“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou, American poet,
I was about 21 when I decided to move to another city to pursue a master’s degree and it was as nerve-wracking as it was exciting. I was on my own and quite out of my comfort zone. Struggling to make sense of a language I didn’t speak, adjusting to new academic expectations, and learning to live away from home was all a bit too overwhelming. And to top it all, everyone else seemed to be getting by quite smoothly. So, I decided to gulp down my fears, put on a brave face and soldier on through the semester. I instructed myself to keep calm and pretend like I knew what I was doing, without realizing that my I needed to verbalize my anxieties and not suppress them.
“You’re looking quite lost in thought. Is everything okay?” a classmate asked me, one day in class. “Oh yes! Everything’s okay!”, I responded. However, her relaxed and compassionate demeanour told me that she was open to listening. So, I responded by pouring out the anxiety and frustration that had pent up over the first few weeks. I’m quite sure that she had other things that she needed to attend to, yet she was fully present, listening mindfully to my outpouring of emotions. She made me feel like everything I had to say was important and that my story mattered. Her empathetic presence encouraged me to share and unload my burden of anxieties. Once she had heard me, she was able to relate and open up about her fears as well.
Much like how Brené Brown, a research professor, author and public speaker explains in one of her talks, “When someone’s in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and say, ‘Hey, I’m stuck, it’s dark and I’m overwhelmed,’ we look down and say, ‘I know what it’s like down there and you’re not alone.’”
So many of us are tormented by the irrational idea that we as human beings are disconnected and separate from one another and that we should keep to ourselves, for there is no one you can truly trust to understand where you’re coming from. How many times have we heard these when we attempt to open up?
“Don’t dwell on painful memories!”
“Get over it!”
“Snap out of it!”
I was no different. I spent most of school life thinking that nobody would understand my struggle with growing up in a home that wasn’t physically and emotionally safe and secure. I felt disconnected. I didn’t quite belong with others in my class, either. I didn’t know anyone who was going through or had been through what I was experiencing. And how would I? Haven’t we all learnt that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public? I would mask how I truly felt and pretend as if everything was okay. I started keeping to myself and viewed sharing details about my struggles as pathetic and dramatic. I would shove my feelings away and felt obligated to pretend I was strong and happy.
Stigma, shame, apathy and indifference can make verbalizing what one is going through quite terrifying. We would rather leave our stories untold than experience the vulnerability that comes with sharing your story. But the paradoxical truth is that when we share about our experiences and we’re responded with empathy, compassion, and acceptance, our shame loses its power and hold upon us. When we tell our stories and others bear witness to it, the idea that we are disconnected and separate dissolves, for deeply personal and sincere stories have the ability to transcend all boundaries between the listener and the narrator. Feeling heard, understood, accepted, and like you’re being given loving attention can be a powerful medicine and to benefit fully from this medicine, it is essential that we don’t hold ourselves back. Because when we keep our untold stories to ourselves, we miss a chance at having intimacy and a sense of connection with others. Moreover, sharing our stories helps us to acknowledge how we feel and figure out the why we’re feeling the way we do.
So, I encourage you to go out there and share your story. Because when you do, you will not only understand how good it feels to be heard, you will also gain a better understanding of the courage and strength it takes to be vulnerable. Also, in order to understand where another person is coming from, we have to be in touch with our feelings and their sources. And so, when we share our stories, we become better equipped at empathizing with and accepting others.
Your stories can offer another perspective to somebody else. Your stories can empower others to share and open up. Your stories can initiate a movement of positive change. And if you are made to feel embarrassed and ashamed about your story, please know that others simply may not know how else to respond. We as human beings tend to run away from pain, be it physical or emotional, ours or somebody else’s. Which is why, listening empathetically requires one to be just as vulnerable.
As a psychotherapist, and as someone who’s heard quite a lot of stories, I can tell you that there are many like me who are willing to listen. And, as someone who has shared her stories, I can tell you it can be healing to do so.
So, reach out and tell, because your story matters.