“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.” Brene Brown
When you spend most your time growing up in silence and living in secret while vile things happen to you behind closed doors, there is some point in time when you are no longer able to stay silent.
There is some point in time when speaking your story becomes really important to your healing, to your sanity, and to your ability to go on.
I remember when the time came for me to begin to speak my truth after years of hiding the truth of repeated sexual and physical violations from the age of about 7 to 15.
I remember how the truth just kept getting stuck in my throat and how I didn’t really know who to share it with, how much to tell, what parts to leave out, or how long to speak.
I remember, wondering what this person on the receiving end was thinking. I wondered about that a lot, whether they were safe, whether I should have said what I said, whether they would ever see me the same way again and even whether they would ever speak to me again.
It shouldn’t be something a victim wonders about, or fears, but it is. Often victims are treated like they committed a crime.
Families, relatives and friends have even been known to stop speaking to someone who revealed their abuse history.
It is a strange phenomena in which we punish those who dare to lift the veil.
I floundered for years with this, telling my story at the wrong time to the wrong people. I remember being looked at like I had horns on my head, I remember the silence after, the almost quizzical look some people would give me after speaking my truth.
I didn’t realize that at times I was unburdening myself at their expense.
I didn’t realize that they had a capacity and a limit as to what they could take in.
I didn’t take into account their feelings.
I just needed to tell someone.
I made poor choices and sometimes I made good ones.
Sometimes I picked the right person, the safe and trust worthy person that saw me beyond the story and could also hold space for my pain. I met people that loved me even more after I told my story. I was blessed with other sisters who knew and understood the pain of being unloved and used and abused as a child.
Today, I don’t tell the story much now even though I am very open about it.
It’s here on my site if anyone wants to know where I’m coming from and why I do the work I do but I rarely if ever tell anyone the details of what happened to me as a child. It’s just not as necessary anymore but I’ll never forget those days when I just needed to be heard.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned about sharing in bits, about boundaries, about considering the listener, about intention, about my own responsibility in the telling.
Lately, as I see the women I work with, struggling with who to tell, how much to tell and sometimes getting hurt by unsafe and untrustworthy people, after sharing something so deep like abuse from childhood…it makes me wonder about our responsibility in all of it.
Yes people should be more compassionate, sensitive and understanding and as some of you know I did a blog post on What Not to Say to Survivors of Abuse, in which I shared some of the insensitive comments made to survivors.
But we can’t control how other respond to us, we can only be responsible for ourselves and how we walk in the world and how we choose to share our truths and how we respond when our truth is not received the way we would like.
Being on the Other End
Every once in a while someone will send me their abuse story. I totally understand why people see me as a safe person to do this with and I honor the truth telling, but something feels off to me about this as there doesn’t seem to be any asking if I am okay or ready to listen, there doesn’t seem to be any regard for where I am and if perhaps I may not be in a good place to hold space at that time.
It can be jarring at times to be going about your day not thinking about rape or abuse and to have someone come into your private space such as a private message and unload on you.
I have a space for survivors and the women are free to post. Sometimes the posts can be very intense, but that is the nature of the space, that is expected. As the facilitator, I always read them when I am in the right space to hold it.
I have found really good boundaries with this and I feel good about having a space for people to speak their childhood truths when they need to. I know there are others that can hold it when I can’t in that moment and sometimes I have to wait for a day or so to respond. I never feel pressure from my members and I trust myself and know what I can handle in each moment.
It’s the private messages that feel invasive. When they send it to me, I start reading and sometimes I don’t see what’s coming until I read too far. The truth is I’m human and sometimes I’m just not wanting to or ready to read something like that in the middle of my day. I would prefer being asked, I would prefer for a relationship to be built and in time if someone wants to tell me pieces of their story I am okay with that to a certain extent. If I am your coach, and your story is pertinent to the work you are doing, I can hold space for it as well.
What is our responsibility when sharing our stories? I posed this question to the women in the sanctuary on Facebook and here are some of their responses including my own:
“You brought up all the points that came to my mind too, Stephanie. I also think of Brene Brown’s quote about people earning the right to hear our stories. For me, this connects to feeling safe with the person I’m sharing with – but there’s another side for me too, about how some people haven’t earned the right to hear my story… I *could* tell certain people in my life and I would feel safe and strong doing it (which wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago) but I don’t plan to share this part of myself with those people because they haven’t earned the right, the privilege as I think Brene Brown says, for me to share with them.” Ginger
“I relate to everything you’ve said about picking safe people to tell. You definitely want someone to be able to hold the horrors without being overwhelmed by them. It definitely pays to suss out whether a person has done any of their own healing work as they are likely to have more ‘space’ to hear you than someone who is carrying their lifetime load of unprocessed traumas, big and small. And checking in regularly, giving them the option to say, ‘that’s all I can handle for now’. And there is a difference, I think, between a person who, on hearing your story, has tears flowing while listening, to a person who’s eyes have glazed over and has a frozen look of fear on their face. And sometimes it isn’t even a look is it? I just pick up energetically, I guess (from being hypervigilant) that they can’t hold the space. The tears can be a beautiful expression of empathy while listening but the glazed over look can trigger the feeling of isolation of being alone with it all. So….I would check in with the tears with, ‘is it ok to keep going?’ but with the glazed look, I would stop all together. ”
“I struggle with this often. What to tell? How much to tell? But I think I have always thought about in terms of keeping myself safe. Im not sure that I was ever thinking about the safety of the listener. I have always been careful about who I shared my story with. I have always given it in pieces. Partly because it is long and complicated and too much for one sitting and partly because it is hard for me to establish trust and I do it a little at a time. I will give you a piece and If I still feel safe with you then you might get another piece. But I don’t know if I ever considered the safety of the listener. I do think I did that on a subconscious level but not on a conscious one. ”
“I think its more self care- how much of myself do I want this person to know? and since once its out I have no control over who this person tells, am I ok with what I tell? and also how much business it is of the person who I tell? I tell my medical doctor and the guy signing me up at the gym bare bones. I go into detail with my therapist. and other survivors. I also think taking in perspective the other persons emotional state is important- Even in my public speeches I’ve added a line that my story is hard to tell and may even be hard to hear…..but each time I tell I get stronger…..and more people get educated. I agree the whole story shouldn’t be told or even thought about in one setting, its too much for the survivor and maybe too much for the one listening and can result in rejection.” Amy
“For me, for my healing, I need to share with people, almost in an irresponsible way, as far as their feelings go. My abuse came from an outside party, and when I shared with my friends at the time, they called me a liar and coming from a family where I was a scapegoat, it was then told to me that I was making it out to be more than it was, I was over-reacting and that it didnt happen. This is the truth I lived for 20+ years and its come back to haunt me in the form of panic attacks and agoraphobia. I had convinced myself it didnt happen, that I was just too sensitive about it. It’s hard for me to even admit it to myself. To say it out loud feels like a lie.
So to me, I have to say it….over and over, to anyone that can hear. The more I say it, the more I can heal myself. I’m not concerned about their judgements, I know other’s reactions are their’s to worry about. I’m not gonna walk around with a sign around my neck but I also *have* to say it, because it is my instinct to downplay it, to say it’s not real.
Of course I feel shame and guilt for being selfish in this way, but sometimes unabashed sharing is the only way we can heal. ”
“First I would say that I agree that people need to earn the right to hear our stories. We also have to have a reason for telling them. If I tell someone my backstory there has to be trust there and I have to have a reason for telling them. Instead of telling them every lurid detail I summarize. Details can come later when the time is right. Too many details too soon tends to overwhelm people and they may not be supportive. One need we have is to tell our stories. This is so we can be validated and “loved.” Telling your story of doom and woe to everyone you meet is not going to make the world love you. So you must pick carefully. I also wanted to say that we may need to think about the definition of “supportive.” What does that mean? Some think supportive means everyone will act the way we want them to act. If the person does something that takes us out of our comfort zone we say they are mean or uncaring or untrustworthy. I may have said this before but when I see someone in a deep hole I need to make the decision to throw them either a rope or a sandwich.”
I think the biggest responsibility is to herself (the survivor)- to protect her current self and child self. Even when the child self is wanting to stamp her feet and share and expect anyone and everyone to listen and care because she feels alone. It is the current adult self’s responsibility to assess the safety of the carefully chosen listener. That person must have proven their trustworthiness. AND it is the survivor’s responsibility to be certain SHE is indeed ready to share her story. Can she keep herself safe after having shared? AND also, can she comfort her little girl if the adult self deems it’s not safe or appropriate to share for some reason. G.P
I think it is our responsibility to find safe people to share with, to first to ask if it is okay to share, to notice the energy of the other person and see if we have overloaded them, to perhaps slow down and share in smaller bits.
Be open and prepared for the possibility that it may not go well and that has nothing to do with us, that is about their “stuff”. If their reaction is hurtful, it is probably steeped in stereotypes, in misinformation, and may have hooked into something for them that they are not aware of. Sometimes we may think someone is safe and they turn out to not be able to handle it and our job is to try and not internalize that. Sometimes reactions to our stories can be retraumatizing, that is why I think doing the groundwork of choosing a person and building up to sharing something so intimate, may help with this. We can’t just share with anyone, we have to have a relationship with the person and feel safe with them.
I also don’t feel it is fair to tell your whole story or specifics of your story in one sitting with someone. It’s not fair to them and can be overwhelming emotionally which makes them less capable of holding space for you.
This does not include therapists of course, that’s the place where you can do it the way you need to, but even then, the therapist in my opinion should be able to hold it and also slow you down. In my experience it is often not healthy emotionally for the survivor to tell the whole thing in one sitting. I used to tell my story like I was speaking of the weather, detached and perhaps a bit dissociated. Luckily I always had therapists who slowed me down and some of them knew enough to have me pay attention to my body as well. Stephanie
Consider the context in which you tell your story. Does the person you’re sharing your past with feel safe as well? Are you telling your story during a celebration because you feel uncomfortable? Is there a better time to release your pain? As a survivor, I think it’s important to avoid ’emotional hijacking.’ If someone else’s happiness is bringing you pain, step back for a second and ask why that is. You can’t expect to receive a warm, encouraging response from someone if you drop your news on them like a bomb at their graduation, wedding or holiday party. The response is likely to be the exact opposite of what you expected even from your closest family member or confidante. C.S