The metaphor of healing as a journey permeates our language. “One step at a time.” “Find your path.” “I’ll get there someday.” The assumptions hidden in this metaphor invite painful comparisons and judgments, including:
- We want to travel from unsatisfactory Here to much improved There.
- Progress is visible and directed.
- Moving more slowly makes the journey take longer.
- The only successful outcome is reaching There and ending the journey.
Instead of travel, I prefer to think of healing from trauma as growth, like a tree becoming taller and wider and more intricately itself every year. Whether awkwardly pruned, attacked by insects, or struck by lightning, trees start where they are and continue growing.
Deepen your roots
Deepen your roots by exploring yourself and your past. You are not limited to one physical place like a tree, but you do have only one history. You can reach your roots into different parts of it and change how you perceive your history over time. You can find pockets of nourishing compost in both your own and your ancestors’ stories.
Your physical body forms part of your root system, guiding, supporting, and constraining you as you grow. Get to know your innate strengths and talents, as well as your weaknesses and limitations.
Explore with acceptance
Your body, your experiences, and your responses are uniquely your own. You deserve acceptance for all of yourself, including the parts judged for being disabled or abnormal or deficient or too much.
Acceptance is not always calm. Allow yourself to mourn your losses, rage at injustice and abuse, and celebrate your successes. Stand with yourself as a kind witness to your experiences.
Find your strengths
As you connect with your roots, you may find it easier to list weaknesses than strengths. Make a list of weaknesses, and then beside each one note how you compensate for that weakness. These are some of your strengths and capabilities.
Sometimes we assume that what is easy for us is easy for everyone, or that strengths require struggle. Notice what is easy for you. These are strengths as well.
Stretch your branches
Like a securely rooted tree growing toward the sunlight, stretch your branches by following your internal impulses toward what delights you and feeds you.
Do you have goals for your healing process? Make a list. Beside each goal, note how you want to feel when you accomplish it. Those feelings are your wider goals.
Can you think of any ways you already have those feelings in your current life? Keep your desired feelings in mind over the next few days, and notice if you have any glimpses of them. As you make large or small decisions, choose based on how you predict you’ll feel. Celebrate as you grow toward your goals.
Barriers to growth
Sometimes physical barriers and missing resources impede a tree’s growth. When you reach for delight, do you encounter resistance? Are you getting the water and light and nutrients you need?
Sometimes the goals themselves form a barrier when they are based on other people’s expectations and definitions of success. Is there a double bind making every choice look wrong?
Notice the barriers you encounter and, like a persistent tree, grow around and through them. This can take a long time. Give yourself permission not to know yet how it will happen. There is no rush. Like a tree in winter, rest and wait.
Keep your goals in the background as you pay attention to the present and make tiny incremental changes when you can. Someday a breakthrough will surprise you.
Your own shape
As you grow and heal and reach new heights, your perspective will change on your goals and possibilities. Where some of your goals included fitting in with others, you may realize that “normal” is an illusion and you are growing into a shape defined by your own history and desires. As you stretch and change, you may need to grieve relationships that no longer fit.
Life does not begin after you’ve healed. This is already your life, happening right now. Growth and change and healing continue as long as you are alive, in your own time and your own rhythm.
I almost titled this article “Start Where You Are,” but then I remembered Pema Chodron already used that title for her book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Her collection of brief essays about Buddhist slogans can help you find your way around barriers to light and warmth.