Years ago, I worked for a rape crisis organization. When I was in training, the organization was very clear about something: the people, mostly women, who they served were survivors of assault, not victims of assault.
“When someone dies, they are the victim of a car crash,” they said. “When someone lives, they are a survivor of the car crash.”
Embedded in that word—survivor—was everything that the organization believed about the healing that was possible after the trauma of assault.
* * *
Many years later, I was recovering from an injury. I had dislocated a bone in my foot and for some reason, it just wasn’t healing to a degree where I could get back to it with running, again. I signed up for a session with a personal trainer at my gym, thinking maybe I could do some strength training exercises.
“Oh, once you get a foot injury like that, that’ll never heal,” said the 20-something dude who ended up spending most of his time checking his phone while I repped on one of the resistance machines.
I felt fear go through me, like an elevator dropping. Was that true–never, ever? The fear felt wild.
But later, my deepest wisdom entered. “Let’s not give that kind of power to the guy who spent a few months in a personal trainer certification class,” that wisdom said. “See a doctor.”
I would later go on to hire the doctor who said to me after an examination, “Let’s get you back to running again,” and from there, I went on to walk all over Europe, run races, complete half-Ironman triathlons.
* * *
More years later, I was doing the Ugly Cry on the phone with my best friend, Valerie. Someone I had considered a friend had said something deeply, deeply hurtful about me…on social media.
“It just…it just hurts all the way to my heart that she would say that about me,” I said, one hand over my heart—which literally ached—as I tried to catch my breath while I cried.
Valerie waited a few moments and was just with me as I cried, and then she said, “I know that right now this feels hard to do, but I really want to invite you not to take on that label.”
What beautiful words: I would really invite you not to take on that label.
I would hear her voice in my head in the days and weeks afterwards as I processed the hurt: I would really invite you not to take on that label.
As in, the choice, the opportunity, was before me to define myself rather than to take on a label and be defined by anyone else.
* * *
I was talking with someone about an autoimmune diagnosis that I had received. I shared that awhile ago I had decided that at some point, I’ll go in for my routine blood draws and the doctors are going to find no evidence of an an autoimmune disease whatsoever. It will just be inexplicably gone, even though the medical research says this is not possible.
But it is possible. Someday, I’m going to run some bloodwork and nothing will be there. Nothing. I know this. This is not some law of attraction thing I tell myself, hoping for the best. It’s what I wholeheartedly believe. I believe it like I believe that I am typing letters into a computer to complete this blog post; I do not know how, I only know that it is true that this will be my experience.
Interestingly, coinciding with my decision that this was my life and my body and I get to decide whether or not that diagnosis would define what I was capable of, I stopped being symptomatic.
* * *
Among a group, we were sharing our experiences of how money had shaped our lives. I shared that when I was growing up, there had been periods of food insecurity, utilities being turned off, and other times where we hadn’t had enough money and this had been scary.
“But I am so freaking grateful,” I said, and I meant it. Not having money and doing without and being treated differently had taught me so much about who I wanted to be, how I wanted to use money in the world to help others, that I could honestly say, “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey, now.”
* * *
But here is what I know to be true about getting to these places where the hurt will not define you: you have to process all the way through the hurt, first.
I did not walk straight from the events that caused the pain, over to saying, “Well, I’ll just not let this define me” because that made logical sense. If you really want to get to a place where you and only you will define you, first you’ll need to pay your dues. You’ll cry, ruminate, toss with insomnia, scream into towels, confess your deepest shame to your best friend.
I look back now and think that there were years that I wasted, spent in a sort of spiritual bypass, hoping that if I was spiritual and “good” enough, if I repeated the right affirmations, I’d get there.
These days, I save myself time:
When you’re hurt, cry. When you’re angry, rage. When you’re in it, be in it.
There’s a lot of coaching out there that uses reframing as a strategy. The coaches move their client straight into reframing: “What was that there to teach you?” “What were the gifts in that experience?” “What’s a new story you could tell that wouldn’t limit you?”
Reframing is, admittedly, very powerful and even necessary—but there’s a reason why, in The Courage Habit (and when I train life coaches), I talk first about practicing courage through “accessing the body.” Feeling the feelings has to come first. Fear isn’t logical; it’s primal. We feel fear in our body, first, and our minds turn it all into Stories, into narratives that we use to make meaning.
If you jump too quickly to try to convince yourself that a shit sandwich isn’t really a shit sandwich, you’ll end up…eating a shit sandwich, and forcing yourself to smile. That’s how I’ve always felt when someone has tried to coach me towards a redefinition before I’d had any room to receive their empathy for the very real hurts of the experience.
How you let any person, circumstance, or experience define you is up to you, but it’s important not to try to bypass the pain so that you don’t unintentionally become a victim of the pain. Reframing is a strategic move when it’s what you jump to; it’s a powerful move when you have truly been supported in feeling what’s true for you.
When I think about how I’ve defined myself, I think about how who I’ve surrounded myself with has made all the difference—the friends who let me cry versus the trainers who made flip pronouncements. As you get older and more practiced, your “picker” gets better for who you will let around you, which helps.
But the most helpful thing I’ve found in not letting something define me, has been to get to the core, most difficult emotions that a person or circumstance brings up for me. In giving myself the space to process through what I feel, I can clear my head and arrive faster at the important business of truly not taking on the label. If I want to be a survivor and not a victim, I need to spend some time in the very real feelings of having been victimized.
How will you let it define you? That’s the question that comes, later, after you’ve been real about the pain. That is how you emerge, triumphant.