Recent events in the US have highlighted yet again how often victims of sexual assault in this country are disbelieved, dismissed, or actively blamed for what has happened to them. The process of trying to tell their story invariably seems to create a whole new level of trauma on its own.
Just in the last few weeks I've heard so many stories of the trauma people encountered when trying to tell their story. I've heard just as many stories of the damage done by never telling their story because they knew it would not be heard and accepted.
The last few weeks have been a source of reliving that trauma for so many (including so very many who we don't know about since their story has never been told).
And yet, this phenomenon is so much larger than sexual assault, isn't it?
I've heard too many stories over the years and had too many experiences of my own where stories of suffering are disbelieved, dismissed, or the one suffering has been actively blamed for what happened to them.
There are so many times when someone suffering is told that they are just too sensitive or that they are overreacting to the situation. People grieving a loss are often pressured to get over it and move on long before their grief has had time to be worked through.
The impact of trauma (from accidents to war experiences to abuse) is routinely minimized by those who have not experienced it (and sometimes even by those who have). Those suffering from chronic illness, chronic pain, or mental illness often have their experiences dismissed or are blamed for their own suffering.
In all of these cases, there are secondary wounds that this dismissive behavior generates that can be as painful (if not even more so) than the initial cause of someone's suffering.
It's much like having dirt and grit thrown all over our open wounds that not only adds pain to and slows the healing of the initial wound, but is also likely to cause later infection to arise, making the wound even more dangerous.
On top of all that, it also means that so many of us go through life's hardest times unheard and alone because we are afraid to share our story or were further traumatized by the attempt to tell our story.
Even worse, having our story met with this kind of response leaves us questioning ourselves and our own experience. Instead of feeling supported through our suffering, we instead wind up doubting ourselves, blaming ourselves, and further traumatizing ourselves in the same way others have.
All the way around, it's a recipe for added suffering and increased trauma and brokenness in all directions.
While there may be a limited amount any of us can do to change this cultural tendency at large, there is always more we can do in our own small circles right where we are to begin creating more healing ways of responding to stories of suffering, trauma, and brokenness.
We can begin by shifting the way we deal with our own stories. There may for many of us still be stories that we don't feel safe to share publicly, but we can still search for safe places to begin telling them. This may mean finding a trusted counselor or therapist or support group if we don't have friends or loved ones who feel safe enough.
Either way, we can begin getting those stories of our experiences—either of the initial wounds or the secondary wounds caused by dismissive or ugly reactions to our story—out there to release the infection and let the wounds begin healing.
We can refuse to let others' opinions about our stories continue to create self-doubt or self-blame. We can make the choice to believe ourselves and our experiences no matter what others think. This may not make their reactions hurt any less, but it makes sure we don't add to it ourselves.
We can also use our own experiences to fuel a commitment to be a safe place for others to tell their stories.
Unless we are actively sitting on a jury, it's not our job to judge another person's story. When we let go of needing to decide whether their story is right or wrong or whether their reaction to what happened to them is right or wrong, it is much easier to just be present to them and to their suffering.
While another person's pain can be hard to sit with, it is helpful to remember that our job is not to fix it, make it better, or change it in any way (as tempting as all of those things are). Our role is just be present as a witness and a support to them doing their own healing work.
Being present in this way for others (and for ourselves) without throwing any dirt of disbelief, dismissal, or accusation into their wounds is a gift beyond measure.
Making these small shifts in our own lives of telling our stories in safe places, learning to be present in safe ways for others, and refusing to judge ourselves or others for our painful and traumatic experiences is the way to begin making this shift happen in our larger culture, and it's a shift that desperately needs to happen.
It's a place where our healing gold can become a gift to others in a way that ripples out as a gift to many.
What stories do you need to find a safe place to share to bleed out the infection in old wounds of yours? What safe places do you have now to share those stories that you might not have had at the time? Are you willing to take that step?
Where can you commit to better honoring your own stories by dropping the doubt or blame that others have piled on you for your experiences? Who or what might help you do that?
Who do you know that might benefit from your nonjudgmental, non-dirt-throwing presence to listen to their story? What might help you have the courage to take that step? What skills or attitudes might you need to work on to ensure that you are a safe presence?
Can you commit to taking some small action toward one of these areas today?
And if you are someone who has no other safe space to tell your story, I'd be glad to be a safe, supportive space for you to begin that process today. Send me an email with your story, and I'm happy to listen and offer nonjudgmental support and presence for you to be heard.
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