As a survivor of a toxic relationship, a critical part of your recovery is sharing your trauma narrative. This is a psychological technique used to help you make sense of your traumatic experiences, while also acting as a form of exposure to painful memories. [Cohen, J. A., & Mannarino, A. P. (2008)].
I often compare the sharing of trauma narratives to being in a church and sharing a testimony. A lot of individuals share that there is no testimony without a test. In church, this signifies that the individual has become delivered from whatever it was that was causing disruption in their lives.
Within therapy, I share this concept with clients to help them understand what the healing process looks like. In many domestic violence and other trauma-related workshops and banquets, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing survivors tell their stories for the first time in front of others. These moments were very powerful and allowed others to speak up about their own traumatic experiences. This sharing can be moving and healing for both the survivor and the individuals that they share their stories with.
Before telling your story, it is important for you to understand where you are in your healing process. When in therapy, I intentionally do not directly address the traumas in detail, as some clients can become overwhelmed, flooded with emotions or even re-traumatized.
This was something I had to learn early in my career working with survivors of trauma. In one of my sessions as a novice trauma therapist, there was someone who began to share her trauma narrative in detail and the following week she disclosed that she tried to harm herself as a result. This is an example of someone not yet ready to share their trauma narrative Before sharing your story, it is important to make sure you have adequate coping skills to take care of yourself, such as:
• Having a safe space physically and mentally: You can have a space in your home or a space mentally in your mind where you feel you can escape when you begin to feel overwhelmed or unsafe. Do this by giving yourself details of what that safe space would look like, smell like, sound like, as well as what you would taste and hear. The more detail you provide yourself, the more secure you can feel in your safe space when overwhelmed or triggered.
• Utilizing mindfulness and meditation: Some of you may experience flash backs, especially when thinking about sharing your story. Mindfulness allows you to stay present-focused and in the moment.
• Learning grounding techniques: One that I particularly teach is focused on utilizing your five senses to ground yourself in the moment by labeling five things you see, taste, touch, hear and smell, then work your way down from 4, 3, 2, 1 with the hope that it will bring you back focused again.
Once you have created the habit of doing these things when you need to feel safe, you can then start to share your story in pieces. When I have clients begin to tell their stories, I have them walk through the trauma slowly, one part at a time, and check in with them on a scale of 1-10 to see how they are feeling emotionally and to determine whether they are starting to become flooded. I also have them practice deep breathing exercises to calm the mind and the body. It’s helpful when first disclosing the trauma to discuss the thoughts and feelings in each part of it to process and make sense of what has occurred and how it was conceptualized in that moment.
Proceed with Caution and Be Your Own Protector If you are a toxic relationship survivor that is not in therapy, I suggest first talking to a therapist to begin the process of healing and speaking about the trauma, but if you’re not comfortable with seeking a therapist, then it would be helpful to find a trusted person who you feel emotionally safe with. It would be good for you to first do the things mentioned above. If you’re uncomfortable sharing your story with anyone at this point, it would be helpful to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings, especially when you’re feeling triggered, having an anxiety attack or experiencing a flashback. You may need to take more time than others to be ready to share your story, depending on the complexity of the trauma, as well as whether it involved cumulative traumas or was an isolated incident. If you have had a long and severe trauma history, it may take you longer to process and you may need to develop more coping skills. You will likely require long-term self-care before speaking about the trauma narratives of your life. In my therapy, I incorporate storytelling for clients with the hope of catalyzing empowerment and growth. However, you must be ready mentally and emotionally. When sharing your trauma narrative, how you create meaning out of what happened is important. It is also helpful to find your foundational grounding (e.g., God, higher power, meditation) to aid in making sense of the trauma in a way that is not overwhelming emotionally.
Additionally, according to McClelland and Gilyard (2008), it is beneficial to utilize sensorimotor techniques, such as:
• Take 5 minutes in the morning and evening to rock back and forth, or side to side, just noticing and relaxing the body.
• Find music or tones of music, with or without words, that bring you into a state of calmness. • Practice deep breathing in sequences of three. For example, breathe, breathe, breathe. Rest. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Rest.…
• Participate in some form of exercise for 12-15 minutes per day to increase the amount of serotonin and dopamine in your brain.
• Participate in 5-10 minutes per day of prayer or meditation, as the spiritual center of the brain is an area that is able to influence and calm the deeper regions of the brain.
Your Trauma Can Become a Tool for Your Growth These are some things to consider when thinking of sharing and re-sharing your story. This is a part of the process of healing and growth that enables you to use the trauma you experienced to become stronger and better. It is a very personal decision whether to share your toxic relationship story and, if so, when the timing is right for you to do so without re-triggering your trauma. If you seek the wisdom of your own intuition about the right time to start and also when to stop, eventually the trauma experience will fade into the past. You will no longer feel the need to tell the story unless it is for the benefit of someone else rather than for your own release. You may find that one day this becomes your gift to share.
Cohen, J. A., & Mannarino, A. P. (2008). Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for children and parents. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 13(4), 158-162.
McClelland, D., Chris Gilyard, M. (2008). Calming Trauma - How Understanding the Brain Can Help.