Spirituality can be a crucial component of the healing process for many abuse survivors. Our longing to reconnect with the world after it has seemingly torn us apart is a difficult, but rewarding process. We need to rediscover our identities and sense of purpose beyond the carnage of past destructive relationships. We need to understand that we belong in the world and that our existence matters.
I was privileged to be able to see Marianne Williamson, an internationally renowned spiritual guru, speak live at my college recently. I had no idea what to expect – although I knew she was a renowned bestselling author, I had admittedly, not read any of her books aside from excerpts online. What I witnessed empowered and moved me: Marianne had a very clear message about her spiritual framework which invited discussions about our approach to life in political and personal realms.
The content of her speech resonated with me: she spoke about humanity in crisis, about the forces of fear, destruction, and needless competition weighing us down, individually and as a collective. Her spirituality and divine message literally leapt off the stage. She would often walk off the stage just to stand in proximity to whichever audience member was asking questions, to build a closer engagement and connection. At one point, an audience member shared a story of her traumas and Marianne invited those willing in the audience to join in a collective prayer on her behalf.
After attending her life-changing lecture, I bought her book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. As a novice to the Course in Miracles tradition, I was appreciative of her ability to both reiterate and interpret the Course in a way that was accessible yet challenging in a way that it urged me to move beyond my misconceptions, stereotypes and limited thinking patterns. The message that most deeply connected with me was regarding our capacity for transforming suffering into meaningful outlets of personal transformation as well as social change.
Even if the Course in Miracles tradition and Marianne Williamson’s view of life doesn’t align completely with your own perspective, I think some of her spiritual principles can stand on their own in helping to improve and change lives. Regardless of what your spiritual path or beliefs may be, here are three principles from her book and lecture that I think can be adapted to benefit the healing journeys of abuse and trauma survivors.
These three principles include three incredibly powerful shifts in thinking. Having experimented with these shifts myself, I can tell you that if you approach these principles with an open mind and receptive heart, you will see the benefits of using these in your life.
Please note: I have adapted these principles and added in my own perspective so that they can be useful for survivors of trauma.
1. From scarcity to abundance, from suffering to meaning.
Abuse survivors are used to crumbs. They’re used to scarcity and suffering. Even after an abusive relationship ends, they have to find ways to remind themselves that they deserve better than what they’ve experienced in the past. They are on the road to healing to embrace all the good that they do deserve.
This involves recognizing the difference between perceived agency and actual agency. Perceived agency is the agency we think we have in the world. Actual agency is the agency we do have. The perceived agency of abuse and trauma survivors is often severely hindered. If you’re used to not being able to escape averse stimuli (as an abuse survivor often isn’t), you can develop a sense of learned helplessness that makes you blind to the opportunities around you. If you’re are not aware of what you already have in your life, you may not feel the full breadth of the agency you have to change it.
Shifting our perceived agency so that it is aligned with our actual agency is essential to taking advantage of the opportunities that await us in this life.
From a sociological and psychological standpoint, this shift involves a perspective of our life-course narrative, how we frame the meaning of our experiences. The approach we take in viewing life’s experiences will shape how we feel about our life, and even how we approach obstacles and opportunities.
Take the fact that studies show that grateful people are happier people. Cultivating a daily habit of gratitude only invites you to be more appreciative of what you have, inviting less expectations and prerequisites for happiness. When you are more appreciative of what you already have, you’re more likely to be receptive to opportunities around you. You are likely to have a higher degree of perceived agency when you come across constraints and obstacles in your path.
Think about it: when you’re feeling lonely, scared and alienated from the world, aren’t you less likely to see opportunities to connect with others? On the other hand, when you’re feeling upbeat, cheerful, and open-minded, you might notice the opportunity to connect with people you might not have otherwise given a second thought to because you were too lost in your own thoughts and emotions.
The key to gaining a higher degree of perceived agency is to develop a mindset that every experience, even the most painful of experiences, can be used to serve you and help others. Suffering can be constructively channeled into productivity and empowerment. That doesn’t justify the fact that you suffered, but it does help you transcend the suffering. As Marianne says, “There’s a difference between denial and transcendence.”
Think of the crisis you’re facing at this moment. You may be used to thinking of it as a limitation. Instead, think of it as a vehicle for opportunity.
How does your crisis help to transform you? What opportunities does it offer? How can you use your crisis to improve the state of your life and refine your self-care? How can you use your crisis to help others?
Let’s say your crisis is the experience of one or more abusive relationships in your past. These experiences may have helped to transform you, or it will, into a stronger, more independent person who now recognizes the signs of abuse and who refuses to settle for it again. This gives you the opportunity to pursue healthier relationships in the future and the opportunity to enhance your quality of life. It also yields the greater freedom to travel, take classes that interest you, read books that will enrich you, pursue your goals and more time to think about what you truly want from your life and your sense of purpose in it. You can use this trauma to write a book, start a blog, create a support group, volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, or support a friend going through the same trials.
In just this one thought experiment, which you can use for many other crises, you’ve shifted the meaning of this event from something destructive to constructive. As Marianne would say, you’ve turned your focus from the crucifixion to the resurrection. This is a tool you can use for every obstacle that you face in your life.
2. From fear to love.
Marianne’s A Return to Love offers a spiritual sophistication that is both challenging yet highly rewarding. Shift your perspective from fear to love and you will find yourself at the solution of all of life’s problems. Sounds oversimplified, doesn’t it? Yet it’s one of the most complex and most rewarding challenges she issues throughout her book.
How do you shift your perspective to fear to love when you are on the receiving end of abuse? Abuse survivors are used to the “fear” aspect, certainly. In fact, during the time they were in abusive relationships, they may have mistaken fear for love and taught that fear was an essential part of love. They may have been told they were loved, only to experience chronic distress, shame and fear. “Love” didn’t feel like love – it felt like fear. It felt like rage. It felt like emotional, psychological and physical violence. It didn’t feel safe, nourishing, warm or supportive. It felt callous, hot and cold, inconsistent, conditional and explosive.
As survivors, I recommend that we use this “fear to love” principle to apply this to our shift to self-love. The greatest act of self-love and love in general would be to leave our abusers and pave the path to freedom. In addition, if we believe we love our abusers in any form or fashion, the greatest act of love would be to no longer to enable their abuse. It’s obviously not that easy – we may have trauma bonds, Stockholm syndrome, codependent habits, the threat of violence, the reality of financial dependence or isolation, addictive patterns, even children with our abusers. However, once we start shifting our framework from fear to self-love, this can often be the first step to our emotional freedom and independence.
It takes a great deal of self-love and self-forgiveness to achieve healing. It takes overcoming the fear of what would happen if we leave. It takes overcoming the fear of loneliness. It takes overcoming the fear of stepping out on our own.
It takes overcoming the fear of embracing and owning our full power.
As Marianne says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
3. From individual to universal.
We hold an illusion is that the meaning of life is to gain individual power and status. The reality is that we are all interconnected and to serve others ultimately serves our own path to enlightenment, healing and impact. We gain spiritual nourishment from helping others serve their purpose. In fact, this helps our own purpose in life.
Abuse survivors are, justifiably, focused on the individual realm of affairs for some time after the ending of a destructive relationship. The healing journey requires that we look inward and it can be a struggle to reconnect with what is happening outside of us. We may wonder why our abuser is doing so well when we’re not. We may even unconsciously stage a “competition” in comparing our lives with whomever has hurt us, not recognizing that doing so is hurting our own efforts to heal from the past.
In certain contexts, it is expected we compete, like school and the workplace. Competition can be healthy to some extent, if it helps us to continue on our path and motivates us to get up every day and continue serving humanity in a unique way that no one else can. We all may have a similar purpose, but we all have a very unique set of skills and talents that help bring that purpose to life. If you need some competition to fuel your own goals, that’s understandable and may even be productive.
However, competition shouldn’t be our main approach if we want to live healthy lives. If we view all of life as a competition, we will blind ourselves to the abundance of things we already have, and as previously discussed, this can give us a mindset of scarcity that leads to less perceived agency.
Think of it: what do you really gain from constantly competing with others who have the same goals as you? Or with those who have hurt you? How does resentment help foster your personal growth? It doesn’t. It stunts it and keeps you trapped in the cycle of a “Why not me?” mentality rather than a mindset that says, “I have a greater opportunity to evolve because of this.”
If you find yourself competing against people who have a similar goal of serving humanity and helping it, you’re interfering with the supreme power of collaboration. If you find yourself competing with people who have harmed you in the past, you’re still keeping them in your life and allowing them to rent space in your head.
Instead, let everyone be a source of inspiration and motivation, even the ones who have harmed you. If they are moving forward with their lives, move forward with your own. If they are doing successful things, refocus on your own success. You owe it yourself to live the best version of your life, not ruminate over someone else’s.
Competing with someone else is like saying, they are somehow a threat, they are identical to me or better than me. That is simply not the case. Each of us has something to bring to the table that no one else can. Feeling secure in this fact can enable us to contribute to a collective impact that far supersedes our individual efforts.
What this all means:
Shifting our mindset from “What can I get?” to “How can I serve?” can truly change our lives in miraculous ways. When we are focused on how we can serve humanity, rather than what we can “get” from it, we confirm our abundance and the agency we have to change our lives.
We shift our thinking from fear to love, from scarcity to abundance. We rewrite the narrative of our lives. We open our eyes to obstacles that are actually opportunities in disguise. Opportunities for transformation, beneficial change and healing. We own the amount of agency we really do have, rather than the one others have mislead us into believing we have.
The first step, if you don’t know which way to turn, is to begin sharing your own story with other survivors. Connecting with those who are in a similar plight will give you a sense of purpose that will shift your mindset from fear to love, from scarcity to abundance, from hurting to healing. You are not alone on this journey – far from it.
Blessings to you on your journey to healing.
Spiritual Resources that May Help You:
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra
An Interview with Marianne Williamson by Marie Forleo
Beginner’s Guide to Meditation by Gabrielle Bernstein
A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson
I am interested in hearing your thoughts. What is your spiritual framework? How do you feel about spirituality and/or faith as an abuse survivor? How has your spirituality changed or evolved since the abuse? Are there are other spiritual principles you live by? Comment below and share your story with us.
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To learn more about recovering from emotional trauma and staging your victory from abuse, please see my book, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care available in Kindle and in Print.The ideas in this blog entry have been adapted from a chapter of this book and are copyrighted by law.
Self-Care Haven: Home of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self Care by Shahida Arabi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. In other words, you must ask permission if you intend to share this blog entry somewhere, and always provide proper credit in the form of a link back to this blog as well as my name.