top of page

Through Another’s Eyes: What happens when we tell our stories in safe spaces?

“Once upon a time…”

Hearing these words can evoke a sense of anticipation in us all. They imply that something important is coming, something worthy of attention. We steady ourselves, as we wait to be transported, not only by the words themselves, but by the intonations and inflections of the one speaking them.

No matter our age or walk of life, we are impacted by the power of stories. We naturally gravitate to both listening to and telling stories. It’s as though “story” is in our DNA.

For as long as we’ve had words, we’ve had story. In teaching or passing down traditions, entertaining or to encourage caution, the most effective way to communicate is through story. And beyond communicating or teaching, story is also the way in which we allow ourselves to be known and to know others. Story even has the power to help us heal.

Telling our stories is important, but it’s not just the act of telling- it’s what happens when someone receives our story and what they do with it that holds power to change us. Power to help us heal.

What Holds Us Back?

Often, the portions of our stories that we feel shame over (whether it’s because of something that was done to us or something we’ve done) are the ones we avoid sharing with other people. And sometimes, that is with good reason.

When we take a risk in sharing and it goes wrong, it only confirms that terrible things we believe about ourselves and our story. And if being shut down or shamed was a part of our story growing up, having someone receive our story with judgment, condemnation or minimizing will only serve in deepening our unhealthy and helpful beliefs about ourselves.

Instead of taking more risks in being truly known, we develop coping mechanisms or numbing behaviors to avoid the deeper parts of ourselves. This can look like anything from codependency to perfectionism to addictive behaviors. The list is long, but a few ways this plays out might be in over-functioning for our loved ones, people pleasing, over-achieving/over-working, substance abuse, etc.

But no matter how much we try to numb, or achieve or avoid, the shame will remain. Because what wounded us in the first place wasn’t about what we had done or what was done to us- it’s always been about who we are. It’s about our ability to believe we are valuable, loveable. Worthy.

There is a better way. But it does require some risks.

How Telling Our Story Helps Us Heal

When I first began to tell the truth about the things that happened to me as a child and the resulting dysfunction that played out in my life, it was a painful and vulnerable process. It felt like a risk to let others know the truth about what happened to me and the things I had done to myself and even to others out of my pain and anger. (You know how the saying goes. Hurt people hurt people.)

For a long time, there were parts of my story I didn’t share. Some things I kept to myself because of shame, some because they didn’t seem like they would be a big deal to others and consequently, shouldn’t be that big of a deal to me. I anticipated in validation, so I preemptively invalidated myself.

But as I began to take the risk of telling the darker, secret parts of my story, and as I started to experience reactions to my stories that were much different from what I anticipated, something within me began to shift. It was as though seeing them experience my story in ways I hadn’t expected changed how I experienced it myself.

It was beautiful and healing and life changing. But it left me wondering, how can seeing someone else experience my story in a helpful way, change the way I see it for myself?

The Power of Mirror Neurons

To help us understand how it might be possible for us to experience healing and growth as we tell our stories in safety, we need to take a look at tiny but mighty powerhouses that live inside our brains- mirror neurons. These incredible neurons were first discovered in the early 1990’s by a team of researchers at the University of Parma in Italy. In short, mirror neurons fire when a person acts or observes an action of someone else. In a very practical example, these neurons are the little culprits that cause us to yawn when we see someone else yawn—even when we don’t really want or need to yawn ourselves. (And if you just yawned even thinking about this, as I just did, then your mirror neurons are strong, present and accounted for!)

What’s even more impressive about mirror neurons is that they also light up when we feel an emotion, and when we see someone else experience an emotion. In more recent years, scientists have begun to recognize the importance of mirror neurons in relation to our ability to hold empathy for others (different than sympathy). And this is how telling our stories in safety helps us heal.

Wait. What?

Ok- I admit, that was a giant leap. Let’s try again. This time, taking smaller steps...

Let’s say I’m telling you a story about a traumatic experience I had as a child. This also happens to be the first time I’ve told this portion of my story, despite my own tightly held opinions about the events and my responses to them. For years, this particular story has held tremendous shame for me, and I struggle to even make eye contact with you as I tell it. But I push through, and as I begin to see your reaction, as I watch you experiencing and responding to my story with compassion and understanding, mercy and grace (which is much different than how I’ve felt and responded about this part of my own story), something with me begins to shift.

Now, I’m beginning to consider a different perspective, a perspective influenced by how you’ve responded to what I’ve just shared. I am beginning to challenge what I believed about myself from the very beginning and what contributed to those beliefs. All because I’ve had the experience of seeing a safe and empathetic person experience my story in a way that is counter to how I’ve experienced it all along.

I am able to change the story I am telling myself and how I feel about it.

As you, a safe person, listens to my story and reflects back compassion and understanding- I begin to see my story differently. I can look at myself with compassion and grace too. It’s like borrowing corrective lenses from someone so we can see as clearly as they do.

A story that once caused me great pain because of the shame I felt over it, is now an opportunity to take back the power that shame took from me. It is in the relationship with you, a safe person, that my relationship with shame can and will change too.

And that is how telling our stories in safe places helps us heal. When our own mirror is warped and tainted, we can see something clear and true reflected back at us through the lens of another. It is a reminder that we are created for relationship- wired for connection.

If there are portions of your story that you’ve never told to another, if there are parts of your story that have caused you pain or shame, it is never too late to give yourself the chance to be changed by the experience of someone experiencing your story in new, compassionate and grace-filled ways. Your story is worthy of being known. You are worth being known. Give yourself the chance to see your story through the eyes of another, and let it change how you see yourself.

For a great resource on what it means to let ourselves be truly known, check out one of my favorite podcasts by Dr. Curt Thompson, Being Known Podcast and in particular, check out this newest season based on his profound book, The Soul of Shame. For more resources on hope and healing, visit Generations Deep by Gina Birkemeier.

bottom of page