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I recently watched the movie Lucy (2014) and the theme of time resonated with me deeply and powerfully. In this movie, the protagonist is able to access the maximum amount of her cerebral capacity and has only a limited period of time to tell the world the crucial information she has learned. The end of the movie raised a poignant question: what do we do with the finite time we have on this earth? Are we spending it wisely? And if not, what changes can we make to do so?
Time is traditionally used to inform us of appointments, allocate hours to work, and track our progress. We use time to remember to go to the doctor, to go to the office at a certain hour, to track our progress at work or school. We can use time for reflection as well as daily tasks: time motivates us meet an important deadline, but it also tells us that we’ve spent several years in a certain relationship, helps us to celebrate one-year anniversaries with significant others, and acts as a marker of investment and energy. If we feel we haven’t spent our time in a productive way, we feel our investment and energy had little return. We feel overwhelmed with regret and a sense of learned helplessness that threatens to disable us from making necessary changes in our lives.
Survivors of abuse and emotional trauma have a special and significant relationship with time. I’ve heard numerous stories that end with, “I can’t believe I wasted this amount of time on this person,” or, “These years of my life have been wasted!” It is a painful realization when we recognize that we’ve given our precious time and energy into something that deeply wounded us.
Sometimes it takes a horrifying diagnosis or the ending of a relationship to force us to reflect on the time we have left, but we can be mindful of the present right now, at this very instant. Although we cannot go back in time to change the way we’ve spent it, it’s important that we stay mindful of the time that we still possess, in the here and now.
In order to spend our time more constructively, we must do the following:
Allocate more time for healing rather than ruminating. Excessive rumination may be the initial response to the ending of an abusive relationship or after a significant trauma. Survivors of trauma may suffer from symptoms related to PTSD or acute stress disorder, like numbing, dissociative symptoms, recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and intrusive thoughts. While it’s extremely important to be patient with ourselves and not rush the healing process, it’s also necessary to make active changes in our lives in order to make progress.
For the sake of our mental health, addressing our painful emotions and assessing what happened is necessary to moving forward, and we eventually come to the stage where we have to set aside time for what is necessary to heal ourselves. That means being proactive by seeking out professional help, setting boundaries such as low or No Contact with an abusive ex-partner, maintaining a strong support network and engaging in self-care that nourishes our body, spirit and mind.
CHALLENGE: Set a “time limit” for excessive ruminations. If you find yourself ruminating for three hours a day over a particular situation for example, set the time limit to one hour and then spend the rest of the time doing something else like exercising, working on a project, watching a favorite television show, meeting with a friend to do something fun, or writing a poem.
You may still have distracting thoughts during that time, but at least you will be spending more time doing an activity that benefits you rather than spending more time than is necessary reevaluating scenarios that you’ve revisited too many times. Whenever these intrusive thoughts come up, try not to feed them. Step back, observe, and radically accept them, just as they are. Engage in pleasurable distractions or cross another thing off your to-do list. Allow yourself the right to feel all of your emotions, but do not get stuck and permit them to hold you back from enjoying your life.
It’s inevitable that we will think about the trauma and that we will have strong feelings about it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – it’s a normal response to trauma. I make this suggestion to end excessive ruminations not to invalidate the legitimate feelings and thoughts about trauma that may surface, but to acknowledge that your time here on earth is precious and finite, and you want to spend it in a balanced way.
If you want to move forward, spending excess time overanalyzing situations rather than actively engaging with your life will only deter you from living your life the way it was meant to be led. You must spend some time assessing your trauma, but don’t forget to spend time healing from it as well. Take breaks to relax, work on your goals and live life. This goes back to maintaining that delicate balance between owning both our status as survivor as well as our agency.
Take the time to pursue your unique destiny. In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra speaks about the “law of dharma,” which is the unique destiny we’re meant to fulfill. Chopra argues that our “dharma,” our “purpose in life,” manifests best when tied to serving humanity and the larger world around us. We have to ask ourselves, how much time am I spending on cultivating this destiny? What do I do every day to serve humanity? Is my current job fulfilling me? Is there volunteer work or another line of work I can pursue to make better use of my talents? Is there a talent that I am wasting rather than sharing with my current efforts?
CHALLENGE: Write down two or three talents or skills that you feel you haven’t used in a while, or haven’t used at all in public. Next to each one, write at least five things you can do to cultivate that talent. If possible, pay special attention to how that talent may serve others. These things can be big or small in the way they help others.
For example, if one of my hidden talents was photography, I could volunteer as a wedding photographer to capture the meaningful moments in my friends’ wedding or start a project that involves taking photographs for a social cause I care about. If my hidden talent was nutrition and fitness, I could volunteer to teach fitness classes at a local community center or start a YouTube channel to help people to change their diets and lifestyles. If I had a great sense of humor, I might use it to regularly brighten someone’s day or I might join an improv comedy group and participate in shows that entertain hundreds of people in need of their daily escape. If I had a passion for mental health and loved to write, I could start a self-help blog or write a self-help book (sound familiar?)
You get the picture. There are so many creative ways to use our talents and put them into use to serve humanity. In the midst of this exercise, you might even come across what you were meant to do all along. This is a better use of our time and it permits us to change the world rather than to focus on what we can’t change – the past.
Enjoy and be mindful of the present moment. Be grateful for what you still have now in the present moment. From basic things like food, shelter, our vision, our ability to walk, to good friends, a stable job and access to health care and education. Cultivating this habit of lifelong gratitude brings us to a place of mindfulness that is beneficial to our health and appreciation of life. Remember: time spent on remorse detracts from time spent savoring what we still have. Nothing lasts forever, so focus on what is still here.
CHALLENGE: Start to replace unhelpful thoughts and cognitive distortions about the past with positive statements about the present. Whenever judgmental statements like, “I shouldn’t have done this” or “I regret what happened,” arise, replace it with, “I am grateful to have survived and learned from this experience.”
If this is too difficult because of the extent of trauma you’ve endured, try to remind yourself of something you still have despite the trauma, like “I still have my health and that’s what’s most important” or “Now I have the freedom to pursue my dreams without interference.” Not all “alternative thoughts” will work to diffuse ruminations over the past, but making a significant effort towards a more positive attitude about your life experience will help you become more resilient to obstacles in the long-run.
It is also helpful to keep a gratitude journal to remind yourself of all you have to be thankful for in this life. The more time you spend being grateful, the less time you spend being resentful and the more likely you’ll have an increased sense of perceived agency in your life. You’ll be more likely to see challenges as opportunities for growth rather than as dead ends, and more likely to constructively channel your life circumstances into life-changing awareness.
Put an end to toxic interactions and relationships. These are the unreciprocral, unfulfilling interactions or relationships that leave you emotionally drained and exhausted. They include: relationships that are past their expiration date, friendships that leave you feeling terribly about yourself, and other interactions with people who mistreat or disrespect you. This helps us to refocus our time on healthier, fulfilling relationships that will make us happier in the long-run.
Minimize the people-pleasing and cut ties with the people who don’t accept you for who you are and who don’t appreciate what you have to offer. This is necessary in order to make the most of our time and use it wisely. Should you need to maintain contact for whatever reason (for example, this could be a family member who you’re forced to interact with on a weekly basis) it’s important to at least significantly reduce the time and energy you spend interacting with this person or ruminating over your interactions with them.
CHALLENGE: Think of a person in your life who you’ve spent unnecessary time with and energy on recently. What can you do to reduce or end the interaction? Is there a way you can set a boundary so they don’t contact you as often? Do you need to stand up to them and make it clear that you no longer want them in your life? Whatever you must do, do it now. Save yourself future pain and heartache of having to endure a relationship or friendship that isn’t serving you by ending it now or detaching from it. These unfulfilling interactions only hold us back from the destiny we’re meant to fulfill.
As survivors of trauma, our best bet is to keep moving forward and focus on our self-care and self-love. Only by doing so can we fulfill that destiny. As we learn to make better use of our time, we have to remember that healing is a lifelong journey. We may encounter several traumas on this journey, but recovery can be a productive process in that it makes us mindful of the time we’ve spent and the time we have left.
Every single one of us has something we can do to change the world while changing ourselves for the better. Whatever you may call it – destiny, dharma, mission or fate, start asking yourself today: what’s yours?
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Copyright © 2015 by Shahida Arabi.
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