As our friends in the U.S. prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week I find myself thinking about the role of thankfulness in healing. Now, if you are early into your betrayal trauma journey, the idea of trying to dredge up some thankfulness on demand may sound at best "ridiculous" and at worst "cruel." Please understand that if you are deep in the grieving process it's ok to give thankfulness a miss for now. However, you can still read on because what I'm sharing will be applicable to you at some point.
Kicked while we're down
In his book Understanding the Wounded Heart, Dr. Marcus Warner explains that any time we are wounded, a gash results in our heart that becomes fertile ground for lies from the Enemy. Moreover, painful experiences (including traumic ones) cause us to feel negative emotions, which may become tied to "automatic negative thoughts" about ourselves or others. Both lies and negative emotions/thoughts affect our sense of identity.
Added to this is the fact that when we are talking about betrayal trauma, we are talking about an attachment injury. Attachment, first to our parents and then our spouse, is meant to create a strong sense of safety, love, belonging, desirability and significance in us. An attachment rupture tends to create the opposite. As betrayed spouses we may be particularly susceptible to being wounded by our spouse in the same area that our parents wounded us (because no parents get this exactly right and some don't come even close). Thus, attachment ruptures also harm our sense of identity. They leave us feeling, undesirable, unsafe, unloved, unworthy, insignificant and alone.
From God's point of view all of these things are lies... but they can still feel very true to a brain awash in trauma, pain, negative thoughts and emotions.
Give thanks in all circumstances...?
God wants to replace those lies embedded in our trauma, and that continue to abuse and wound us, with the truth. He wants to be our main attachment or "go to" guy (i.e., "rock," "fortress," "strong tower" etc.). The only problem is... he's not "here" for us the way people are. However, that actually gives Him an advantage when it comes to communicating intimately with our hearts.
In his book Joyful Journey, Jim Wilder, explains how we can learn to communicate with God. One of the first steps in this process is practicing thankfulness. Wilder writes:
We tend to spend a lot of energy focusing on resolving traumas in the hope that we will be free from the pain trauma brings. What we often miss or overlook is the power of building memories of God’s goodness that give us a sense of being loved... When we are awash in emotions or pain, we naturally seek someone emotionally stronger to help us. While this would seem to be a good time to seek God, perceiving His presence can be very difficult when we are flooded with painful emotions. Interacting with God is only possible when we perceive His presence. Reviving our desire for relationship through practicing gratitude allows for easier and pleasant connections with God that motivate us to practice more often. When we keep practicing gratitude with God our brain remembers what our connection with Him was like, making it easier for us to find our way back to Him even when we are experiencing one of the six big [negative] emotions.
Non-Verbal Gratitude Exercise
Notice that Wilder is talking to people who need their desire for relationship revived. The pain of attachment trauma naturally makes us pull away from everyone, including God. As I've written many times, it's very normal for the pain to cause a spiritual crisis. So if the idea of connecting with God just seems scary, know you can modify the exercise below and still get some of the brain benefits.
For those to whom God feels all or mostly ("somewhat" is ok too) safe, you can try this exercise.
- Get out your journal and pen
- Ask the Holy Spirit to ground your spirit in the love of God
- Bring to mind a moment where you experienced gratitude or wonder, and also some kind of direct or indicrect connection to God.
Now once you've "sat in" that gratitude memory for a bit see if you can notice how it makes your body feel (compared to how it felt before). Some people note a "lightness" or a warmth in certain parts of their body. Others notice a loosening and expansion of muscles: even a sense of getting taller or wider. Also see if you can get a sense of connection to God through the memory.
Next, nickname your memory and write it down in your journal. See if you can collect a list of 5-10 gratitude memories. Once you have at least 5, practice sitting with your memories every day for a minimum of 2 minutes. Try and work up to 5 minutes. As much as possible, try to keep words out of this process... just focus on the feelings in the body, the images and that sense of connection to God. In doing this, you are strengthening the right side of your brain where your peace and joy centre are located.
This process (also very recommended for those coming out of addiction) is called Increasing Joy Capacity. You can learn more about it in The Other Half of Church. Another very helpful gratitude exercise by Wilder is Immanuel Journaling.