No one goes through trauma completely passively. What I mean by this is that people always react to trauma in some way, even if their reaction mainly takes the form of them being transfixed or paralyzed in the face of such an overwhelming and often malevolent experience.

In response to trauma, people will almost certainly act in some way, consciously or unconsciously, that they hope will minimize their exposure to the trauma or decrease their vulnerability to it.

Often people can’t easily put into words how they responded to a trauma, especially if they experienced it as a child.

It’s possible that they might also have been re-abused, punished, or laughed at for the actions that they took to respond. This can make it even more likely that people will forget, or not want to remember, how they reacted to the trauma. The actions they took to minimize harm or try to protect themselves or others can be forgotten or rendered invisible.

Yet for people who have lived through trauma, articulating and acknowledging the skills or personal qualities that emerged out of them during those experiences can be critical ways for them to consciously indwell more enlarged perspectives that more wholly represent what they’ve lived through. This type of recognition through writing can help them organically integrate those experiences into the narrative of their life in ways that promote healing and growth over time.

What traumas have you lived through?

This isn’t meant as a casual or naïve approach to revisiting a traumatic memory in hopes of effortlessly breaking free of it. In fact I would recommend NOT writing about a trauma you’ve experienced until at least 18 months have passed. Rather, this is an invitation to you to courageously use writing to try to explore and articulate the meanings that the tactics and attitudes of your responses to traumatic events from your past have for the larger narrative of your life.

As the particularities of your responses to a trauma become known to you at higher levels of resolution through this type of narrative therapy, this can help you start to balance some of the strong negative charge that’s attached to the memory of the trauma itself.

This can happen because as you describe the tactics and attitudes of how you responded to a trauma, you can make new positive connections to what continued to give meaning and value to your life and to how you refused to allow yourself to be corrupted, even in the face of the trauma. The adaptive behaviors that you acted out say something meaningful about you; by using writing to consciously articulate the meaning behind your actions you can actually start to change your life!

Say that as a child you were transfixed or paralyzed by a trauma; you can come to understand this as a way you instinctively tried to protect the worth you sensed that you had as an individual person, even if all you could do to respond was shut down. Over time, consistently engaging with this type of perspective shift through writing can significantly alter the dynamics of traumatic memory.

These are the kinds of questions you can use as launching points for this kind of creative exploration; they can be changed to reflect your unique situation and draw out what you’ve experienced:

-How did you act to preserve your life in the life-threatening situation?

-What did you show (or not show) on your face while you were being abused?

-Even though you couldn’t stop the violence, how did you attempt to protect yourself or someone else?

-How did you establish a place of safety in such an unsafe place?

-Where did you hide when you were afraid?

-What did you do after you found a place to hide?

-How did you find support in such a hostile environment?

-How did you comfort yourself or your siblings?

-How did your siblings comfort you?

-How did you develop a nurturing response to others, even in such degrading circumstances?

-How did you keep trusting in life’s possibilities even in a situation that discouraged hope?

-How did you connect with others in circumstances that were so isolating?

-How did you make any progress healing from the trauma in settings that were so unfavorable to healing?

Don’t overthink it. Start by looking for the small things that you did to respond: making sure your brother or sister was clean and had something to eat, taking out the trash, feeding the dog, finding work while very young. These responses and actions, no matter how small they might seem, are clues to what you value and embody — love, care, stability, responsibility, dedication, and more.

-What do you think now about the significance of how you acted in response to the trauma?

-What does the significance of those actions inspire you to do in your life?

-What small steps can you take to act on that inspiration?

The metaphors and imagery that this type of writing and retelling tend to draw out can suggest striking new perspectives to you regarding who you are as a person, and prompt personality development where you previously felt frozen in endless winter.

The seeds of these alternate perspectives can grow you into a new understanding of how a part of you that used to just be an open wound is actually capable of revealing what you stand for in life and what’s important to you at a profoundly meaningful level.

These new perspectives on your narrative can be kept to yourself, or shared with others. If you don’t want to write about them, speaking your answers to these types of questions is worth doing as well, or painting them, or artistically representing them in any medium. Whatever medium your response is shaped within, with repetition, expansion, and time this is a powerful method of acknowledging, honoring, and learning from the bravery and resilience that you manifested to navigate through the darkness of a traumatic experience.

This can be a turning point; as this type of retelling emerges, evolves, and deepens (especially if you can speak about this with others who add their perspectives and help grow even more new narrative connections; speaking really helps) it can help you see beyond the negative conclusions about your identity and life that the trauma might reflexively point you to.

It’s worth dedicating time to writing as a method of articulating and exploring your responses to trauma. You can begin to balance out the negative charge of a traumatic memory by coming to a deeper understanding of how your responses indicate what you feel positively about in life; this can start to melt the living frost of half-memories into full memories.

If you’re willing to share what you’ve been through with others, this can also deeply impact them, and can be another source of meaning that shows you that what you’ve been through wasn’t all for nothing.

“I believed that if I refused to acknowledge the unspeakable past, somehow it would disappear. I convinced myself that a lot of it didn’t happen, or didn’t matter; I taught myself to forget the rest.

I’ve realized now that without the whole truth my life has no power, no real meaning.

As I began to write this book, my memories came back to me like scenes from a forgotten nightmare. Some of the images reappeared with terrible clarity; others were hazy, or scrambled, like a deck of cards spilled on the floor. The process of writing has been the process of remembering, and of trying to make sense out of those memories. Writing has helped me order my world.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The truth of those words echoes inside me. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem meaningless.”

-Yeonmi Park

You can bring light and warmth to your life, and the lives of others, by being willing to heroically navigate your own darkness through writing.

Write.

Grow.

Help.

Three good things.