Ep. 128: Bearing Witness – Who Did You Tell?

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When I was around 6 years old, I was on the playground and a boy was yelling at me to not play on the monkey bars. When I stood up to him and told him I could be on the monkey bars if I wanted, he punched me in my chest. Hard. I felt a snap and I couldn’t breathe. I felt dizzy. 


I hid under a platform on the playground and when a teacher came by and asked if I was okay and if the boy had punched me, I just sat there quietly, holding my chest, and shook my head no. 


I’d like to think she knew I was lying.  


But why didn’t I say anything? Why didn’t I say, “Hey, this kid hit me! Someone do something, and ouch – this HURTS!” 


He actually broke a rib near my sternum. There’s even a lump of calcified bone above my left boob where he hit me. 


I never told anyone – not even my parents. 


Gabor Mate recommends that when we uncover trauma, we ask, “Who did you tell?” 


More often than not, the answer is, “No one.” 


Why? Part of the reason why we hide these early traumas is shame, but also the belief it won’t make a difference, or that is might even make things worse…and myriad other reasons.  


People not witnessing what happened to us and empathetically validating our experience deepen the wound. 


Not telling someone and going through it alone deepens the wound. 


Peter Levine said, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” 


Bearing witness and being witnessed is what we talk about today. 


Here is a letter I wrote to my second grade teacher last week (but didn’t send): 


Dear second-grade teacher at the fancy private school I was at on scholarship, 


When you told me I had to buy a ticket to the event held *during school hours* … 


…and that since my parents didn’t give me money to buy the ticket (because we didn’t have it).. 


… you decided it was OK to tell me, a 7-year-old, that I would have to sit alone in the classroom while I heard all the laughter outside, and the music as the girls twirled their batons to “Another One Bites the Dust” 


…and the other wealthier kids giggled at me as they all filed up to walk into the courtyard to watch the show… 


Did you know I felt shame? 




…That I cried thinking I had done something wrong? 


…That I became angry at my parents for not giving me the money when a second ago I loved them for my nice new lunch box? 


… That I vowed I would never be able to not afford anything ever again, which contributed to me giving money a type of power over my happiness that it should never have (and took years to unpack)? 


… that I started to not like a part of myself, even though I didn’t know what that part was? 


Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. But it was f*cked up. 


To the other adult who walked in an hour later and took me by the hand and told me you’d pay for me and walked me outside for the last two performances (that I hid in the back for so no one noticed)… and I couldn’t even look you in the eye or remember who you were because I was so deep in my shame and wasn’t sure I even wanted – or deserved – for you to help me… 


It was kind…but I couldn’t even enjoy it anymore. 


But…Thank you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you that at the time. I was too busy hiding inside. 


And that’s as far as I got. 


That act of kindness the adult who came back for me showed me affirmed for me that what was happening was wrong.  


The fact that someone else saw the injustice and my pain meant the world to me. It told me I wasn’t crazy for thinking my 7-year-old self deserved better. 


This is a small but impactful event among many big ones in my life (sexual assault, physical abuse, cancer twice over, and more). 


It could have been bigger than it was, but the woman who came back and took me by the hand helped make this painful event that sucked a less painful one. A less big one, even though it etched itself into my soul. 


Having an empathetic witnesses heals. Validation of our suffering helps us open ourselves to self-compassion, and eventually create a safe enough internal environment to allow the trauma that had been hidden to emerge and heal. 


Empathetic witnesses are also necessary to ease suffering at the moment of a painful event.  


As much as I sometimes wish I could say I don’t need someone else, I am human. 


And since you are too, I wanted to let you know that we need one another to make it through this life, and that it’s ok to long for that connection and understanding. 


As Ram Dass said, “We are all walking each other home.” 


So I hope that it makes a little more sense to you why you may not have told anyone before.  


Or that it makes sense why we long for connection and a sense of belonging and being heard and seen and understood.  


It’s a basic human need. 


And I hope it helps inspire you to slow down and take the time to be that empathetic witness for others. 


Giving and receiving this gift is life-transforming. Deeply healing. Mind-blowing. Soul-expanding. 


And so simply, quietly, utterly HUMAN. 


What you will learn:  

// Why it matters who we tell our suffering to 

// Why we resist sharing traumatic events with others 

// The importance of an empathetic witness in healing 

// How we can help keep a paintful event from defining us 


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