Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Developing a Post-Trauma Identity-Who Am I Now?

We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Traumatic events disrupt out story and assault our sense of self.

They leave us asking:

buds on the branchesWho am I if I can’t be a cop, a surgeon, a provider?

How can I be a bride with breast cancer?

How can I be a mother who loses her child?

At the beginning, we struggle with a constant sense of danger, disbelief, and an enormous sense of grief. Our body screams with emotional and physical tension and pain. We are enraged. We can’t sleep. We often can’t pray. Our past feels stolen, we don’t know how to understand our present and we can’t imagine anything positive in the story to come.


In small steps that at times we may hardly notice, we begin the journey of recovery.

Recovery does not mean forgetting or not having strong, painful feelings about an event that changed our life. Recovery is about remembering and feeling in a way that does not obscure our identity and rob us of the chance to live, love and hope again.

How Can We Do This?

In her powerful book, Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity, trauma survivor and expert, Michele Rosenthal draws upon her own experience, the latest research and the stories of countless trauma survivors to offer invaluable guidelines.

With strategies to deal with fear, anger, anxiety and the obstacles to going forward, Michele Rosenthal suggests that the steps to re-claiming self and developing a post-trauma identity include:

  • Reaching back to who you were, what you loved, what gifts you had and drawing upon them in a new and creative way.
  • Making meaning of the present in moments of determination, achievable goals, small victories and connections that change your perspective from the wounds of a victim to the wisdom of a survivor.
  • Looking up and out into possibilities in the future by choosing what you will take with you and what you want to create in your new life.

Here are three examples of people taking the steps toward a Post-Trauma Identity:

Reaching Back to a Personal Gift

A young professional woman was followed home one evening, assaulted, raped and left for dead. When she found herself in the emergency room, they suggested she call her family. She couldn’t. She had no words. What had happened was unspeakable. Needing to take time off from her HR job she returned home to her parents who cared for her and agonized at the thought of what their daughter had suffered. Not wanting to see friends or leave the house, she felt frozen, emotionally dead. Her mother, desperate to see her daughter living again, reminded her that the piano was in the den and that she had put her favorite sheet music out. The young woman shook her head and said nothing but the next day started to play a little. She continued and in some ways she played herself back to life. Playing the piano belonged to her, to her old self. It was a source of soothing and eventually the source of joy she had always loved. She found a therapist and began finding words to bear witness to the unspeakable trauma. She not only went back to work, she and three other women agreed to prosecute the man who they all identified. He was a serial rapist who was convicted and imprisoned. She went on.

Victory in the Moment

Paralyzed after a sudden right brain stroke as she held the microphone at a woman’s luncheon, my 80-year-old mother-in-law was determined to walk again. A beautiful woman, a former Rockette who had toured with the Glen Miller Band, she made every step she struggled to take, the success story of the day. She would remind me, “ I am used to hours of practice.”

She never walked again… but she kept on going. She entered an assisted living facility and lived every day, played every card game, enjoyed every show, celebrated every holiday and attended every grandchild’s event with the grace and anticipation of the dancer that she would always be.

Taking on The Future

One of the members of a women’s group was a young women who lost her husband in 9/11 and was left with three young daughters. Bereft and angry, she did her best. She was just starting to catch her breath when she was was derailed again with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Supported by the group she kept going, accepting help, raising her girls and two years later even returned part-time to her job. When another young widow entered the group and shared that she could never love and marry again, it was this woman (post loss and cancer) who clarified that she would never love anyone the way she had loved her husband but she still wanted to love someone and go on with her life. Everyone listened. Someone asked her where she got her resilience. She laughed and said, “ At this point, I have survived so much that I don’t worry. I say to the world, ‘OK, bring it on’!”

Keep Going

In the days, months and years that follow trauma, you may get stuck in anger, terrified about the next ‘ shoe dropping,’ unable to try, unable to see the tunnel—much less the light at the end of it.

  • It doesn’t mean that you are not moving.
  • It doesn’t mean that you are not re-claiming your identity.
  • Moments of doubt and moments of hope don’t cancel each other out. They are part of the journey.

This is your story. Recognize the twists, revel in the triumphs and remember the promise of tomorrow.


Listen in to Psych Up Live to hear Savannah Sanders,  professional and a survivor of sexual trafficking discuss “Conquer Trauma: An Online Course that Offers a Healing Journey”