The First Four Steps to Radical Self-Care from a Trauma-Informed Thriver

Updated: Jan 23

You were hurt and now you need to heal.

What does it look like for a person struggling with their mental or emotional wellness to access better tools to help them heal?

How does the world change when support is offered to people who manage mental health conditions as much as they manage physical conditions?

Living life means experiencing trauma, and there are times when every person needs to heal from events both within and outside of their control.

One of the biggest challenges for people with unresolved trauma in their past is the manifestation of the negative voice that diminishes their own feelings and experiences. The trauma survivor often hears the negative and internalizes it as proof that they are the problem. In a world where things are often read in absolutes, it is easy to get skewed perceptions, and those perceptions can impact a person’s future as much as they did their past.

Bessel van der Kolk says; “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” [1]

Trauma survivors need to find themselves again, and once found need to view themselves through the lens of love. They/we need to learn how to love themselves in order to thrive.

The First Four Steps to Radical Self-Care from a Trauma-Informed Thriver

1. I admit that as hard as boundaries are to construct and maintain, without them my life is unmanageable.

Having boundaries does not mean you are challenging, or difficult, or unkind. Boundaries help us remain emotionally stable and allow us to present our best selves to our relationships and the wider world. When we are unable to build or maintain our boundaries, even when the fault is not our own, the result is burnout and stress.

Author Brene Brown notes; “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.” [2]

Introducing boundaries to our existing relationships can be hard, especially when they start without them. The status quo can be hard to restructure, but it is critical to repair boundaries. If you establish those boundaries and others continue to walk through them, it might be time to let the relationship go and answer the negative voices with a firm reminder that boundaries are healthy.

2. I will trust. My trust may be in God, it may be in myself, or it may be in another person but to survive I must trust.

The trauma survivor’s entire instinct is to run, to hide, or to isolate. Hiding and shutting the world out allows us to avoid thinking or responding to the trauma. While this can seem like self-preservation, it can limit healing. If the trauma has happened because people walked through boundaries, it makes it even tougher to trust someone else enough to share or to allow them in.

For those carrying hurt, isolation acts like a life preserver – it keeps you afloat but eventually it will run out of air and lose its effectiveness. “Over time as most people fail the survivor’s exacting test of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free,” says Judith Lee Herman.[3]

Trust may take a long time to relearn, but it is absolutely essential to thriving.

3. I admit my inability to do it all alone and will to let others carry me as I carry them.

Once we have been let down by others, we internalize a need to try and do everything without asking for help. That instinctual response leads directly to burnout, and in the case of someone struggling already, burnout can lead toward a very dark place in our emotional and mental wellness.

Imagine you are a carpenter building a house by framing walls and joining them together. You construct the first wall and then the second and need to lift them into place and join them together. There are certainly tools and methods to do it all alone, but the easiest way is to find a partner/s to help you position and hold the pieces as you secure each corner.

Life is like those walls. We might be able to carry them alone, but when we learn to allow others to carry one of the corners the work of one becomes work in community and often with greater joy than going it all alone.

4. I accept the parts of myself that have harmed others because of my trauma and commit to changing my behavior in the future.

In author Stephen King’s greatest commentary on human communities and trauma, he presents a conversation between a father and daughter. The daughter is dismayed at the wounds her mother inflicts each encounter, and the father states that she was not always that way – that once she laughed and enjoyed life and other people. Then they lost a child and instead of healing, she just through some make-up on over the grief and became bitter. [4]

If the traumatized human body is a coffee cup that has a broken handle – we must decide if we will reglue the appendage, throw the mug away, or cut our fingers each morning drinking from the broken vessel. But if we do decide to repair, first we must clear away loose shards and dust that could prevent good adhesion between the two broken pieces. Otherwise, the handle will snap back off at the first instance of pressure.

Our decisions affect the people around us. Radical self-care is not selfishness. It is deciding that we will value ourselves as much as others and that we will not let our own broken handles cut other peoples’ fingers if they get too close. It is committing to slow down and clear away debris until we get to a clean surface to glue back together.

Radical self-love is a counter to bitterness and anger.

Kiese Laymon writes of the trauma of racism in the United States, “Y’all taught me that unacknowledged scars accumulated in battles won often hurt more than battles lost.” [5] Surviving might feel like winning, but to truly heal, sometimes we must lose the battle and wallow in the pain a bit. The pain allows us to go on and to transform into the person who has walked through the fire instead of putting on make-up to cover it up. The best world would be one where trauma no longer happens, but once it has entered the body we must choose how we will respond.

Trauma is part of human existence. No person walks the earth who will not love and lose and grieve. But not all trauma is alike in how it impacts the body that carries it. Facing the reality of our own wounds can be the hardest part of healing. Accepting that even when healed, scars can be ripped open again means that once trauma happens there is no going back to who we were before.

When we do not find pathways to confront or heal the trauma within, it does not mean it is gone even if we no longer see it for a time. “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed,” writes Roxane Gay. [6] Trauma unresolved is not gone. It is like an unexploded mine in a long-forgotten battlefield and if we do not dig it out it will eventually explode.

Healing and walking our own twelve steps can be messy, but we each deserve to be reborn from the ashes of the worst moments of our lives.

Giving every person we encounter the support they need to begin healing is the only way to create a world that is not trauma-afflicted, but trauma-informed.

Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection. 2010.

Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of My Body. 2017.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. 1992.

King, Stephen. The Stand. 1978.

Laymon, Kiese. Heavy. 2018.

van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014.

[1] (van der Kolk 2014) [2] (Brown 2010) [3] (Herman 1992) [4] (King 1978) [5] (Laymon 2018) [6] (Gay 2017)

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