Seeking the Superheroes Within: How We Vanquish Our Traumatic Pasts

“Like superheroes, supernormals dodge bullets and leap over tall buildings in their way when so many other people around them—even those who have been presented with fewer obstacles—do not.” Meg Jay

The Supernormals and Their Beliefs

In her highly acclaimed book on trauma survivors, titled Supernormal, Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay recounted the heroic stories of various individuals who’ve suffered in extraordinary ways. She labeled the book Supernormal in an attempt to help others, especially trauma survivors themselves, reframe their understanding of what it meant to overcome adversity, to help them perceive the significance of thriving in the face of overwhelming barriers. To Jay, supernormals weren’t just survivors who simply saved themselves from drowning; they were heroes in the ultimate sense, saving themselves and others, while flourishing in their worlds with highly-developed skills. So, the heart of her psychotherapeutic treatment consisted of working with her clients on reinterpreting the ways in which they conceived of themselves and their stories, transforming them into heroic tales, which they’ve always been.

In past articles, I explored how beliefs affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and most importantly, the fact that they comprise the foundation of everything that we do, to and for ourselves and others. Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of trauma. Thus, most of my own therapeutic work consists of helping survivors examine their beliefs about themselves and their environments. Trauma’s capacity is immense and its effects are illogical. Regardless of its manifestation, trauma has the ability to completely alter the trajectory of one’s life, corroding reason and intimacy, the bedrocks of community and joy, what it means to be human.

It’s been successfully argued, by Jay in particular, that whether emotional or physical, trauma’s impact is similar across the board, as it consistently activates the same area in the brain, meaning that verbal abuse is as significant as its physical counterpart. But, what’s most important, rather than the trauma itself, is the set of beliefs that the survivor develops in response. And this is where the illogical part rears its ugly head. Those individuals who truly are supernormal, in that they reach incredible heights, tend to believe that they’re worthless.

Blaming Ourselves

Before we’re even able to think, life teaches us who we are; fundamentally, our environments are schools in which we learn about our value. If we feel loved and cared for, we subsequently believe that we’re worthy; if not, then we’re worthless. As infants, we use others as means of assessing ourselves, but although the process appears logical, it often goes awry. (While we’re wired to be thinkers, we aren’t natural critical thinkers, an ability that has to be learned.) Because my biological father left my family at an early age, it was easy for me to blame myself, or at least believe that I wasn’t good enough to stick around for; and that’s how we usually respond to trauma. To me, that conclusion seemed logical, because why else would he have left?

Proving Their Worth

In their attempts to showcase their value, supernormals become highly successful and thrive in chaotic settings. Their desires to prove themselves help them achieve the recognition of their peers and superiors; yet, still it never feels like it’s enough. So, they proceed to achieve and attain, fighting for more while denying the gaping holes within. Their rational sides tell them that it should be enough, but it seemingly never is. So, they arrive in treatment when they can’t explain why, despite all of their worldly success, they still can’t believe that they’re enough.

Trauma is a deceptive thing. Some of you may be wondering why I believe its effects are illogical when they seem to make so much sense. Why shouldn’t someone who’s been abused or neglected feel worthless? Can it really be otherwise? The answer is: yes!

Through a deep exploration, we can begin to not only learn about ourselves, but about others, too. We can examine the actions of those who were supposed to care for us and of those who hurt us. Often, we’ll discover that their actions were their own, corrupted by their own traumas and self-absorption, thus alleviating our suffering and freeing us of our burdens. For me, the most liberating moment of my life was learning of my father’s narcissistic traits, which helped me see myself in a new, and vastly warmer, light. You see, he did leave me, but it wasn’t because I was unlovable; it was because he didn’t know how, or want, to love. My story, in a sense, instead became his story, which it always should have been.

Redefining My Self

Despite all of their success, my clients’ proudest moments arrive when they define (or redefine) their values, and thus, themselves. They learn truths about others and, as importantly, truths about themselves. They learn that they can define themselves by their own values, and love themselves because of them. Then, they begin to let others in, reinforcing their newly acquired self-affection, while creating joy in the process. Meg Jay writes:

In the words of George Vaillant, the key to well-being in adulthood is not as complicated as one might expect: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full Stop.”*

Trauma is undoubtedly powerful, but it isn’t omnipotent. Its effects are, and can be, extinguished through the deeper power of love. The curative factors are our beliefs. In a story about a Navy veteran, Jay described how he overcame trauma in the form of bullying; he simply chose not to believe his tormentors. And while it isn’t always this easy, it’s always that simple. Some people are assholes, and will always be, but we have the choice of whether or not to accept their insults and their purported beliefs about us. It may not be as easy as just deciding that we’re worthy, but through a combination of introspection and relational affection, we can learn how lovable we’ve always been, with or without the capes.

*The Grant Study is part of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School. It is a 75-year longitudinal study of 268 physically- and mentally-healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. (Source: Wikipedia)

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