognitive therapy, and recovery from trauma. Here are a few resources to get you started:
—A Year to Change (by yours truly!)
Remember that learning thriving skills will be one of the most life-altering positive changes you can make. It isn’t easy but is worth it for you mentally, emotionally, and it will even have physical and medical health benefits. Consider whether it is time for you to do more in your life than just survive.
You truly deserve to thrive.
Dr. Anita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist
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