I never write something with the intention of invoking reactions. I write my truth – good, bad, and ugly. When something is on my heart, I have to get it out, whether it’s through writing, public speaking, or a radio interview. My latest article, 6 Steps to Finding Your Real Smile, received more feedback and emotional reactions than I had expected. Taking pause, I wondered what it was about this article that touched a nerve for so many. While I am still sorting through possible explanations, this experience was a reminder to me of two key takeaways of why it is so important to speak my truth.
The first reminder for me was how important it is for others to hear my story and the lessons I have learned. My story is one of abuse as well as healing and joy. So very many people have similar stories of abuse, and yet they struggle to find healing and joy. Each time I speak truthfully about pain, joy, struggle, or hope, others benefit. Sometimes I underestimate the power of sharing and the impact that truth can have on another. I have to remember just how powerful it was for me during the beginning of my healing journey to hear from other survivors. It gave me hope and belief that perhaps one day I could get there. Now it’s my turn to give back. I encourage you to share your story with someone else. You never know whose life you may touch.
The other takeaway is how helpful it is for me every time I “get it out.” As I mentioned in my article, each time I bring even a slice of my story outside of myself, another layer of healing occurs. Every time someone tells me that I have helped her grow, a tiny part of my old, wounded self somehow becomes shiny and whole.
So, I will keep speaking out and sharing my truth. For those of you who have not had the opportunity to read my little article, I’ve included it below. May it help bring you the peace you deserve, and I welcome any ideas from you about the importance of speaking your truth.
6 Steps to Finding Your Real Smile
As many people are aware, a large percentage of my life was spent being emotionally and sexually abused. I have recently released my first book documenting this experience. As I reached deep into the past to write my story, I realized just how damaged my self-esteem was and how incongruent my self-perception may have been with the outside world’s view of me. I always saw myself as the fat, ugly kid no one could love. And I was so very sad. I could not even imagine what happiness looked like. But I would show the world a smile and a brave façade, determined to convince others that I had my act together. The energy I exerted in this charade was such a betrayal of my soul. I look back at old photos, and while I frequently showed an obedient smile, there was no spark, no hope, and no truth in my face.
Today, I am a new woman. Well, let me re-phrase that: I am the same person, but I have a very different face to show myself and the world. I am. I just am. And I realized this during a recent photo shoot. Shauna Hundeby from East Coast Photography is responsible for the powerful cover of my book. I invited Shauna over to my home recently to help me get an updated head shot for my website. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the department of photo-loathing. My old insecurities crept right back in. Shauna just started shooting some pictures while we were carrying on with crazy conversations.
A few days later, Shauna emailed me something very interesting. She created a black and white series of six pictures of the photos she snapped during our chat. I stared at them for a long time, unsure of my reaction. And then it hit me: This is the real me. Real. Flawed. Healthy. Happy.
So many trauma survivors tend to remain stuck in difficult and painful patterns, never getting the opportunity to embrace the miraculous, beautiful life they have been given. I spent the past few days wondering how I have gone to such a drastically different place from my youth. I want to share with my readers a few of the steps I had to take to get this natural face-lift. Hopefully one or two of these steps will resonate for some of you to help you find your smile and one true face to show yourself and the world:
1. Release the shame
One of the most common feelings sexual abuse survivors experience is shame. Terrible things that were done to us become internalized. Shame is the most paralyzing, fear-based emotion in my opinion. Shame is a thief. It steals our freedom, our empowerment, our judgment, and our zest for life. It can prevent us from moving forward. Shame can feel like a giant remote control, where the pause button is stuck. Shame is a silencer. There is an endless list of toxic effects that shame can have on a person.
How did I release the shame that overpowered me for 25 years? I realized that I was holding on to other people’s shame. The shame did not belong to me! It belonged to those who abused me. The abuse I endured was their shame, their secrets – not mine. If someone steals your car, are you ashamed to tell people about it? No! If someone steals your innocence through abuse, give that shame right back to that person. Once you can release the paralyzing shame, you will be amazed at how free and empowered you will feel.
Forgiveness is a journey in itself. Much has been written about the power of forgiveness. This not-so-little step took me a great deal of time to achieve. I cannot think of a specific day, thought, or conversation where suddenly I forgave all those who wronged me. I went through various stages of grief including anger and bargaining for things and people from my past to be different.
Then I shifted my focus – from them to me. Rather than replaying horrible scenes in my mind and asking futile questions such as why someone could hurt me that way, I began to direct my focus on my present life. I embraced gratitude. Someone once said, “there is always, ALWAYS something to be grateful for.” I completely agree with this. I became grateful that the abuse ended – plain and simple. Sometimes gratitude can be a stretch! I can’t tell you how many times I simply said, “I’m so glad the abuse is over.”
The more consciously grateful I became, the more I developed an understanding for why my life unfolded the way it did. And the more my understanding increased, the more forgiveness gradually entered into my heart. To be perfectly clear, forgiveness did not equate to allowing abusive people back in my life. It simply enabled me to let go of anger and move toward true happiness. The smiles in my pictures got bigger.
If you are trying to punish those who wronged you through anger and forgiveness-refusal, I assure you that you are being punished far worse than they are. Try gratitude every morning and every night. Accept what was, and celebrate what is. You will soon find a smile brighter than you could imagine.
3. Mind your words
Few things are as powerful as the words we speak. Words can build or break, heal or wound, begin or end, and so on. Many people believe that the unconscious absorbs the words we speak (in our minds or aloud for all to hear).
This step has been a tough one for me through the years. Self-deprecation became my defense of choice. I just didn’t know that I was using it for a purpose. After years of being told that I was inadequate and unworthy, I believed these messages in my soul. I had become an insecure woman belittling herself before other people could. It would sting less if I clarified my awareness of being the “fat, ugly kid in the room” before anyone else realized it.
One day, I told a friend that my son had never heard me put myself down. I was determined the moment I delivered him that I would be a positive role model for self-esteem. I heard my words describing this, and it hit me: why is it important for my son to hear kind words about me, and yet the internal messages I tell myself are cruel? This was a pivotal realization.
As this awareness increased, I was able to hear just how many times I would speak harshly about myself. I also began to pay attention to how those verbal beatings felt. They felt terrible. So I started a little experiment. When someone paid me a compliment, I forced myself to smile and just say, “Wow, that’s so nice of you – thanks!” It may sound trivial, but a huge amount of effort went into this step. I also started to monitor my internal dialogue. I would constantly stop a negative opinion, and I would replace it with – “I’m trying.” For example, when I would think, “God you sounded like such an idiot in that meeting”, I would replace it with, “I tried my best in that meeting.” I would evaluate what to improve next time, but I forced myself to appreciate an ability I did have.
The results of this experiment surprised me. What I found was a lighter being. I felt lighter, freer, and truly happier. This was a slow process, and by no means have I perfected it. I catch myself often negating someone’s kind words, and I have to correct myself and simply say, “Wow, that’s so nice of you – thanks!” My good friends know exactly what’s going on when I say this, and they cheer me on for my efforts.
Most importantly, over time, my unconscious has started to believe the kind things I am now saying. A shift in my psyche has really occurred. I like myself – even when I falter or gain weight or fumble in a meeting. I like myself, and it shows. My smile is sincere, and it’s a reflection of a kindness and acceptance I have found. So mind your words, because your smile will thank you for it!
4. Get it out
During various speaking engagements, I openly share my story with others from different backgrounds. I like to preface my talks with a reminder for the audience that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old (a horrendous statistic, I know). What we tend to forget is that the one girl and one boy grow up, and so we have many wounded adults around us. I tell them that I know I am not the only survivor in the room, and I give them permission to take care of themselves during my talk, as it can sometimes trigger painful feelings listening to my story.
Quite often, participants will approach me following the presentation, and they will share their painful experiences. What blows my mind is that sometimes I am the first person to whom they have ever disclosed their abuse history. While it is wonderful that they have finally come to a point where they can open up, it’s such a shame that they held on to it for so long.
Your story has got to get outside of you somehow. Now, I went and wrote a 300 page book – this is the last thing I am recommending for people to do. If you have a burning need to write a book, go for it. However, there are many simpler methods to getting your trauma story out. The most important thing is that your story just not lay dormant in your brain, your heart, and your soul. That story can eat away at you, and your true potential as a thriving, happy person cannot be realized.
Tell someone. Write it down. Write a song. Paint a picture. Write it in the sand, and watch the waves wash the words away. Attend a group for survivors. Start your own group. Write a poem and read it at an open mic. Build something that represents the experience. Keep a journal. There are so many ways to get your story out. I can’t emphasize enough how healing it is to bring that story outside of yourself. The story changes shape, and it becomes less about who you are and more about something that happened to you. Again, you will begin to feel lighter and happier. Let me clarify one thing here: the actual process of getting it out can be very painful and difficult, especially the longer you have held it inside. However, if you honor this process and honor your story, you will slowly find a survivor glow appear before your eyes. This is a glow you cannot purchase. You start to glow from within.
5. Body work
I am at a place in my life where I can openly discuss my trauma to just about anyone easily. This ability is the result of years of therapy, processing, and practice. I’m a very cerebral, analytical person, so my understanding of my history allows me to reach out to others and hopefully assist them with their healing journeys.
Quite often, there can be a disconnect between the mind and body, however – for many people, myself included. This disconnect can be much larger when someone has been abused. Part of the reason for this is something known as dissociation. Dissociation is a sort of defense mechanism where you “check out” when something is too painful. For example, there were plenty of times during my abuse that I imagined I was in a movie, and the abuse was happening to someone else. This can be an incredibly resourceful tool for a child. Many, many children dissociate to simply survive horrible abuse. The problem is, when they grow up, they can continue dissociating when there is no longer any danger present.
Research suggests that when a person experiences a trauma, some of the memories can be contained on a cellular level. No amount of talking or processing or understanding can release the trauma that has been imprinted in your cells. I can attest to this. Truth alert: this step is by far the most challenging one for me. I can speak to a crowd of 1,000 people easily and yet break down crying during an intimate moment with my partner out of the blue. My body remembers. I admittedly have not done nearly the work that is waiting for me to connect my mind and body.
There are many resources available today to help release these traumas. Reiki, yoga, muscle testing and energy work are all incredibly powerful sources of healing that survivors should explore. One such tool is a program called TIMBo, which stands for trauma-informed mind-body. The yoga program is designed to “help women understand how and why their bodies feel the way they do, notice their emotion sensations non-judgmentally and helps them take effective action.” Programs such as these can be incredibly useful and effective in moving forward in healing.
I have practiced many of these, and yet I still tend to retreat to the safety of my brain. The body work I have done propelled me so much further into my healing. I just know more work is waiting. I’ll get there
Building upon the concept of body work, we need to get moving to move forward and find our smiles. Exercise is mentioned in just about every healing article I have ever read. Most of us are familiar with the many benefits of regular exercise. This step is one of my favorites.
When I was in my early 30’s, I began running. Later, I discovered triathlons. What I found when training for various races was an empowerment I hadn’t experienced in the past. Feeling my body strengthen gave me a sense of peace, confidence, and safety. When I felt angry, I would work it out in the pool. When I felt stressed, I would ride it out on the bike trail. I truly believe we all need to find some form of exercise that we love and practice it – often.
However, exercise is not the only form of movement I believe critical in finding your true smile. Dance. Laugh. Make love. Travel. Help a friend unpack their new home. Find a new way to express joy through movement, even when you aren’t feeling particularly joyful. Your body will quickly reward you with warm, fuzzy endorphins.
Following these six steps has helped me transform from a sad, insecure young person into a truly happy, vibrant woman determined to help others. The journey of healing is uniquely personal for everyone. I share these steps with the hope of easing others’ paths to finding their real smiles.