At the risk of sounding socially inept and imperceptive, until very recently I’ve underestimated the magic and power of the act of 1) saying something out loud, 2) being witnessed, and 3) witnessing others in relationships.
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” — Brené Brown
I have heard and read this idea at least 4 times before in different interviews, speeches, and passages from her books. But as we know most words are just words to you until they’re not.
I talked about how I started going to therapy 2 months ago, and even though I didn’t learn anything new about myself, no new mental toolboxes, and had no breakthroughs during the sessions, I find that the fact I have started talking about it helps open a floodgate of conversations and more thinking in public about it.
To be able to talk about your struggles with a professional, knowing it’s secure, the intentions are clear, the boundaries are set, and you don’t have to feel bad about taking up ALL the time and making it all about you.
Trapping my thoughts, perceived reality, and experience in words have helped immensely but it’s apparently not as powerful as saying and hearing them. I have written and published many pieces about different things I’m struggling with even since 2016, and I’ve shared bits and pieces with friends, in different levels of detail depending on the setting.
But these merely have a trickling effect, while talking about it in a relatively fuller scope has snowballed the progress.
I think it’s because 1) in order to say things out loud, you have to metabolise & make sense of them. What I often forget is that a) it’s OK to not wait until everything makes sense before I can talk about it. b) That this process is even more efficiently facilitated through the act of talking it through. c) That it’s okay to grab someone and say “hey I need to figure this out, can you just hear me think out loud?”
And second, 2) secrecy is where shame grows.
Talking about something makes it less of an abstract fuzzy secret. Similar to that daunting task that you keep on pushing away but once dealt with, only takes 5 mins.
Of course it is most amazing to hear “wow you too? I can so relate”. But I also find that feeling like you are being understood because you felt like you have managed to fully express (at least on a higher level than you’ve ever managed to get in the past) is already immensely helpful without actually being understood.
Another way of saying it is: whether or not your therapist or your friends actually understood what you’re going through matters less than the very act of expressing yourself.
This also reminds me of three things Anna Kendrick shared in Armchair Experts.
- First how hearing the other person (a woman her boyfriend admitted to having an affair with) confirms the thing she already knew is true as she has seen the proof in writing (their chat log) is oddly healing. I loved the way she described this, that “the truth finally landed in her body” — that it’s not in her head, not something distorted by her shared reality with her partner.
- The second is about how she appreciates her brother being so great at supporting her by merely being there in a room with her, witnessing and holding space as she vents, lets things out of her system, and blows off some steam.
The third is how in a short interview she ended up blurting about her struggle with an abusive relationship — something she has kept to herself for some time for fear of being shamed for it. Then how surprised she was and how healing for her that once “it’s out”, she found herself unable to stop talking about it to anyone who showed even the faintest interest. The shame has been defused and the weight has been lifted.
The act of articulating and witnessing are magical for us human. Healing is very relational. Connection, vulnerability, intimacy.
Being listened to, being seen, and being understood are basic human needs. To belong, essentially.