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.
Cultivating the Perfect Mask
That became my motto: do not let the darkness show. Be absolutely perfect in every way, because slipping up will cause something horrible to happen again.
As a child hiding an unspeakable trauma, being perfect meant trying to please the adults in my life. Once I entered the murky waters of adolescence, I felt the need to fortify my mask, creating an over-achieving persona that I could show to the world.
And the mask of perfectionism worked for me, most of the time at least. I could buckle down and study like crazy. I could practice my piano songs diligently before the competition. I could wake up early before school to spend some quality time with my makeup and curling iron to look as pretty as possible. If I worried and fretted enough, I could be in control about 80% of the time.
But, oh, the painful 20%. The tears and shame and flopping about like a fish out of water when life spiraled out of control. When my best friend and I would get into a fight, or when I didn't get the part in the high school play, or when an angry red pimple became all I could see in the mirror - then there was no way to keep the darkness at bay. Then I was left with a tear-stained face to show the world. Crying made me feel weak and out-of-control, and I was ashamed that I could not truly hide my vulnerable side from my classmates and teachers.
So when I got my pick of colleges, I ran away from my home state of Colorado and decided to reinvent myself at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. There, I told myself, I would be cool, because I would be surrounded by other smart kids. There, I would not succumb to crying in class or feeling depressed or unhappy. And my hopes partly came true: I did feel more at home, and fit in better than I had at my suburban public high school.
But I did not achieve the ever-elusive control over my emotions that I sought. I was constantly running from my pain, and our inner struggles have a way of following us wherever we go. My trauma and my shame stayed with me, and the tears would inevitably erupt. Perfectionism was my only way of coping with my shame, until the stress of trying so hard became too much to bear. A storm of change was brewing, coming to a head during my second year of college. I was blessed with a brief experience of awakening, and then my world fell apart.
But let’s not skip over the awakening.
The Sigh of Contentment
Ready to escape my stress for a few days, I signed up for a fall break backpacking trip in the redwood forest of Northern California. I had always thought of myself as weak, but I managed to carry most everything I needed on my back.
After lumbering like a tortoise for two hours, I was thrilled to reach our base camp. I dropped my pack and ran along the sandy trail to the nearby beach. I stripped off my socks and hiking boots to dip my feet in the cold waves of the ocean. The late afternoon sunlight graced the rolling waves, leaving me mesmerized. There I was, a tiny speck before the most magnificent painting, living a perfect moment. Yes, I can finally breathe here, I sighed. With my eyes shining and my body fully alive, I could let my mask fall away.
I later wrote in my journal, “I live now for that intoxicated sigh - just like Debussy, just like being in love - when I'm so enthralled with the moment that I almost forget to breathe. Then, I catch myself, floating in the clouds, and that sigh of contentment is the best feeling in the world. I don't want to lose this."
Yet I did lose my elation. It was easy to feel awakened and relaxed and present and joyful in front of the majestic Pacific Ocean, and later catching glimpses of sunlight streaming through giant redwood trees. Once my magical four days were over, I vowed to myself that I would choose to be happy from there on out. I would not let myself get bogged down in stress and worry ever again. But my old coping mechanisms inevitably creeped in, encroaching upon my living-in-the-moment euphoria. I vacillated between exuberance and disappointment as I discovered I could not make myself happy all of the time. Negativity, guilt, and worry reemerged like that pimple I kept popping, only to see it glaring back at me a few days later. I tried to channel my rollercoaster emotions into the piano keys, feeling grateful that at least I could express myself safely inside the four walls of the practice room.
Then everything came crashing down.
Coming Undone and Slowly Recreating Myself
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. “Tendonitis,” the experts proclaimed. Suddenly 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 bellowing trumpets, cellos, drums and pianos from neighboring practice rooms. I had always 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.
Why did I fall apart just a few months after feeling elated and strong in the redwoods? For one moment, I had seen the true beauty that life could hold for me. I glimpsed the eternal peace of breathing in the moment, of transcendence, of spiritual awakening. And I was so angry with myself that I could not get back to that beauty. In my disappointment, I added even more self-loathing and pain onto my heavily burdened shoulders.
But 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 lessen. 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.
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.
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!”
Was I really strong and powerful? I was plagued with self-doubt. Yet I shouted along with the other young women, trying on the feeling of standing in my power for just a few moments.
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, most of the time at least, 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. Whenever my best friends Mirabai and Jonnah came over, we would twirl and climb trees and run through the sprinklers.
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 sang 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
But then. Oh, but then it happened. The pain.
I was five years old. My mom gave me permission to walk home and play with my kindergarten friend after we got off the school bus. In 1990, no one thought twice about children walking along the sidewalk without an adult in sight.
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!
Afterward, 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 gazed down at me with compassion as 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 again.
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.
If I never think about this pain, will it go away? Can I bury it so deep that no one will ever know?
Forcing myself to forget may have been my salvation. Repressing my trauma was my only way to cope. So I pushed the images and memories back into the murky recesses of my mind, like dark shadows. I floated outside of my body, unable to tolerate any more pain. But the shame. That I could not push away. Shame poisoned every area of my life, the runoff permeating my once-clear waters.
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? 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 in 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 period in his life, his MD recommended 20 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing a day. He practiced it diligently and 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 an environment where you feel safe, and release judgment over how you sound. Instead, focus on feeling the meaning behind your words, and that is what will make it beautiful.