I remember sitting in my first TIMBo facilitator training pouring my heart out about my past and making the declaration, “I know that this experience doesn’t define me.”
A trainer stopped me, “But, it DID define you. You can’t have that experience and it NOT shape you…and that’s a good thing.”
My brain recognized this concept as foreign but very important.
It was if all these separate neurons were stretching to find each other to make some dang sense of this. I have a psychology degree. I have worked at a domestic violence shelter. I have immersed myself in the new age, Louise Hay, crystal toting, incense burning, candle-gazing communities of the world. The message has always been, “Trauma doesn’t have to define me. I can rise above.”
What these strong, vulnerable women were telling me flies in the face of everything my own culture told me. My experiences do define me, AND I can still heal. What I’ve come to understand from this is that when we say, “It doesn’t have to define me,” we really mean that “It doesn’t make me a victim. Just because this happened, doesn’t make me weak.” In an effort to convince ourselves or others that we are resilient, we pick up a narrative of, “It didn’t define me.” This narrative is meant to empower, but it’s a gussied up version of straight-up denial: Denial that it happened. Denial that it changed you.
We deny that experiences can define us (especially in trauma) because we don’t want to be seen by others or ourselves as damaged goods. Trauma, while seen as something outside of the realm of the “normal human experience,” is actually quite common. While not everyone knows the pain of sexual abuse or war, when you start adding in other traumatic events: car accidents, natural disasters, medical procedures, deaths, physical violence, poverty, (or even occurrences like being left alone at home as a young child and being frightened), almost everyone in this world has known the pain of a traumatic event. If almost everyone has felt the pain of trauma, then why would we continue to repeat the mantra, “It didn’t define me,”?
We are ashamed of what we perceive makes us different.
The irony here is that the pain we fear will ostracize us from a group, actually is the very thing that EVERY HUMAN BEING can relate. We all feel pain. We all are shaped by painful experiences. AND we can heal. We can share our experiences and help others. We can connect into our own pain and compassionately connect to others. This connection, (even connecting over a terrible thing), helps us know that we are not alone and can help us heal from trauma.
Not every person in your life will want to hear about your pain. In this case, I like to rely on the old phrase: “Don’t go to hardware store for milk.” There are people in your life incapable of hearing and receiving your pain. That’s on them. Let me repeat because it’s so important. That’s on them. Your experiences are part of the broad range of human experiences. We need your voice. We need your story. We need to relate. We need it to define you, because it defined us too. Sharing pain is the birthplace of compassion and empathy: the two things that separate us (on most days) from animals. If you have the voice to share it, I have the ears to hear it.
Let it define you as it has defined all of us. Let it break you open instead of break you down. When you encounter a person who can’t hear you, practice having empathy for the time you couldn’t hear it yourself. Your story isn’t a burden. It’s the thing that links us all together. It’s the thing that makes suffering worthwhile. It’s the upside to pain. It’s the one thing we all know and will encounter until we leave this body.
It did define us.
And we still healed. We still can.