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Having a safe compassionate witness who demonstrates empathy is key to any healing process. Examples of people we can turn to for support include mental health professionals, spiritual guides, a partner or spouse, a close friend, a mentor or coach, and in recovery from addiction, a sponsor.
Seeking out and accepting support from another person can be a difficult threshold for many of us to cross. From a very early age, we learn to draw on our own individual resources and coping mechanisms. Those of us who have experienced trauma often self-curate powerful coping strategies to learn to handle things on our own. It can be an empowering and profound moment of self-actualization to know we are capable of surviving extraordinary challenges. However, this often leaves us feeling alone or lonely in a crowd, which is our innate nature crying out for connection. It doesn’t mean we’re broken. It means we’ve disconnected. SUSTAINED healing, growth, love, and belonging require bonding with another sentient being.
We all have an intrinsic and healthy need to be valued and cared about. As social animals, our bodies and nervous systems are literally designed to co-regulate with one another. We are not meant to try to live in isolation without a genuine sense of love and belonging.
When listening to others it’s very important to shift away from trying to find a solution or fix things for one another. Instead, it’s much more effective and healing to become fully present to listen and offer empathic reflections in order to understand the other person’s experience more fully. In doing so, it is important to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy through reflective listening. As Brene Brown famously states, “Empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy drives disconnection.” This short animated video clip from Brene Brown helps to make the distinction clear.
As you become more comfortable sharing your experiences with someone, an important next step is to identify at least one person who can enter into a secure attachment relationship with you. This is someone with whom you feel safe being your whole self. For some of us, this role might have been filled by our parents during our early development and then transitioned into trusting and faithful friendships, or a safe romantic partnership in our adulthood. For those of us who faced significant childhood adversity, we may have had to work hard to learn how to form safe friendships in our adulthood. When we develop a secure attachment with someone, we can rely on this person to be there to provide presence, attunement, safety, reassurance, consistent engagement and protection when needed.
Secure attachment relationships work best when they offer empathic reflections and a few genuinely open questions to understand the other person’s experience more fully. These relationships are most effective when the listener avoids comparing their life experiences to ours. Practicing empathy isn’t about drawing direct comparisons, it’s about making connections. To be clear, empathy is indeed about the listener making internal connections with our story. But shifting the attention and energy away from our story toward the listener can inadvertently cause disconnection. To avoid this, I suggest avoiding “Why” questions and orienting more toward “What” and “How” questions, which are more open and less threatening. Bottom line, listening isn’t about solving, but connecting, seeing the person across from us, and validating their experience.
When you do choose to share your story with someone, be aware that sometimes unpacking traumatic events and re-telling what happened over and over again can re-traumatize you. The power is not necessarily in the telling of the full sequence of your experience, but the feelings you’ll experience when you have an empathetic witness who can help you digest your experience a little bit at a time. Once you decide to share a challenging or overwhelming experience with someone who’s earned your trust, here are a few suggestions to help support a healing and regulating exchange.
1.) Creating an Anchor for Your Nervous System
Before unpacking any stressful experience with someone, it’s important to create a grounding anchor for your nervous system. You can do this by choosing one of your five senses to focus on for several minutes. You can also choose a memory where you recall feeling truly safe or at peace – such as playing with your pets, taking a walk along your favorite trail, or reading your favorite book from that deliciously cozy spot in your bed.
When pulling this memory or felt sense into the foreground of your awareness, begin to pay close attention to what you notice in your body. What types of sensations begin to emerge? Do you feel warmth, coolness, tingling, a softness in your breath? What happens for you when you’re feeling truly safe, present and regulated? Whatever you begin to notice in your body such as relaxed shoulders, a soft gaze or warm sensation in your chest – this physical sensation that accompanies your memory will serve as your anchor.
Rather than trying to unpack your whole story in one fell swoop, set an intention to pause several times throughout your sharing and circle back to your anchor every few minutes or so. You can ask your compassionate witness to help support you with this. Invite them to remind you to pause and bring your anchor back into the foreground whenever they notice that your energy is starting to shift into higher states of stress. This is a somatic pendulation technique that Dr. Peter Levine has developed to help us regulate our nervous systems while unpacking a challenging or traumatic event to prevent feelings of overwhelm and helplessness.
2.) Notice the Signals and Sensations from Your Body and Try Acting Them Out
Our bodies provide each of us with a great deal of feedback and insight at any given moment for the unmasked feelings that are stirring inside of us. When we are in the midst of a challenging, scary or overwhelming event, our bodies will naturally begin to initiate a flight or fight response. Yet at the time of the unfolding these impulses to flee, fight back or communicate a strong boundary often get thwarted when our nervous system wisely assesses the threat and causes us to unconsciously shift gears into a freeze response. When this happens the natural reaction to move away or protect ourselves can become stuck in a somatic holding pattern.
In the care of our compassionate, empathic witness, we can slow the story down, take time to allow the wave of emotions to emerge and notice our body’s physical impulses such as a desire to curl up, make a fist, push something, move away, scream, curse, or say no to someone who crossed a boundary.
If you can notice these natural, healthy impulses from your body, I strongly encourage you to take a moment to act out the movements. The only caveat is to go through these gestures in slow motion. This will allow your mind and body to not only fully visualize the scene and sequence but also to thoroughly notice the details of how it feels to finally be able to throw that punch or push someone with force to protect yourself. While some of these impulses may surprise you, I encourage you to find a safe quiet place in order to give yourself lots of room to fully embody and express the movements that have been trapped and withheld.
3.) Allow Plenty of Space for the Waves of Your Emotions to Move Through You
In the same way that our physical bodies may have a natural, raw, impulse to react to a highly stressful event with kicking, biting, fleeing or shouting, we can also have strong waves of emotions that may have been thwarted at the time of an overwhelming event. When we share our story with someone, it can be profoundly healing to slow down, take our time, and once again pause to notice what emotions might be emerging. As we begin to thaw out and revisit our experience(s) with care, waves of potent emotion such as sadness, confusion or anger are likely to surface.
A supportive connection with an empathetic witness who can be fully present to our emotions can provide a profound healing experience. All too often, when we were in the midst of a highly stressful or traumatic experience, there wasn’t someone present who had the skills to provide protection, care and attunement – someone who could bear witness and provide a safe space for the healthy waves of raw emotions that needed to be expressed in the moment. When you’re ready to share your story, having an empathic witness who can simply be present with you without the need to try to fix or change anything can enable the intelligence of our emotions to restore us to a genuine state of balance.
Keep in mind that as the waves of your emotions start to flow you can always return to your grounding anchor to help you regulate and take the time to digest your experience in bite size steps.
While it can be a vulnerable process to choose to share our story with someone, it is a vital part of our healing journey. It may seem easier to simply keep the difficult moments in our lives to ourselves, but when we have the courage to share our story with someone who has earned the right to hear it, we can cross the threshold of loneliness and isolation into place of recognition for our shared humanity. Truly being seen, heard and understood by another is a healing medicine that invites each of us to acknowledge the journey we’ve walked and embrace our capacity to transform the effects of trauma.