One of the things that has been bringing joy to my life lately is providing safe spaces for people of color to connect, share their stories, and support each other. These spaces have been therapeutic for those who attended with tears flowing and connections made. People have shared experiences that they thought were unique to them only to find commonality and realize that they are not alone.
Many of us tend to isolate ourselves when we are having a hard time. We may pull away from friends and family during these times because we are usually the “strong one” the person who others turn to when they’re upset. We worry that if we shared our struggles the people that we love would be burdened. We tell ourselves that other people have their own stuff going on and don’t need to be stressed by what’s happening with us. Some of us isolate during times of trouble because we avoid being vulnerable. It feels scary to tell someone that we are having a hard time and need support. We worry that we might be judged or rejected if we open up. For some people, self-criticism keeps them from reaching out to others, they are so harsh on themselves that they can’t imagine receiving help from someone else. All of these ways of thinking keep us stuck, alone, in our pain. Believing that we don’t deserve, or shouldn’t seek support from loved ones keeps us from the very thing we need the most when we are going through a difficult time.
There are a number of things that make sharing our stories in a safe space a powerful way of healing. First, articulating our stories, sharing the narrative of what has happened to us, helps us to make sense of what we have experienced. Taking the time to tell your story helps you to put things into words, to identify your thoughts and feelings, to distinguish between what actually happened and your thoughts about an experience. This process helps to give you clarity about what is going on with you. As a therapist, I have had numerous clients tell me that they feel better after their first appointment and I believe it is because they were guided to share what was going on for them and had an empathetic person listening to them.
Second, one of things we need most when we are going through a rough time is for someone to bear witness to what we are experiencing. Sharing your story and having someone acknowledge and validate your feelings and experiences is powerful. Many of us go over our experiences in our minds again and again trying to figure out if we are justified for feeling the way we do. Having someone affirm that our feelings are reasonable relieves this pressure to justify our feelings by continuing to replay the harm done to us. An essential aspect of trauma treatment is when therapists guide clients to tell their stories and serve as witnesses to what the client has experienced. Feeling like you are not alone in your experience is an important part of healing.
Finally, telling your story also helps you to connect to the fact that you are not the only one struggling. We can become very focused on ourselves and what we are doing wrong when we are having a difficult time. We may shame ourselves and feel like we are the only ones struggling. We scroll through social media, see the beautiful outsides of other people’s lives, and assume that no one else is in pain like we are. When we open up and tell people what we are going through or what we have gone through we give them the opportunity to share their own struggles with us. Telling our stories allows us to deepen our connections to friends and family through openness and vulnerability and helps us to see that we are not alone.
The following are my recommendations for how you can put this information into practice.
Find a witness
Find someone or a small group of people that you trust to open up to about what you’ve been struggling with. Choose someone who you know is empathetic and compassionate; your judgey, overly-opinionated friend or family member is probably not the best choice. You can determine if someone would be a good witness by telling them something small that you are struggling with and paying attention to how they respond. Notice if this person offers empathy and really wants to know how you are doing. Once you feel more comfortable, you can begin to open up more. If you don’t have friends or family who can serve as your witness or if you need more ongoing, unbiased support, consider having a therapist be your witness. (See my previous post on finding and choosing a therapist).
Ask for the kind of support you need
One of the things that often gets in the way of people feeling supported is when witnesses jump to providing suggestions and solutions to the problems presented. As you prepare to share your story, it can be helpful to tell your witness that you are looking for empathy and support, not solutions or ways to “fix” a problem. This request will help the witness get into the right mindset to provide the support that will be most helpful to you.
Share your story
Once you have chosen and prepared your witness, the next step is to share your story. Tell this person that you trust what is really going on for you, the painful things that you have experienced. Tell them in a way that helps them to understand how hard things are for you (e.g. don’t make it a joke) so that they know you are serious and will respond kindly. I encourage you to take this slowly, particularly if you have a history of trauma. Don’t push yourself to open up too quickly or beyond a place that you feel safe sharing. if you have a significant trauma history, this sharing is probably best done in the context of therapy. When sharing difficult experiences it is common to cry, let yourself cry. It is normal to feel a range of emotions, let yourself feel those emotions. Give yourself the space to be fully human as you tell your story.
Receive the support and empathy offered
As you tell your story, I encourage you to allow yourself to receive the support and encouragement that your witness offers. Sometimes the shame of what we have gone through pulls us to close off from empathy. It may feel uncomfortable to receive the support that people offer and it is an essential part of healing. Look at your witness in the eyes when they respond to you. Accept their hug, take in their statements of love and acceptance. Your mind may want to discount what they are saying or doing (e.g. “they’re just saying that to make you feel better) and I encourage you to let go of those types of thoughts.
If you are struggling in your life today, I encourage you to find a witness, to tell your story in order to begin healing.