The Importance of Bearing Witness

drawing of a woman reading a book representing bearing witnessI realize more and more the importance of bearing witness. I was thinking about how much it has helped me with working through my history of abuse and looking forward. When I start to get tired of moving beyond the darkness that sits with me in the form of shame, fear, anger, and regret, something always occurs to remind me of the importance of bearing witness. 

Those reminders come from different places, usually when I least expect it. It is also those reminders of why I should keep pushing forward that me that bearing witness isn’t only about my story. It is about the story of others. It is not easy to do, but if other people bravely tell their stories, I need to be brave and listen.

“Bearing witness is a term that, used in psychology, refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, obtain empathy and support, lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and obtain catharsis. Most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events. We bear witness to one another through our writing, through art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.” 1

Reminders of Bearing Witness

One of those recent reminders about the importance of bearing witness occurred while listening to the December 16, 2020 episode of the Unlocking Us podcast. Brené Brown was talking with Dax Shephard and Tim Ferriss on many topics. I haven’t listened to the entire podcast yet because I began to have thoughts about bearing witness halfway through.

The first thought that I had was about Tim Ferriss talking about telling his story of sexual abuse on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. I think I did my version of a mental, ‘whaaa???’ and looked at my phone. It’s a podcast, I don’t know why I looked at my phone, but I did. And as I did, I thought, how many more people have these traumatic experiences in their childhood? Too many. Way too many.

Hearing that sharing his story led him on a healing path reinforced what I already know deep in my heart; it is essential to tell our stories. We need to tell our stories, to bear witness, because, during that storytelling, we truly begin to know ourselves. By understanding ourselves better, we can be better for others, and we can bear witness to others’ stories. Bearing witness does so much for ourselves and others.

Expels Loneliness & Isolation

One of the most critical ways that bearing witness helps is it shows us we are not alone. Unfortunately, many people in the world have similar stories of abuse, trauma, and mind-brain illnesses. But we don’t talk about our experiences enough so that others can see us and know they are not alone.

I know I didn’t talk about my experiences until recently; I hid behind so many things. One was alcohol, which I have removed from my life, and in doing so, I see and hear others’ stories of addiction more than I did before. I think I couldn’t hear those stories before because I wasn’t ready to listen to them. Now that I am ready and open, I hear those stories. I can bear witness to others who are working through their addiction. And I am in a place that I can cheer them on, whether they know I am or not.

Another important reason for us to stop feeling that we are alone is that abusers use that isolation to control us. Abuse is all about power and control over another person, and the abuser will use all tools to keep their victims within that control. Isolation is one of the most powerful tools to keep their victims in the dark. By lessening the feelings of isolation, we lessen the power the abuser has.

Getting Out of My Own Way

Everything that I have been through has made me who I am today. Sure, I had to get through a lot of bullshit. Primarily I had to get out of my own way by facing my abusive past. That past was the reason that I was initially on a path to self-destruction. And when I didn’t self-destruct with the direct route, I took the more meandering road to self-destruction through life long addiction.

Eventually, I saw myself for where I was in life, and I did not like what I saw. That lead me to realize that I am an alcoholic, and then I removed alcohol from my life (still working on how that all works for me). I am still here. And here I write. And draw. And tell my story. I would not be doing all of those things if it wasn’t for all of my life experiences.

The experiences that I have had led me to this moment, sitting here, writing. I can wish all day long that I did not grow up in an abusive house. It is a part of me and will be for my entire life. I didn’t get to choose that to be a part of my life. I had no control over the people I was born to or how those people treated me.  Now, I have control. I get to choose how to incorporate those experiences into my life, not the other way around.

Bearing Witness to Survival & Thrivival

Bearing witness to other’s stories helps us to realize that we can survive. I watch, listen to, and read about others’ stories to see how they survived their abuse. I survived mine, but that was through what I think was my sheer force of will. I didn’t want my abusers to win, which would mean that I would have lost. I didn’t know it then, but that was my way of surviving.

To me, survival is when you are in the midst of the darkness of abuse, and you can see that light at the end of the tunnel. The light starts out looking small and far away, but the more I fought against the abuse, the closer I got, the more that light grew. But I didn’t walk out of the dark into the light when I was close enough to do so. I didn’t know how. I was so used to fighting my way through the darkness – I was so used to surviving that I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t fighting. And so I stood there, in the shadows, standing on the edge of the light.

You see, walking into the light meant leaving survival behind and entering into thrivival, the place where I could truly be myself, without the armor, without the defenses up. The more I stood there, I wanted to be out in that light, I was tired of feeling the way I felt, but I was scared. But then I started watching and reading other people’s stories; I started bearing witness. And I saw people thriving, living their lives to the fullest, and being successful in that. It gave me hope. And within that hope, the strength to walk forward, to step out of the darkness completely.

Bearing Witness Purposely

It isn’t an easy situation to deal with or even think about, and I am sure you, like me, are like, ‘what, how do you incorporate that into your life?’ Or ‘why would you want to?’ And those are valid questions. The first one I am still working on, how do I incorporate that into my life? My first thought is my blog. At least for me, I want to understand the more profound ramifications of my abuse. To do that, I am pulling together pieces from neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand myself better. For others, their path may be different to incorporate trauma into their existence. Or that isn’t the answer for some people at all.

I look at it like this; it will be there, that abuse and trauma darkness, it doesn’t go away. How can I use it to help me and help others instead of allowing it to affect me negatively? That is the question that I ask myself. And I found at least part of my answer while bearing witness to others’ stories. I found my purpose; to add my story to so many others.

I envision all of our stories connecting into a global narrative. That connection will create something amazing all over the world. I am not sure what that thing is yet. I am not sure that I will know what it is until it happens. Perhaps a world without abuse and violence? That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? I think so. And I believe it is possible.

Sources Cited

  1. Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D. (December 3, 2013). The Power and Strength of Bearing Witness. Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved December 21, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meaningful-you/201312/the-power-and-strength-bearing-witness#:~:text=Bearing%20witness%20is%20a%20term,to%20others%20of%20traumatic%20experiences.
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