Trigger warning: Parts of this piece may be triggering. Please take the time and space to look after yourself and seek help.
A few years ago, while I was packing for an upcoming move, I came across my old Pakistani passport. As I opened it, my 16-year-old self looked back at me, with the words “married” and “housewife.” I was a child bride.
I am now in my 30s. I broke free from that child marriage a decade ago and built a wonderful new life of freedom for myself and my daughters. I’ve shared my story hundreds of times around the world. I’ve even written a book about it. But none of that mattered in that moment when I saw my child self in the passport. None of it prepared me for the tsunami of pain and grief that engulfed me for the next few hours. That is the reality of living with trauma. It hits you unexpectedly like an overwhelming wave of deep emotions. And it sucks.
When I left my abusive marriage, something that no woman from my family had ever done before, I was called a shameless woman and a bad mother. When I succeeded in my academics and career, I was told, “What’s the point of you winning these awards and scholarships if you failed at the real purpose of being a woman? Shame on you.” When I started sharing my story to help others, I was accused of defaming my culture and religion for self-promotion. I know I am not the only one. Over the last decade of my advocacy work, I have heard from countless people afraid to come forward with their faith, beliefs, sexuality, gender, goals, ambitions—afraid of living their truth—due to cultural and religious trauma.
I grew up watching my father abuse my mother, and I accepted it in my own marriage. As my daughter grew up, she saw only two emotions modeled for her—anger from her father, and despair from her mother. She would either shout or shut down—unable to process her own feelings of fear and helplessness, often labeled as a difficult child. It took me years to recognize the patterns of intergenerational trauma and break the cycle for my daughters. And our healing journey continues even today. Children who grow up with domestic abuse don’t just witness it. They experience it like it is happening TO them.
A few weeks into the first lockdown of the pandemic, while doing my hair, I had a sudden vivid flashback of my ex-husband hitting me because some of my hair had escaped from my hijab at a dollar store. For the next few weeks, I had other memories, high levels of anxiety, feeling afraid in my own home, trouble sleeping. I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly remembering things from 20 years ago, until my therapist asked: “Samra, when was the last time you were isolated, told you cannot go out of the house, or meet your friends?” Even though my intellectual brain knew that this was a pandemic, not an abusive marriage, my body carried the trauma memories and experienced it the same way. There are triggers all around us that can bring up traumatic memories.
We also experience collective trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. Some of us are cruising along in luxury yachts, merely inconvenienced, while many of us are hanging onto any pieces of debris we can find to keep our heads above water. People are losing their livelihoods and loved ones. Domestic abuse is increasing in intensity and frequency because isolation is an abuser’s best friend. Mental health challenges are on a steep rise. We are inundated with traumatic news, hate, and division. This pandemic may end soon, but its disproportionate effects will last for generations to come.
The trauma olympics
We live in a world where trauma is often justified, even glorified. So many of us grow up begging to be loved. We try to bend ourselves out of shape to fit into societal boxes of acceptance. We struggle with anxiety, depression, and despair, believing that our truth makes us unworthy. We are taught that love is transactional. It comes at a price. If our family treats us badly, we are told to keep trying harder, and one day they will love us back—even though we may be completely depleted and hating ourselves by then.
We are conditioned to believe that by suffering, we are showing everyone how good and virtuous we are. My ex-mother-in-law used to give me the example of her sister who, despite getting beaten up by her husband every day, would never complain—that was the sign of a good wife. Those were the standards of nobility that I should strive for in order to earn that revered pot of gold waiting for me at the end of the suffering rainbow.
We even compare our trauma with others—trying to earn brownie points, by saying things like, “Oh this is nothing, I’ve been through so much more than you.” Or we minimize and invalidate our own experiences by saying, “Oh I suffered too, but it’s nothing compared to you, so I shouldn’t really complain.”
And you know when people say, “Everything happens for a reason,” as if the worst of atrocities can be justified because some of us have triumphed through them? Kids getting molested, young girls being denied education and forced into marriages, people being tortured and murdered in the name of religion, children being separated from their parents, women trapped in cycles of abuse, and millions of us feeling afraid to live our truths. Is all that somehow okay because some of us managed to persevere?
For every bad thing that I may have been able to come out of, I know that I am not the norm. There are millions suffering endlessly, ending their lives, living with addictions, and other harmful effects of the trauma they were subjected to. So toxic positivity doesn’t help. On the contrary, it makes people feel that the fact they are not able to simply “bounce back stronger” from what happened to them means that there is something wrong with them.
Suffering is not a prerequisite to resilience. We don’t have to suffer to earn our stripes. There is no such thing as a suffering olympics. We don’t come to this world to suffer.
I might be more successful today than that 16-year-old girl in the passport. But I would gladly give up my accomplishments to get my childhood back, to not have had to climb mountains to get my education, to be able to make my own life choices, to not be subjected to years of abuse, to live without fear and pain. What happened to me was not okay then. It is not okay now. And it will never be okay no matter how glamorous my resume looks. I am not who I am today BECAUSE of what happened to me. I am here IN SPITE of it. I have tremendous gratitude for the life I have today. And I also grieve for the life that was taken away from me.
Even when the wounds heal, the scars remain.
Trauma is not something we can easily pack in little boxes in our brains and move on with our lives as if it never happened. Healing is not linear. No matter how much time passes, there will be moments of pain.
I spent years beating myself up for not getting “over it,” as if there was something wrong with me. I shamed myself for being too sensitive, too weird, too damaged. Until I learned that the most important thing I needed to heal was love, compassion, and kindness—from myself. We deserve our own compassion. So when that tsunami of pain hits us, we know how to swim through it.
The landmine of triggers.
A few weeks ago, I had a court case hearing against my ex-husband, and I knew that seeing his face on Zoom would likely be a trigger for me. So right before the hearing, I surrounded myself with things that reminded me of the love and happiness I have in my life today. My stuffed unicorn that my partner gifted me, my favorite candle that says, “I am Enough,” and a picture of my daughters. These reminders helped me get through the hearing with strength, clarity, and peace. Through self-awareness and practice, we can learn to identify our triggers. We can be proactive during difficult times and not get to a place of feeling overwhelmed. When we know ourselves, our unique triggers, and calming strategies, we can increase our self-advocacy and be proactive about our mental health.
We build resilience collectively, by supporting each other.
We might be kind to ourselves, but if the people around us are putting us down, invalidating us, and shaming us, we will not get very far. Surrounding ourselves with people who empower us to live our truth is essential to our healing journey. I do regular relationship audits to let go of the bonds that no longer serve my growth and wellbeing. That involves setting boundaries, teaching people how to treat us, and cutting people off—which can often be difficult. After spending years trying to win my mother’s love and approval, I had to put a stop to the constant judging and shaming. It was painful but necessary. I’ve learned that it is better to adjust our life to someone’s absence, rather than adjust our boundaries to accommodate their disrespect.
Our vulnerabilities don’t make us weak. They make us human.
We live with internalized stigma that prevents us from seeking help. We often feel that no one will understand us so why bother talking about it. The first step to reforming those patterns is recognition and awareness. For years, I have been reading books about trauma, which have helped me understand and reframe the roots of my limiting beliefs, thoughts, and patterns. I’ve had short-term therapy for specific challenges. I worked with a trauma psychologist for five years who played an instrumental role in my healing. I have walked away from therapists who weren’t quite right for me. I’ve also benefited from family and group therapy with my daughters. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting help.
Although many of us face unfair barriers that limit our access to appropriate help, we can find avenues that may be available. When I couldn’t afford private therapy, I accessed free therapy through the city’s walk-in counseling centers and family services programs. It is our right to get the help that is right for us. We can interview therapists, choose the care we need, and change it as our needs evolve. We are in the driver’s seat of our own healing journey.
Empathy is not about solving problems. It is about holding space.
A few years ago, my daughter and I were in a group therapy program together. One afternoon, during the session, she started having a panic attack. She got up and went out of the building. I went after her and found her sitting on the sidewalk, distressed, telling me to leave her alone. My initial thoughts were, “What if someone sees her? It would be so embarrassing.” But I forced myself to pause and think, “What does SHE need from me in this moment?” She didn’t need me to tell her to get up or worry about what others would think. She needed me to help her feel through the pain. So I sat down with her and held her hand. We sat there for a few minutes. She sobbed. She hugged me and thanked me for not leaving her. We went inside and finished the rest of the session with our hands held beneath the table. Empathy is not about being right. It is about being there. For others, as well as for ourselves.
In that powerful moment, I learned that just like I held space for my daughter, just like I held her hand, just like I helped her feel validated and supported—I needed to do the same for myself.
We don’t move on from trauma. We move on with it.
I often get asked what advice would I give to my younger self? Years ago, my answer was that I’d tell her to be brave, fearless, courageous. But today, the only thing I would say to her is, “Thank YOU for not giving up on your dreams, for having hope, for fighting for your truth, for not losing your essence, for asking for help, for choosing to heal and love. Thank you, because if you hadn’t done all that, I wouldn’t exist.”
We don’t move on from trauma. We move on with it. Trauma causes pain that breaks us and echoes for a lifetime. But just because we were once broken does not mean we are damaged or unworthy. Our trauma may remain part of us, but it doesn’t have to define us. We have the capacity to make art from those broken pieces. We can heal, we can become whole again, and we can transform into a stronger, more beautiful version of us. That doesn’t mean that what happened to us will ever be okay—it won't. It means that the capacity of humanity to heal is more powerful and beautiful. That even with the scars, we can survive. We can thrive.
Disclaimer: I am currently a medical student, training to be a physician. Everything discussed in this piece is based on my personal experiences and does not constitute any form of medical advice.
**Feature photo obtained by standard license on Shutterstock.
Interested in other articles like this? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter
Interested in contributing to the Harvard Primary Care Blog? Review our submission guidelines
Samra Zafar is an award-winning internationally renowned speaker, bestselling author, and educator for equity, mental health, and human rights. Samra is currently pursuing her Medical Degree (MD) at McMaster's DeGroote School of Medicine in Canada, on path to becoming a physician promoting inclusive mental health. She has been recognized twice among the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada. She is also named among the Top 25 Most Inspirational Women in Canada and Top 25 Canadian Immigrants. Samra's book, A Good Wife: Escaping The Life I Never Chose, based on her journey of escaping an abusive child marriage to pursue her education and shed light on gender-based oppression, is a national bestseller and currently being adapted to television. Her TEDx talks, speaking, writing, and advocacy work have impacted millions and have been extensively featured in national and global media.