Since I was a 13-year-old spending recesses in the schoolyard composing poems inspired by my turbulent home life, I’ve been passionate about storytelling. My career has centered on telling thousands of stories about the interplay between economics, politics and financial markets in developing countries. I also love blogging about the ways the spiritual tradition of Islam, or the act of surrendering oneself to the Divine, unfolds in my life.
Some may say writing comes naturally to me, that it’s my calling. But not me.
Each time I sit on my worn out brown-leather couch staring at the blank Word document on my laptop, I’m overwhelmed by a feeling that this time, I will fail. The same happens when I start almost every editing assignment I get at work, day after day, year after year: a gnawing sensation consumes me that this time, I will disappoint. This time, my efforts will not be good enough.
Self doubt is a glaring, ever-present demon in my life. It creeps up on me in the form of a sharp constriction in my upper chest in scenarios as mundane as whether the friend I’ve invited for dinner will be disappointed by the restaurant I’ve chosen — even if it happens to be a favorite. I’m sometimes so fearful of disappointing others that I feel unreasonably responsible for things that are out of my control, like the weather.
I’d long presumed the excessive lack of confidence that lurked just beneath the surface was an inherent flaw in me; until, that is, I became aware several months ago that I suffer from a condition known as Complex trauma.
Complex trauma is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, only rather than resulting from a one-off psychological shock, it arises due to repeated, prolonged exposure to different forms of abuse, usually beginning in childhood. In researching the condition, I’ve learned how common it is. Wounds are often inflicted unwittingly and it’s easy to be oblivious to the toll they’ve taken on our psychological and spiritual health.
Working with a psychotherapist who uses a Sufi-influenced approach to treatment that regards the essential nature of clients as spiritual, I’ve come to learn that the emotional injuries inflicted in my youth caused me to split myself into pieces to survive. I denied and subjugated the parts that didn’t fit the image of what I was told I should be, among them: happy, not sad; obedient, not rebellious; calm, not angry.
Because of this, my traumatized younger self was not nurtured or validated enough to feel secure. It is as if, over time, she became locked in a limbo between my past and present; a dark place within my psyche where she hid petrified and underdeveloped as everything around her began to change. I became an adult, the stakes in my life became greater and I unconsciously began to drown out her cries and unrequited needs.
I didn’t realize until now how often this young girl manifests in my life. She’s the part of me that’s so desperate to be seen and accepted that she effaces herself to meet the needs of others, seeking to please and comfort them. Self-evasion has long seemed like common sense and moral behavior to me. I failed to see that until I understood my internal conflicts and showed myself compassion, I couldn’t reintegrate those parts that got divided due to trauma.
This is why bringing my emotional injuries into the forefront of my daily consciousness for the first time, while incredibly jarring and painful, has also been validating. I’m learning to see it as an essential step toward the spiritual maturity needed not only to progress in adulthood, but also to move closer to Islam. After all, if I don’t know my innermost self (or selves), how can I surrender?
The thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi often describes the healing power of wounds, how the cure is in the pain, and the Light of God enters through our wounds. His words, such as these lines drawn from the poem Unearthing the Treasure, are coming alive for me on a visceral level as I wrestle with my trauma:
The health of the senses of this world
comes from the well-being of the body;
the health of one’s spiritual sense
arises from the body’s ruin.
The spiritual path wrecks the body;
but afterward restores it to health:
it destroys the house to unearth the treasure,
then with that treasure builds it better than before.
The water is stopped and the riverbed cleansed,
so that purer water might flow.
The flesh is cut open to draw out the arrow—
So that fresh skin might heal the wound.
(Mathnawi 1: 305-308, translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski)
Sufi teachings have shown me that every human being is born whole, with Divine Light illuminating in each of our hearts. No matter how deep the trauma and how ingrained my psychological reactions are, that place of wholeness can’t be contaminated. Rather, it is a place that through spiritual healing, I’m learning to contact and to live from.
During daily meditations and remembrance of God through zikr, I consciously breathe into my wounds to try to tap into that place that resides beyond the injuries. I understand now that spiritual growth will happen when I bring the unwieldy aspects of myself into awareness and show them compassion so that inner trust and serenity can gradually grow.
Recently, my therapist suggested we start our weekly session with a 20-minute breathing exercise because I was too tense to start talking. I sat in a chair with my feet firmly on the carpet and my shoulders nestled into the cushioned backrest, relaxing so I could hear what was reverberating within. As I closed my eyes and diligently attended each inhalation and exhalation, my awareness turned to the shallow pace of my breath and the sensation of feeling trapped in that narrow place just under my throat. This is what happens when my younger self grabs hold of the reins.
I positioned my right hand on my heart and my left on my abdomen so I could feel the life-giving breath move through my body. Instinctively, I started silently reciting a zikr we do in the Mevlevi tradition: With each out breath La illaha (There is no god) to remind myself to let go of the reactions that separate me from true Being. With each inhalation, il Allah or (but the Divine Reality) to affirm Being within me.
As I repeated La illaha il Allah (There is no God, but the Divine Reality), air percolated deeper into my lungs until, about 15 minutes into the meditation, I was consciously breathing from my belly. The tightness in my chest loosened, giving way to an air of wholeness to my inner world where the complex parts of me felt nourished and more integrated. I find myself leaning on this intrinsic healing power of breath in response to daily stresses.
As hard as it is, I try not to silence my younger self anymore, even if my body and mind do sometimes feel wrecked in the way Rumi describes. Now, when she appears as I start writing, for instance, I know it’s her there judging herself as not good enough. But I also know that this reaction doesn’t have to be my present and future. I’m slowly learning to sit with her, feel her pain and let her know that, together, we can wrestle the self doubts to the ground and write our way to the final sentence.