How do we transform our painful experiences into a source of strength?
With raw, poetic honesty, Sara Giita Flores shows how we can heal the pain of being a victim of sexual violence. After spending years looking outwardly successful but feeling small and scared inside, Sara discovered how to deeply love and accept herself. Through her captivating story and practical exercises, her book shines a light on how we all can create joyful, daring, empowered lives.
When we dare to face our pain and free ourselves from the past, we unleash our power. We create lives that exceed our wildest dreams. We shine big.
A Sneak Peak at the Book...
How I used to feel
I was desperately terrified of not being good enough.
On the surface, I would have told you that, sure, I was good at plenty of things. I had friends, I had skills, I had talents.
Yet underneath there was a voice saying I was bad. I was bad bad bad and I needed to hide it. No one could see the darkness inside as long as I worked hard to be perfect.
As long as I kept everything buried.
Coming Undone and Slowly Recreating Myself
Everything came crashing down when I was 19. Having taken my perfectionism to an extreme, my body was a tangle of tension. The stress of always running from my past left me with shoulders like a rock, a neck in constant pain, and hands that could no longer perform. I was a piano major who could no longer play piano. I was a straight-A college student who could no longer type an essay. If I wasn't perfect, who was I?
I sat on the hard, black piano bench in one of the music building practice rooms, praying no one would peak through the square window to see if it was occupied. I stared at my palms, willing them to just work. But all I got was more pain. As my chest began to heave, my sobs melted into the cacophony of sounds from the trumpets, cellos, drums and pianos from neighboring practice rooms. My whole life I had felt fragile, and now I had been pushed over the edge. I was left broken, crumpled, hunched over the piano keys.
As my pain increased with each day, I spiraled into depression and despair. I felt myself unraveling.
The beautiful thing about coming undone is we have an opportunity to rebuild ourselves in a new way. We have the opportunity to put ourselves back together with self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love.
The function of pain is to bring us a message. And I needed to learn to look within with love, and to heal my victim experiences.
I needed to put myself together in a new way, and I began by doing yoga on my dorm room floor. I didn't even have a yoga mat. I just had a square of grey industrial carpeting in between the two built-in Formica desks. It was enough space for me to flop into a forward fold, letting my neck release and my worries lesson. Then I would curl up in child's pose on the floor, breathing deeply. For years I had been detached from my body, but with each breath I let in the possibility that it was safe to feel. I let in the possibility that it was safe to love myself.
My college boyfriend had given me a keychain with a tiny red canister of pepper spray for when I walked alone at night on campus. As I practiced taking it out of the case, I started thinking about how vulnerable I was as a young woman. So, I signed up for a 12-week Self-Defense for Women class. We met in a windowless basement workout room covered with mirrors, and practiced our moves in slow motion with partners.
To close each class, we sat cross-legged in a circle and pounded our hands on the padded rubber floor. As the rainstorm drumming intensified, we shouted in unison, “I am a strong and powerful woman! Yes!”
You are worthy
You are beautiful and good and worthy. By virtue of being a human being on this planet, you are worthy of love, despite any and all past experiences or mistakes.
Do you believe only some parts of yourself are worthy of love? Do you believe only some parts of yourself can be allowed to show?
I know I did. I had a secret so dark even I couldn't bear to face it. Yet I learned how my past pain could transform into my greatest strength, propelling me into a life of courage, possibility, and joy.
In this book I let all the parts of myself show. And I am okay if someone else doesn't love all of those parts, because I love myself. Today I am able to sit quietly with my deep self and let my confidence radiate from within. Tomorrow I may feel doubt and insecurities resurfacing, and I will greet them with love.
Every day I renew my vows of love to myself. I continuously accept the dark and the light. I know that I am worthy.
In the Time Before the Pain
Once upon a time, I lived without shame. I sang and danced and dressed up like a queen in a purple satin dress. My mom tells a story of me in preschool, when the parents were gathered to hear their children sing. Folding chairs filled the crowded classroom; the walls were covered with the ABCs and our glitter-incrusted artwork. Parents and grandparents and siblings shifted in their chairs, waiting expectantly. We obediently stood in rows to sing a few songs as a group, and then we joined our parents in the audience.
Next, the teacher asked if anyone would like to come up to sing a song by themselves. I forgot to raise my hand. I was too busy leaping out of my grey metal chair and running to the front of the room. When I turned to see all the faces, I hesitated. But once I started singing, my face lit up with enthusiasm again. I was all smiles and joy.
The Day I lost My Voice
I was 5 years old. My mom gave me permission to walk home and play with my kindergarten friend after we got off the school bus.
We were supposed to be quiet at her house because her dad was sleeping. But we were children, so we were laughing and giggling and making noise. Awakened and angry, he marched us into the basement and said he needed to punish us.
I was naked and alone in that basement, enduring the unthinkable. Yet I survived. I survived. I survived!
Afterwards, he told me it was my fault. He threatened to punish me again if I told anyone. He told me they would know how bad I was if I let anyone see what had happened. Then he let me go home, with his threats ringing in my ears.
I came home and curled up in my bed. I vomited. My mom smiled at me with compassion and love. I told her I was sick. She put her hand on my forehead. No fever. She brought me a towel, and helped me change my clothes, and she climbed onto the bed to pull the corners of the clean sheets around the mattress..
I felt her love as she cared for me. The sunlight streamed through the curtains she had made herself, as I stared up at the faces in the wood grain of the bunk bed that I shared with my sister. Part of me wished I could tell her what happened. But I was too scared. She will be ashamed of me. Everyone will be ashamed of me if they know. And then he will hurt me. Maybe he will hurt them, too.
I believed it was better this way. It was safer to curl up silently, and have my mom pat my shoulder and tell me that she needed to go cook dinner, but that I could call her if I needed her.
I need you, Mom. I need you, I wanted to scream. But I had no voice.
Believing the lies
He lied when he said it was my fault. He lied when he said I was bad. Looking back, I see through the lies; I see how he needed to frighten me into silence so he would not get caught. As a child, though, I believed his every word.
We have all heard lies, from those who have taken advantage of us and from society at large. Which lies have you heard? That it was your fault? That men can't control their sexual urges? That you were a bitch/slut/prude/fill-in-the-blank? That “I'm so so sorry and it's the last time, I promise?” Did you learn that it is your job to be nice and please everyone?
Or perhaps you've heard the most insidious lie of all: that once you have become a victim, you must carry the pain your whole life.
What if we can heal? What if we can acknowledge that the pain and injustice and unfairness are real, and that we have the power to transform our pain into strength?
When we look at our hurt younger selves in the eyes, we open the door. We stop running in circles, desperately trying to avoid the pain, and instead we learn to love it. Not necessarily to enjoy it, but to love it from the depths of our being. We hold the young one (she, he, they) in our arms and tell her we love and accept her unconditionally. We tell her she is good, she is beautiful, she is worthy. We wrap her in so much love and light that she becomes a beacon of confidence, reminding us of our potential to shine. We let her know it is safe to come out of hiding and be seen.
How We Shine Practice No. 1: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Having spent so many years in the painful darkness, I have gathered my own practices for letting in the light. I lovingly call them “How We Shine Practices,” and I have included them throughout the book. I encourage you to modify and synthesize the exercises according to what really impacts your soul.
After sharing my intense childhood experience, I'd like to offer you the first healing practice that I was drawn to early on: deep breathing. Reminding ourselves to breathe sounds like a cliché. Still, the steady movement of the diaphragm as we breathe consciously is incredibly calming to the nervous system. Our bodies and brains are flooded with nourishing oxygen and our racing thoughts are invited to slow down.
I came to deep breathing as a singer in high school. Singing offers many emotional and physical benefits, but when you boil it down, singing is breathing. You take a lovely, deep breath, and as you exhale your vocal cords vibrate to turn the breath into sound.
This miracle starts with the diaphragm. A large muscle somewhat resembling a shallow, upside-down bowl, the diaphragm is located beneath the lungs. It extends to the front, back and sides of our body.
When the diaphragm moves down, it creates a vacuum in the lungs, allowing fresh air to rush into our bodies. Once the diaphragm has begun its descent, breathing can be effortless. Imagine for a second that we breathed water instead of air. If you were underwater and opened your mouth, would it take effort for the water to enter? No. The water would naturally rush in. It's the same with air.
Of course, we can (and often do) turn breathing into a lot of work. We may tighten our swallowing muscles, narrowing our airways and making our inhale sound as if we are having an asthma attack. We may heave our spine upwards as we inhale, raising our shoulders and filling the shallow, upper part of our lungs. We may tighten the intercostal muscles between the ribs, or tighten our abdominal muscles, so our lung expansion feels like pushing instead of allowing.
I prefer to practice quiet, easy breathing, and I invite you to follow along.
1. Sit or lie down comfortably with your spine elongated and aligned.
2. Place a hand on your belly button. Keep your hand here throughout the practice to monitor the movement of your diaphragm.
3. Allow your diaphragm to move downward, initiating a slow, easy breath. As the diaphragm moves downward, it pushes the organs in your abdomen outwards to make space for the life-giving air to fill all parts of your lungs. As the air comes in, it is like your belly is getting fatter and you will feel your hand moving outwards with your abdomen.
4. When it feels right, exhale at a comfortable pace. The diaphragm will steadily return to its highly domed shape and your abdomen will come inward again.
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
6. Add sound (optional): Practice steps one through three. When you feel ready to exhale, speak or sing a meaningful phrase repeatedly until you feel ready to inhale again. For example: “I love myself, I love myself, I love myself!” Choose a phrase that feels natural to you right now. As long as your phrase is a positive statement, you really can't go wrong!
I practice both the silent version and sound version of diaphragmatic breathing in different situations. You can practice silent diaphragmatic breathing as you read this book, during a meeting, phone call or while you watch TV. When my husband was in an anxious, near panic-attack level, his MD recommended 20 minutes a day of diaphragmatic breathing and he attests that it changed his life.
The sound version of diaphragmatic breathing is beautiful to practice in the morning or before bed. Singing has been an absolute blessing for the last 19 years of my life, and I believe everyone is a singer. The key is to start in a safe place, and release judgment over how you sound. Instead, focus on feeling the meaning behind your words, and that is what will make it beautiful.