Create A New Message For Yourself

My therapy clients struggling with abuse, whether sexual or emotional, initially seem to listen to external voices.  It is not uncommon for women and men sexually abused as children to think it was their fault. Society, communities, and families send messages that are received as expectations. Unfortunately, when it is a difficult situation outside what the society or community defines as normal, the message heard is “don’t talk about it.”   Such a message has the unintended consequence of telling a child that what they have to share is bad.

At a young age, when children think that they are doing something bad, they so often slide into believing that makes them a bad person. When families fall into alignment with what their community or society tells them, they can unknowingly reinforce such beliefs.  The illusion of the rugged individual, so touted in the United States, only magnifies the belief that children possess thinking they are in control. Such thoughts become a drumming of, “I am responsible for……” My clients share their fears that they never shared as children. They could not say, “he hit me, she touched me, etc.”  Believing they were the cause, they grew up feeling alone with what they labeled as their faults. Since in their mind it was, ‘I made him or her……’, the feeling of isolation took over.

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To deal with their supposed faults and eventually any mistake, they began muttering, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda”.  Then it became simply, coulda, shoulda, woulda which is an easily chanted mantra. Unfortunately, the meaning of the mantra sinks into the bones.   As Doug Shadel and Bill Thatcher describe in their book The Power of Acceptance: Building Meaningful Relationships in a Judgmental World, “Not only am I not alone but here is an almost critical mass of individuals in the United States undergoing the pain of personal isolation.” What the research was showing was how so many of us were continuing the pain of abuse from long ago.  

The good news is that we do not have to remain hidden behind walls crouching with our pain. We can walk away from being a victim to being a survivor by changing our mantra. We can start by reconnecting with who we are.  We might listen to words of Odis Redding as sung by Aertha Franklin in Respect.  The song demands that we spell for ourselves. If we can r-e-s-p-e-c-t ourselves, only then can we contribute to the well-being of others.  To practice r-e-s-p-e-c-t, we must stop muttering coulda, shoulda, woulda. Start a new mantra. When you get up in the morning mutter, r-e-s-p-e-c-t, or any words that inspire you, then stand with dignity and start your day with a smile.

If we can respect ourselves, only then can we contribute to the well-being of others.

Shifting Attention

Self Healing

Healing from challenges such as anxiety, trauma, and grief can be enhanced with the practice of attention. Often times we just react to our emotions instead of taking a moment to decide how we want to react, or if it is worth our time to react. During times of depression and loss, it is helpful to stop agonizing over the past when we can. Even medical research tells us that worrying does not help the healing process. Rushing off into what if’s or getting stuck in the mantras of could’a, would’a, should’a, only increases stress.

Shifting Attention

The simple practice of shifting our attention is a way to reduce stress. An easy way to shift our attention is to take a few moments to ask what is happening with our senses. Taking time to notice what is present such as the picture frame, the furniture or people in the room gives you the opportunity to shift your attention. The theory behind consciously shifting attention is found in Morita Therapy which was developed by Shoma Morita  , M.D. (1874–1938)

Sense Awareness

Exploring with the senses can bring a sense of calm back into the body. For example, when grieving, one might see a photo of a passed loved one. To experience their absence with less pain, we might pick up a framed photo, feel the frame, look at its placement on a shelf, and dust the area where the photo sits. Doing so, we can symbolically sweep away the pain. Placing the photo back in a special space as an opportunity to transform our response to the loss. We might thank those who made the camera that was used to take the picture or utter a simple thank you to the loved one in the photo. We can think of something they did that we appreciate about them. We might then smile or cry tears of gratitude.

Using Attention

Taking time to concentrate on what is around me moves my attention away from concerns, if only for a moment.  By noticing what I am sitting or standing upon, the color of the sky or the people in the room shifts my attention. As Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute teaches, it is possible to refocus at any time during the day with the question, “Where do I want to place my attention?” Focusing energy on the answer, if only for a moment, carries me away from anxiety and depression. Noticing a skill or talent I was shown or past gifts from my former loved one, I keep them in my heart with appreciation. Placing attention on what makes me smile and if only for a moment, supports the healing process. Experiencing the moment with each of my senses, I can take a break from anxiety and use the moment to rest and heal.

Trauma Recovery

Many people get frozen by trauma. It reappears in various ways and often is re-lived over and over again in dreams. Individuals often carry around the memories and are triggered to respond as they did years ago. War veterans know this when jumping at the sound of a popping tire as if it is gunfire. Women and children tortured by captors may avoid contact with others due to fears of past interactions.

An alternative to replaying the trauma as it is remembered is to literally re-story it. So often after a traumatic event, the anxiety that arises is of being a victim again. Yet, as I have journeyed with many of my clients, we find a new story to remember. Those who survive trauma have a story of strength to share. I explore with my counseling clients how they tapped inner and outer resources to endure difficult times.

In addition, I use what is called in Applied Existential Psychotherapy (AEP) ‘empty chair’ work. My clients transfer the anxiety-producing voices in their head to an empty chair. With a bit of separation from the old voices, clients explore new ways to tell their story. They speak with the lens of an open heart. As Betty Cannon describes in her book, Sartre & Psychoanalysis: An Existentialist Challenge to Clinical Metatheory “Sartre attempts to discover the ontological structures of human existence which manifest themselves in experience, whereas Freud attempts to discover the metabiological forces which lie behind human experience.” Using an AEP approach combined with some Japanese psychology, I help my clients make conscious choices about living life fully.

Clients gain an understanding of how it is unnecessary to replay what happened or let others tell them how to live. They begin to see teachings from their trauma, anxiety, and fears. Aha moments happen as they explore living as a survivor instead of as a victim. Practicing a compassionate view of self and others, it is possible to make wise choices in difficult situations. As many of my clients have concluded, sometimes the wise choice is not to fight, but wait for the opportunity to escape.

A critical lesson for many was the awareness of not being their trauma or dis-ease. Together we tested tools that allowed them to transform their trauma into a reservoir of lessons learned. Discarding the voices of judgment and blame, a new view was possible. With new perspectives, they walked out into the world again with the strength to live life embracing the full range of the human experience.


–  Carol

Carol O’Dowd, MPA, MDIV, MI, RP
Prajna Healing Arts