Twelve Steps for Healing Trauma From a Holocaust Survivor

Teachings from Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”

Posted Nov 14, 2020

Jochen Zimmermann via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jochen Zimmermann via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Dr. Edith Eger is a well-respected, 92-year-old psychologist. She has written two books, The Choice and The Gift, and has specialized in treating people with severe trauma. However, 74 years ago, she was a 16-year-old prisoner in one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II, Auschwitz. In her book, Eger described her arrival at Auschwitz after being closed up in a cattle car without food and water for days. She, her sister, and mother were standing together waiting for the selection to take place. Dr. Mengele, also known as the "Angel of Death," came up to them and asked Edith if the woman with her was her sister or mother. She answered truthfully that it was her mother. They were then separated. Her mother was sent to the line that meant immediate death while Edith and her sister were sent to the other line. Eger states that it took decades for her to confront her issues of guilt and shame just from this one experience.

Eger’s life is a testament to how one can heal from horrible and severe trauma. It is a difficult struggle that can take years or even decades but it is possible. She says, “Awful things happen to us and they hurt like Hell. These devastating experiences are also opportunities to regroup and decide what we want for our lives.” Eger posits that healing comes from freeing ourselves from certain thoughts and feelings that keep us trapped in the trauma. 

  1. Freeing yourself from victimhood. Eger states, “Suffering is universal but victimhood is optional.” She suggests that instead of asking “Why me?” we can ask “What now?”
  2. Freeing yourself from avoidance. Avoiding feelings can result in physical and psychological problems. We need to identify and acknowledge our feelings. Letting them out allows us to release them.
  3. Freeing yourself from self-neglect. An important part of healing is being loving and caring of ourselves. Find things you enjoy and do them. Ask yourself, is this something that is good for me, or am I just doing what someone else expects or wants from me? 
  4. Freeing yourself from secrets. Keeping secrets promotes shame. Begin by acknowledging the truth to yourself. We should not pretend to be something we are not. Do you show the world a different face than what you feel inside? Find a safe place and someone you can trust to whom you can reveal your secrets.
  5. Freeing yourself from guilt and shame. Eger states that it took her decades to forgive herself for surviving. Grief can be crippling and keep us stuck in the past. Becoming aware of our thinking and gently redirecting ourselves to more positive thoughts can help us heal.
  6. Freeing yourself from unresolved grief. It is important to let yourself grieve. Neither denying it nor being totally absorbed by it is healthy. Eger says, “Resolving grief means to release our sense of responsibility for all the things that weren’t up to us and to come to terms with the choices we have made that can not be undone.”
  7. Freeing yourself from rigidity. We can become trapped in our rigid thinking. Not everything is black or white. There can be many factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors. Rigid thinking does not solve conflict. What is right for you might not be right for someone else.
  8. Freeing yourself from resentment. Often the anger and resentment we have toward another may have more to do with our own issues resulting from unresolved grief or unfinished business.
  9. Freeing yourself from paralyzing fear. Many of us live a fear-based life. Our thoughts and behaviors are rooted in fear. The world can be a dangerous place, but living in constant fear keeps us from growing. Sometimes fear does not go away, but the best we can do is keep it from totally dominating our lives.
  10. Freeing yourself from judgment. Judgment and fear can keep us captive. We should look inward and examine the judgments we hold for ourselves as well as others. If we are being judgmental, we are unable to be compassionate.
  11. Freeing yourself from hopelessness. Eger suggests that there is always hope. What we hope for may change with time, but hope is always there. It helps to remember that we have survived difficult situations before and that we can do it again. 
  12. Freeing yourself for not forgiving. Forgiveness is something that we do for ourselves, not for others. When we do so, it frees us from the past. Releasing our anger and the people who have harmed us in the past can help to set us free.

Eger believes that we are not dishonoring the dead by living our lives to the fullest. Indeed, what better way to honor them by growing and thriving? We cannot change what happened to us but we can decide how we want to live the rest of our lives.

References

Eger, Edith.(2020). The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life. New York: Scribner Publishing.