I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Smart as the keynote speaker at the Riverview Center fund-raising event last week. Riverview Center provides help to victims of sexual and domestic violence. Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom at the age of 14 in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002. She was kidnaped at knife point and held by a couple for nine months. She was tied up, raped daily and threatened with death if she didn’t comply.
In recounting her story, she spoke of feeling that she was damaged and no longer of value. She initially chose not to speak about her trauma. She could have retained this view of herself as forever flawed. However, her father became an advocate for victims and encouraged her to join him. It was there that she learned the power of sharing her story. As she listened to other victim’s share their experience, she realized that although the details were different, they all shared a similar pain. This helped her heal. As she opened up, she found her voice and became a victim advocate. She has been instrumental in passing legislation, received numerous awards, and founded a task force to educate children about violent and sexual crime.
Carl Jung contended that “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” Today this viewpoint is generally abbreviated to “What you resist persists.” Many trauma victims have never spoken their story out loud. To recall the event is to relive it and to re-live the horror. It is an understandable choice to keep it private but it comes at a cost. Your negative beliefs are frozen in time. You likely have out-of-date thoughts and feelings about yourself, which are usually exaggerated and negatively distorted. When these thoughts are shared, they become malleable rather than fixed. A supportive person or group can help you feel less lonely, isolated or judged. You may gain a sense of empowerment. You may learn new coping skills to reduce depression, distress and anxiety. You may get practical advice or information about treatment options. You may learn to love yourself and trust others again.
I agree with Ms. Smart who said that pain is pain. Whether you suffered kidnaping and rape by a stranger, or sexual abuse from a family member, or some other offense, they are all painful events. Even Ms. Smart minimized her suffering by hearing of others who had, by her judgment, more severe forms of abuse. She felt the strength to survive because she knew her family loved her, would welcome her return, and would keep her safe. She has sympathy for victims of abuse by a family member and the resultant shattered trust. However, there is no need to judge whether your situation is better or worse than another’s. It is painful to you.
Issues that have not been emotionally resolved don’t just disappear. They may lie dormant for a while, but they may show up as low self-esteem, ill health or impaired relationships. Ms. Smart was helped by sharing her story and by becoming an advocate for all child victims. She turned an unforgivable horror into prevention and support for others.
If you have an unspeakable source of emotional pain, I encourage you to tell your story to a trusted person. Find someone who is kind, compassionate or wise to talk to. You might feel a new sense of lightness.