While it can be hard to find anything positive about trauma, one way to grow from it and to heal is to find meaning and purpose in it.
The news is regularly filled with stories of sexual abuse, assault, and molestation. Sadly, a new global study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four women and one in 10 men experienced sexual abuse as a child.
What the news stories often miss are how trauma from sexual violation and violence goes beyond the surface of a person. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says survivors may experience PTSD, depression, eating disorders, and flashbacks. They may be going through the motions of meeting expectations, roles, and responsibilities with a painted-on smile to mask their pain and emptiness inside.
Mackenzie Phillips, a victim of paternal incest for 10 years by John Phillips of the musical group Mamas and the Papas, wrote in her book High on Arrival, “I was a fragment of a person, and my secret isolated me.” She is one of many in a long line of powerful and successful women who have suffered trauma. For instance, both Oprah and Marilyn Monroe were sexually abused as children.
Interpersonal violence and trauma do not differentiate between celebrities and everyday people, however. As a therapist who works with survivors, I know that it hurts, no matter who you are.
One of the most prevalent questions my clients ask is: “Why did this happen (to me)?” I believe we have a natural inclination to want to find the reasons for our experiences. While it can be hard to find anything positive about trauma, one way to grow from it and to heal is to find meaning and purpose in it. Through exploring trauma, we can appreciate our resiliency and our ability to be courageous and find a warrior within. I have seen that some of the strongest, most courageous, irrepressible, and brightest spirits are sometimes the ones that go through the most painful experiences.
Meaning comes from taking what we know and understand to creating beliefs and frameworks of ourselves and the world. Research supports that finding meaning in childhood abuse experiences was associated with less social isolation, better overall adjustment, lower psychological distress, increased self-esteem, and resolution of the abuse experiences. A social network, faith through spirituality or religion, therapy, life coaching, and body work are a few supports that can help during the process.
Many may find purpose in their trauma by working to prevent the abuse from happening to anyone else and from reaching out to help those who are also survivors. In Phillips’ interview with Oprah, she shared, “I think the universe shows us some sort of purpose for our lives when you think there’s no hope left.”
Many women find purpose and create change as volunteers or staff of sexual violence organizations who educate the public, help survivors, or advocate for policy changes.
We can see this among many famous women survivors, too. For instance, Lady Gaga is currently advocating for legislation to address campus sexual assault. Ashley Judd is speaking out against online harassment and recently became the chair of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project aimed at curbing online abuse. And of course, Oprah has been named as one of the most charitable celebrities, providing hope and opportunity through education programs for women and children.
Another way to cope and heal is to focus on how there is more to life than the trauma. For instance, a mother may be inspired by her children to commit to finding meaning so she can care for and nurture them, or a young adult may find power and beauty in creative expression and focuses her energies on liberating that passion.
Developing growth-based learning, objectivity, and acting on meaning found are valuable skills. Finding meaning allows a person to feel more in control and less victimized, and hence, empowered to live a more purposeful life. Of course, I have seen that it is necessary to work through self-blame, self-deprecation, feeling unsafe, triggers, grief, fears, and other emotions to figure out the purpose and that can be hard. But it is worth it.
So this is a call to arms to encourage survivors of trauma to find purpose in your experiences, to become warriors in your journey of healing, and to help empower other survivors to do the same.
So, strive to heal and thrive instead of hide and survive so you can be the fierce and powerful warriors of love and life that everyone was born to be.
Fight for the truth and radiance of your spirits and worth.
Tanya Morshed, LCSW, has 14 years of experience as a clinical social worker supporting victims and survivors of trauma in diverse populations and setting; and is a participant of the Dallas OpEd Project Public Voices Greenhouse.