I think that one of the most inspiring stories of taking personal trauma and turning it into personal power comes from Nadia Murad.
In 2014, the 19-year-old Yazidi student was kidnapped from her home in Kocho, Iraq by the terrorist organization ISIS when they rounded up the Yazidi community in her village. They killed 600 people—including Murad’s mother and six of her brothers and step brothers. ISIS then took the younger women and girls into slavery.
Murad was held as a slave in the city of Mosul where she was routinely subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.
After three months in captivity, she was able to escape when her captor accidentally left the house unlocked. Murad was taken to a nearby family who helped to smuggle her out of ISIS-controlled territory. She made her way to a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region.
Murad turned the pain and trauma of her captivity and fueled it into Nadia’s Initiative—a non-profit organization she founded in 2018 that advocates for survivors of sexual violence and strives to rebuild communities in crisis.
The same year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also appointed as the first-ever Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Murad’s story shows how even extreme trauma can be channeled into personal power.
Here are some ways that you can turn your own past trauma—whatever it may be—into an empowering vehicle for change.
1) You refuse to let your past trauma paralyze you
You’re determined to use your past pain and trauma as a vehicle for personal growth.
“Post-traumatic ” is a term coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun—two psychologists from the University of North Carolina.
Post-traumatic growth describes the surprising benefits many survivors discover in the process of healing from a painful past and traumatic event, says mental health writer Michaela Haas.
The psychologists were able to help bereaved parents, people who had lost their partners, cancer survivors, veterans, prisoners, as well as those who were severely injured in five ways, says Haas.
“These areas were personal strength, deeper relationships with others, new perspectives on life, appreciation of life, and spirituality.”
2) You decide not to suffer in silence
Tedeschi says that it’s important to acknowledge your suffering.
Suffering in silence only increases the risk of PTSD, he says. Growth happens when you acknowledge the wounds of the past and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
“A significant part of the training consists of teaching survivors to communicate openly, admit fears, and reach out to seek help,” Tedeschi says.
It’s also important to engage in extra self-care when you talk about the trauma,” says therapist Sarah Desantis.
“Although talking about trauma is extremely difficult, it is also necessary for the healing process. This doesn’t mean that you need to relive the details, what’s more important is opening about the effect it had.”
3) You want to take meaning from your trauma
The meaning you give to a loss or trauma can have a profound effect on your life, says Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, M.F.T.
“If you lost a parent when you were a child, you may have interpreted the loss to mean, ‘Everyone I love will eventually leave me. Getting attached to people hurts too much, so I shouldn’t try to find a long-term relationship,’” she says.
Or, if your emotions were ignored by a parent or caregiver, you might think that “No one believes me when I say I’m sad, so I’ll have to act out in order to receive the love and care I need could be the meaning you take from the past trauma,” adds Brandt.
Finding meaning from your trauma can require you to let go of limiting beliefs and assumptions.
“That rebuilding and readjusting can be healthy or unhealthy, either helping you live a better, more whole, and happy life or weakening your spirit and increasing your unhappiness, depending on the meaning you make from your experience.”
Brandt stresses that even if the meaning you made when the loss or trauma occurred was unhealthy, it’s never too late to create a new, healthier one—to rewrite the story you tell yourself about what happened.
4) You’re patient with yourself
Therapists tell us that the path to recovery and healing from trauma is never linear.
As we come close to the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, who was killed in police custody last September for “improperly” wearing a hijab as per Iranian law, I am reminded of an interview I did last year with Marina Nemat.
Nemat was imprisoned in 1982 at the age of 16 for speaking out against the Iranian regime, who at that time were new to power.
She spent two years in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. Her feet were beaten by men with cables because she refused to tell them the names of her Communist-leaning classmates.
Nemat escaped execution only because a guard managed to downgrade her sentence at the 11th hour in exchange for her hand in marriage. Refusing his “request” meant danger to her family.
Nemat married “Ali” and miscarried his baby when he was assassinated in front of his parents’ home by rival factions within the prison.
It’s been over 40 years since Nemat’s imprisonment and she told me that she continues to deal with the unpredictable symptoms of PTSD. She might go through remission, but stress can bring on terrible nightmares. “I also can get emotional at the drop of a hat,” she told me.
The point of this story is that Nemat is patient with herself. You don’t necessarily “get over” trauma—even with therapy.
You try to understand it and not let it control your life.
“Time allows growth and perspective,” says Terry Koslowski, author of the book Raven Transcending Fear: A Memoir About Sexual Abuse, Abandonment, and Discovering Yout Authentic Self.
“As we move from one phase of life to another, we can gain perception of our development. We can see that we have made strides in overcoming past suffering,” she says.
“But other times negative thoughts may try to invade our thinking and keep us in the past pain.”
Koslowski says that this is where we have to be compassionate with ourselves. “We have to speak to ourselves like we would a loved one: that it’s okay to be human.”
It’s completely normal to think that you should be over what happened a long time ago. Koslowski says this is where we need to combat shame and understand the emotional impact of trauma was not our fault.
“Allowing shame to come in only keeps us trapped in the past,” she says. “We must focus on the present moment and be mindful that we can choose to feel better.”
5) You’ve become an advocate for others
Many people with past trauma find that helping and supporting others who have gone through the same thing, to be empowering in that it helps them with their own trauma.
Murad has made a life of being a human rights activist. Nemat sits on the Board of Directors at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, as well as Vigdis, which is a Norwegian charitable organziarion that provides legal assistance to female political prisoners around the world.
Of course, your advocacy doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. You might volunteer at a local women’s shelter or foster a child, for example.
Corrine Werder is a sexual assault survivor. She is an advocate who is on call at her local hospital for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“I went years after I was assaulted ignoring my trauma, burying it deep inside and not grappling with it,” she wrote for Teen Vogue.
“Holding space for other survivors has been a constant reminder to check-in with myself, to allow deeply rooted layers of trauma to unfold softly, giving myself permission to have spaciousness to unravel and be raw and unrelenting in my healing.”
Many people who have gone through trauma in the past have found meaning and purpose in advocating for others who have had to face similar situations.
But when it comes to experiencing peace from personal trauma it could be that you’re not living your life aligned with a deeper sense of purpose.
The consequences of not finding your purpose in life include a general sense of frustration, listlessness, dissatisfaction and a sense of not being connected with your inner self.
It’s difficult to find purpose when you haven’t addressed your trauma.
Many have learned a new way to discover their purpose after watching Ideapod co-founder Justin Brown’s eye-opening video. He explains that most people misunderstand how to find their purpose, using visualization and other self-help techniques.
However, visualization isn’t the best way to find your purpose. Instead, there’s a new way to do it which Justin Brown learned from spending time with a shaman in Brazil.
After watching the video, you can discover your purpose in life and it dissolved my feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction. This can help as a tool to address trauma and find purpose.