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June 25, 2014

Moving Beyond Our Survivor Story

We lost an amazing visionary, teacher, artist, activist, and leader in Dr. Maya Angelou. In addition to being all these things, she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who was able to heal and accomplish great things. Dr. Angelou knew that her purpose in this life was not merely to survive, but to move beyond her survivor story so she could thrive, fulfill her destiny, and leave an inspiring legacy for future generations. Our movement to end violence against women and girls could learn a lot from Maya Angelou.  By necessity, we are so focused on surviving - helping, winning justice for, and empowering survivors - that it’s hard to create enough space to imagine what is beyond survival.  And moving beyond survival is essential to creating the kind of world where violence is a thing of the past.

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My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

-Dr. Maya Angelou

Surviving is Essential

Don’t get me wrong. Surviving is necessary. It’s an essential step in healing. When someone is the victim of any type of violence, surviving that violence is the most important thing they must do.  Identifying as a survivor can be extremely empowering. Years ago, I worked with immigrant victims of domestic violence at a program called Shimtuh, helping them get out of crisis and into safety where they had resources to change their lives. Only when they were able to move out of crisis could they begin the process of identifying as survivors, and it was a huge step. It meant that they could acknowledge what had happened to them – that the violence perpetuated against them was in the past, and that they had not been defeated.  It was powerful and essential.

Moving Beyond Survival

But what happens when someone has survived violence and is unable to move past identifying as a survivor? Then it becomes impossible to move on in life. “The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change”, as acclaimed science fiction writer Octavia Butler would say. We all deserve to fulfill our potential and experience lives filled with purpose, resonance, connection, and love. But when we identify only as survivors, we deny ourselves the opportunity to explore the rest of the “house” of our life, to explore other rooms, open closed doors, and live fully.

Becoming Aware of Our Inner Stories

One of the most powerful things we can do to move beyond survival is to examine and update our personal stories. As individuals, we can ask ourselves,

  • “How do I make sense of what happened to me?”
  • “What did I learn about myself in surviving this violence?”
  • “How did my survival prove that I am powerful, resilient, and whole?”

In answering these questions, many unresolved emotions and painful memories may arise. That’s a clear sign that more healing is needed. [Check out this resource and this resource] I’m not advocating that we skip over our survivor stories, but rather, to explore them and go deeper into them.  By making meaning of our survival, real healing can happen and we can create the conditions to move on. We must make the time and space for real healing of mind, spirit, and body. Our bodies and spirit always remember the things our minds try to forget.

"Our most powerful tool in this endeavor is our understanding of choice. Beyond surviving, we can write new and powerful stories for ourselves. These stories give us access to a wide, open horizon where we have the power to decide what’s next for us and then make those desires a reality."

Changing Our Personal Stories

Once this healing fully happens, we can ask other questions such as,

  • “What’s next for me?”
  • “What do I deeply desire from this life?” and perhaps,
  • “How will I share my survivor story with others in service of ending violence against women and girls?”

Our most powerful tool in this endeavor is our understanding of choice.  Beyond surviving, we can write new and powerful stories for ourselves.  These stories give us access to a wide, open horizon where we have the power to decide what’s next for us and then make those desires a reality.

One of the reasons I’m such a big advocate of coaching is because it literally changed my life. My first coach challenged me to update what she called my “Contract with the Universe”. I wasn’t familiar with that concept, and found myself resisting her challenge. With some very powerful sessions and greater openness on my part, I was able to see how I held some long-standing beliefs about my life that were holding me back.  Growing up in an immigrant family that worked long, (literally) back-breaking hours, I unconsciously held the belief that life was hard and that you don’t get what you want in life so you have to make do with what little you have. When I was able to clearly see that I held these beliefs and that they had become self-fulfilling prophecies, I was able to ask myself what I really wanted in life. When I understood and accepted that my life would be as fulfilling as I allowed myself to dream and believe it would be, my life changed completely.

Readiness is critical.

Readiness is critical in this work. If you believe there’s some personal story updating to be done, ask yourself if you’re ready. Be gentle with yourself.  Don’t push yourself if you don’t feel safe or able to explore any residual trauma. On the other hand, don’t resist if the only thing holding you back is fear. Know when you’re ready and dive in when that time arises. The actual decision to update your survivor story is a powerful one, and opens up healing in and of itself.  It holds the seeds of transformational ripple effects for our organizations and movements. And most importantly, as Move to End Violence Faculty Member Norma Wong says, “We need to push beyond our survivor narrative because every survivor deserves to be much more than that.”

Art by lizar_tistry