Beauty after Bruises.
The month comes to a close and it’s no secret that we’ve, collectively, gone through some pretty difficult times together these last few. As this newest one turns a page, you might find yourself greeting the horizon with excitement, wrestling with a lot of heaviness on your chest, or instead feeling rather indifferent or numb. As the last few years have been uniquely challenging, we were compelled to reach out to our already-vulnerable community and lend a hand amidst this ever-shifting landscape.
Even in the best of times, most folks tend to compartmentalize their years in a wide variety of ways. Some are healthy while others pose some fairly toxic pitfalls, ones that any one of us can fall into if we aren’t paying attention. So, when we’ve repeatedly heard these last few years referred to as ‘dumpster fires’ or end-times worthy, or are bearing witness to all the pleas for it to be over already so it doesn’t get worse, it can be so much harder to keep your head clear. …especially if you’re inclined to agree. Since childhood trauma survivors are already more vulnerable to challenging thought patterns, painful memories, or broader triggers around this time of year, I wanted to bring some extra support and guidance to prevent whatever extra distress we can. We also want to lift you up as the year progresses, so we’re going to tackle both at the same time!
Here are some tricky patterns we’ve identified and some ways you can avoid falling into them now (and many more to come):
#1 BLACK-AND-WHITE THINKING:
It happens every year, and this one’s no exception. It’s undeniable that most of us take the a few days and weeks annually to reflect back on allll that transpired over the past days, weeks or months. And then? We make a judgment about it. Was it good, was it bad, did it veer a hard left somewhere along the line? Next, we look ahead to the upcoming year and try to decide what kind of year it’s going to be, and even set resolutions to make it so. Doing this, however, can really encourage strong black-and-white thinking — a thought pattern that is no stranger to trauma survivors. (Survivors with OCD and/or other comorbid personality disorders may fall prey to this even stronger.) Deciding that this year was “good” or “bad”, and that the next will be “difficult” or “promising”, is very black-or-white. In truth, no year is any one thing. Heck, there are 12 whole months! With 365+ individual days! How can 365 anythings be just ONE thing? They aren’t! Neither black nor white. They’re blue and green and six and square and magenta and shoe and twelve and circle! They’re all KINDS of things! And that’s awesome. It’s a GREAT thing even.
You don’t have to decide what kind of year you had. It’s already over. Defining it with a pretty little label isn’t going to change anything about it — just how you look back on it. And with the current atmosphere, you could fall into calling it ‘black’ when it really might have only been more of a steely grey, or even silver. You don’t have to decide what next year is going to be either. Doing so leaves us very little wiggle room. If you decide it’s going to be white, at the first sign of trouble you may be far more likely to think it’s ruined. …because you know who Black-and-White’s cousin is? All-or-Nothing. And we don’t need to antagonize her to join the party, too! Let your years just be what they are. A year. One revolution around the sun. And if you juuuust can’t help it and feel like you must label them, at least broaden your palette to some other colors, not just black or white. ;)
#2 DRAWING LINES IN THE SAND:
It’s always the time to make new resolutions even when we know that we had those at the start of the new year and decide if we met last month’s or year’s (if we even remember them, but probably not). Resolutions can be downright stressful if you’re someone who really wants to set them. Others couldn’t care less and just skip out altogether — and that’s okay, too. We think a happy medium can be great, though.
Setting goals is honestly a great thing. It’s a huge part of recovery and healing. We should always seek to have long-term, short-term, and daily goals. And we should have them on a variety of subjects: mental health, work, relationships, physical health, self-care, big life experiences, etc. It’s a great practice to have. But, your aspirations shouldn’t solely revolve around “The New ”. You can set goals any time, any day, for any reason. You don’t have to wait for definite time frames to get started. You can literally start the second you’re finished reading this. Unfortunately, for many there seems to be a massive dividing line in the sand that separates days, years and months. It’s just a flaw in the way human minds work, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
You can set goals any day, any time. They don’t have to be resolutions that only pertain to the New week and so on. Oftentimes, those are just blanket sentiments anyway and not so much the specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals (SMART) we should be setting! The latter is far more likely to yield results. You don’t have to decide anything by a certain day, and your year isn’t ruined if you don’t get it right the first time, or even at all. Setting goals should be a daily or weekly practice, they don’t define your entire year. It’s also equally as permissible to NOT make resolutions at all. Nothing bad will happen to you, your upcoming year doesn’t lose focus just because you don’t have an outline, and you aren’t obligated to resolve to something just because other people are. We do think setting goals is important, but you can do it however and whenever it feels right to you. There are no lines in the sand when it comes to days on a calendar page, nor between calendars, and you don’t have to wait until midnight to get started. Start midday, mid-month, mid-year for all anyone should care! Your life doesn’t have to wait for anyone or follow anyone else’s schedule. …including the calendar’s.
#3 PURITY AND PERFECTIONISM:
Another distant cousin of All-or-Nothing, and a concept many trauma survivors can bump into often, is the idea of purity, perfection and/or ‘cleanliness’. Lots of folks talk about the new year as if it’s a blank canvas, an untouched masterpiece, a glistening white sheet of purity and possibilities! And in a way, sure, it is. It may even bring you tremendous comfort or enthusiastic determination to see it that way. You might feel you can breathe easier considering all that’s to come and what you get to do with that fresh start. And, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of excitement or sense of “fresh air”. In fact, it’s great that you’re invigorated by it! We just want to be sure no one gets too caught up in the idea of an untouched surface that the possibility it could “get stained” by one accident, letdown, or small tragedy gets mixed in, too.
We see this happen quite often, unfortunately. Many can truly and painfully believe their year has been ruined or is now “bad” after one mistake or significant hardship. They may put the whole year into a box and decide that’s all it’ll ever be — leaving them unwilling to try or even fully participate in all that’s left of it. We don’t want to see that happen with your new year. A few wrong strokes won’t ruin a painting. You just have to get a little more creative! These accidents very frequently lead to finished products that, while things didn’t quite go to plan, far exceed anything we’d originally intended anyway. And, we tend to walk away feeling much prouder of ourselves strictly because things didn’t go smoothly. We found a way to make it happen anyway. That says something.
Feel the excitement of a new fresh start and build yourself up to take on a new point of time.
But also be mindful to not put it on too high a pedestal or consider it so pure, so innocent that the slightest imperfection could “stain” or “tarnish” it.
It’s a new canvas, but it isn’t precious. You don’t have to be afraid to handle it, touch it, or fingerprint it. Get in there and mess it up and create something remarkable. Accidents and mistakes, the whole nine yards! And, don’t forget! If these fresh starts speak to you, each and every new DAY offers the same blank canvas to start something new. You don’t have to wait until the following year and it doesn’t matter what yesterday looked like, today is new as well.
#4 SNOWBALLING AND CONFIRMATION BIAS:
The open, public sharing of one’s highs and lows each year has a way of both trivializing and catastrophizing a lot of suffering. Sometimes we’re met with the Trauma Olympics (“My day was worse than yours,” “I win! Here is all my trauma,”) and other similarly competitive spirits. Other times there’s a complete, tone deaf lack of awareness that much of the world is enduring rather serious devastation. And then other times a commiseration party kicks off, one that suddenly dials up all the knobs on what folks might have otherwise gotten through okay. It’s that latter one that can really snowball existing issues with others until they’ve fully spiraled out of control. The last few years have gathered an intense, grief-filled, fiery energy to them — fueled by righteous anger, disgust and overwhelm. When it’s all you can see in your own world, each headline has a nudge to it, and every loved one’s post carries that familiar sting — it has a way of projecting a darker kind of negativity that, once grabbed ahold of, grows legs.
Perhaps you actually weren’t thinking this was such a bad year for you, personally. Maybe you even accomplished some super impressive things — got a degree, started therapy, were self-harm free, had a child, beat a life-threatening illness, found a job, or got a new personal best in something. Or, even if it was a rough one for you, at the very least you may know you’ve surely had worse years than this one. But when every year-in-review is set out to remind you that “No, this year was, inarguably, the literal worst for every single person out there,” you will inevitably start looking for more examples of that in your own life. It’s a really dangerous flame to fan.
Suddenly, you’re no longer just recalling the bad that happened in the world, but seeing your own hiccups through the same morose lenses. And quickly, the aches and pains you may’ve forgotten all about begin to resurface, and now they hold real weight. Furthermore, at this point in time, it really can be alien to hear anyone say “This was a GREAT year for me!” — even if it really and truly was. In desperation to connect, be a witness to the hurt many of us have become numb to, and to not feel so alone, most make it a priority to validate the awful — but that’s also a slippery slope if not self-aware. While wholly understandable right now, this somber focal lens (as opposed to an additive or supplement to reflection) can take fresh wounds and pour salt into them, draw our attention to scars that were just beginning to heal, and occlude our vision from any beauty that also existed to comfort us. That isn’t healthy overall, but can get especially sticky for survivors, who have so many layers of pain that could unearth.
Let yourself find the good things in the year, no matter how foreign it feels or unpopular it makes you. If you find yourself going through your year with a fine-tooth comb to spot all the bad things, we encourage you to step away or use the same mental energy to shift focus toward all the ways you came through those really dark, hurtful moments. Your pain has already been accounted for, it has already happened. We don’t need the weight of it to crush you once again as it comes barreling down the hill, gathering momentum with each stray heartache, frustration, nuisance, or slight you would’ve otherwise overlooked. It’s time to halt the snowball. …or, at the very least, quit lookin’ back and get outta the way! ;)
#5 WRAPPING THINGS UP (LITERALLY):
Unlike the first four, this one isn’t so much a “problem to remedy” so much as a note for moving forward. We wanted to end on a positive thought, so the slight tone change is appropriate. So, perhaps you had a really hard year — wholly and honestly. Maybe you learned of new memories, couldn’t find a therapist, had a bunch of medical health complications, or lost someone truly important to you. For you, it might be a nice exercise in containment to wrap all those things up into Year 20XX, seal it tight, and just move forward. This can actually be a great tool for many people.
Traumatic material is hard, and anything we can do to keep it from revisiting our present when we don’t want it to should be encouraged (so long as it’s through a safe means, of course!). For many, there really is great comfort in mentally packing the year up in all its borders, keeping that difficult content “in the past”, then turning your head toward the future. The reason this isn’t ill-advised is because when you contain something, you aren’t stuffing it down, forcing it out of sight, or trying to ignore it forever — nor are you making a judgment about what it is you’re putting away. You’re just mentally gathering it up in some type of organizational manner and temporarily setting it aside until you’re ready to revisit it again in therapy. Key words: temporarily and revisit.
For some, using the end of the year as a bookend is a kind of containment all its own that really appeals to the mind. And if that works for you, by all means use it! If you feel that your mind instead puts too much stock in dates, times, years and numbers, this might not be your best method. For you, you may find that it reemphasizes the dates of traumas/life challenges and that when they come back around in future year(s), they’ll feel all that much more loaded. But, only you know your mind and what is most/least helpful to you. If this mental exercise is useful to you, we definitely encourage you to use it as you move forward. (There are other means of containment that don’t involve calendars/time if that way’s not for you! Don’t worry!)
An added thought: Just know that as much as you may try to put a bad time away or the symptoms you wrestled with in it behind you, they may still follow you. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that the upcoming timeis already decided or that it’s going to be as tough as the one prior. It just means that the events of this year were sincerely difficult and are finding it hard to be put on pause. You may need to find new ways to address those struggles or break them down into smaller pieces to contain. When done thoughtfully and carefully, putting a troubling season away so that you can look ahead to a new one with fresher eyes and a stronger heart can be a very healthy thing to do. It’s all in the approach and the mindset behind it. And, as some wise folks have said, the calendar never did anything to you. The earth and the stars have no idea what day it is. Only we give it that power, You got this!
In closing, we know this year may’ve already been hard. For others, it may’ve already been a year of victories. In truth, it was probably a bit of both for most of us. No matter what yours was like, we still can’t help but wish you a happy, healthy, SAFE and WELL-BALANCED new one. Hopefully, in picking out some of these little “thought pitfalls”, you’ll feel able to navigate the upcoming days a little easier and even catch yourself when you notice your mind heading down one of those messy paths.