It’s safe to say as a collective, we have experienced a global trauma in recent years. Being sequestered in our homes for months at a time, our physical ties to family and friends severed, potential financial distress and/or job loss and with anxiety levels surging with the uncertainty—all thanks to the pandemic, mental health matters were elucidated. And as silver linings would have it, also somewhat validated as they became more prevalent, as it were.
Google Trends reveals that in 2022, people in Singapore are searching the term “mental health” more than twice they were pre-Covid. For once, we were forced to pause and in the stillness, were confronted with self-reflection. As a therapist, speaker, writer and founder of Illuma Health, Singapore, Natalia Rachel’s cathartic book Why am I Like This? Illuminating the Traumatized Self couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as we navigate a communal upheaval hangover and the recalibrations that have come with it.
One of the keystones of Rachel’s findings from her own existential exploration is that through self-inquiry, self-compassion and embodiment practice, one can experience illumination. Once we are able to identify our trauma—that according to Rachel, if present, exists in our psyche, our soma and our spirit, we are able to start a palliate process. For her, self-help books might bring “awareness, moments of epiphany and concepts to mentally integrate” but actually “healing is about finding our way back to ourselves and each other” and that “for our existential experience to change, healing needs to occur in a social context. Healing is dynamic.” Through her novel, here are five ways you can do the work towards your own awakening and resolving trauma.
Using vulnerability to bring a sense of belonging
Most of us would probably agree that to be wholly accepted would be a desirable state of being. On the importance of belonging, Rachel says “inclusion highlights our dissonance and asks us all to get along. We can be included and still feel different, separate and alone. Belonging, on the other hand, welcomes authenticity, individuality and our differences with other people are not experienced as dissonance. We resonate within our diversity.” She adds: “when we belong, we begin to heal. Because it is safe to be vulnerable—to express and to share.” When we can convey who we are truly in a secure space, we start to choose ourselves and restore ourselves. On the flip side of this, of un-belonging comes shame, a response that can be paralysing, laced with fear while sparking a deep concern on how we are being perceived. Being able to wholly express ourselves veritably allows us to de-armour, “expression ignites a natural transformation inside us and through it, we ensure we are no longer suppressing our truth.”
Understanding and rewriting our map for love
Depending on what we observe, learn and experience as we grow up, our ‘map for love’ becomes interwoven into the fabric of our psyche and acts as the hallmark of how we relate to other individuals. For instance, if we have been taught that love is humiliation or injurious, we seek out the familiar in subsequent connections. This can result in three types of people in our relationships according to Rachel: The Attachment Replica—unconsciously seeking relationships that mirror one or both our parents, The Attachment Polarity—avoiding relationships that resemble the parent that harmed us, and Projection Looping—continuing to be attracted to people who are wrong for us. To resolve this, “a big piece of the trauma puzzle is to go back and look at our map for love, understand every twist and turn” and then ultimately “start redrawing the map” and move towards a path that encourages discernment. “The ability to discern allows us to not only self-protect from harm, but to choose people and situations that nurture us.”
“The moment we choose something different in the present, we are already breaking free of the chains of the past and our nervous system registers something new.”
Listen to our nervous system
While existing and developing largely in a somewhat automatic state, for Rachel, mastering the nervous system through a deeply compassionate relationship with the somatic self, the emotional self, unconscious trauma and ‘little self’—or inner child— allows us the ability to be deliberate and escape survival mode. “Learning about the nervous system, how to read our signals and consciously shift our state is one of the key components of healing and self-mastery.” Emotional and relational evolution can be hindered in the case of trauma, as the nervous system can erroneously identify previous dangers as present and go into a protection state. The path out can be via non-acceptance. “Non-acceptance begins in the present. The moment we choose something different in the present, we are already breaking free of the chains of the past and our nervous system registers something new.”
“In order to exist peacefully in dynamics, we have to shape-shift and in some ways, self-deny or self-abandon. The moment we lose sovereignty; we will never truly be able to access a state of well-being.” In Rachel’s opinion, this behaviour—essentially people pleasing, self-censoring and self-excluding in order to avoid the burden of oppression doesn’t really minimise the impact of polarisation, but chips away at our authenticity and autonomy. Although, we need not deny our reality and things need not be so binary. Instead, we must embrace the shades of self, others and the wider community. We must gain the tools to escape a loop of harmful circumstances and systems—find or develop practices that cultivate a sense of safety and authority. “Responsiveness is the key to our individual and collective freedom. Finding our sovereignty is a process of learning to respond—to dance with the world around us.”
“When we are not truly accountable, we are living in victimhood”
Taking complete accountability to take back power
In order to gain a sense of peace, grow as an individual and evolve, acknowledgment and taking responsibility is incredibly important. Simply put by Rachel, “when we are not truly accountable, we are living in victimhood.” She elaborates: “because powerlessness is a fundamental experience of trauma (and much of our modern world existence), it is hard for many of us to take complete accountability for our lives.” This can manifest in comments like ‘this is how it is’, ‘I can’t change it’, ‘I’m just like this.’ However, through moments of discomfort and using willpower, agency is ignited and we can start to find our strength again. Sometimes this involves the process of re-parenting—“our conscious healing self needs to take on the role of a parent, custodian, shepherd, leader and guide.” We can help ourselves navigate trauma triggers and put in place boundaries, with boundaries being the cornerstone of personal and interpersonal sustainability. She adds: “We have to help ourselves grow into the kind of adult we dream of being.”