It’s been a little more than two weeks since I got back from India, and I’ve found it difficult to answer the “How was India?” question. The trip was amazing and probably life changing (although maybe too soon to say). It was as emotionally taxing as it was revelatory. I attempted to tackle my personal demons and conjure my angels on this journey. I don’t care how cheesy that sounds – that’s how it felt.
Over the years, I have pursued many remedies for my negative feelings and emotional baggage when it comes to the story about my father and his family. This voyage was a wondrous and awesome adventure but it was also a profoundly personal exploration into the wounded corners of my soul. I needed a way to process it, so I chose documenting through my blog and social media. While I think this was a helpful thing to do, I can’t say I didn’t have some concern about how it would be received. Would I be judged, pitied or dismissed? Would I feel exposed?
I am an enthusiastic evangelist for storytelling as a pathway to a better humanity and greater love. I strongly believe that stories create the fabric that holds us together. We are nurtured, nourished, educated, warmed, cautioned, protected and dazzled by stories. A life without stories would be like a life without food and water. In my professional life, I guide people to help them tell their stories to advance social change. I encourage them to share themselves, even when it feels vulnerable, so long as they feel protected and in control. I tell them that people will be better persuaded by their messages and arguments, if we can relate to their emotions.
I know that vulnerability is not the same for all of us because we don’t all have equal potential risks for sharing our stories. When friends were posting and sending Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, I found it beautiful but I couldn’t help but think that showing vulnerability means something different for people of color. Projecting invincibility and uncompromising strength has been part of our strategy for survival for generations. Too much honesty could mean losing our job, home, family, freedom and even our life. I keep this in mind whenever I am encouraging people, especially from marginalized communities, to open up and share their private lives.
I’m glad I put my personal history out there and have been honest about why this trip was such a big deal for me. The practice of writing helped me see patterns in the narrative and reveal my own truths. The response from friends and strangers has been heartening. It’s gratifying to find people expressing how my own story, which often feels alien and isolated, resonates with them. It also helps me with the “How was India?” question, as I have already spilled my guts, which in a way preempts conversations about things that are difficult for me to talk about.
The person I was probably the most anxious about reacting to my writing was my mom. After all, I’d written about her, her relationship with my father and my upbringing. My family tends to be even less prone to sharing personal information than I am. I remember when I graduated from college, there was a special ceremony for the Black students, where people got very frank about their home lives. Some of the speeches felt like church testimonials. When I got up, I talked about my international relations senior thesis on ethnic conflict resolution in Zimbabwe. My mother and grandmother were there. I apologized to them for my lukewarm speech. My grandmother turned to me and said, “Child please. We don’t want you up there telling everybody our business.” Thankfully, my mom has responded well to my India writing. She said she understood why I was doing it and furthermore she likes it, which is a relief.
I decided to do some things to help me stay grounded and less anxious about readjusting to New York. I’ve been trying to ease back in slowly to my social life, which is normally on overdrive because I have terrible fears about missing out on anything. I took a weeklong hiatus from Facebook, where I’ve been sharing my blog posts, because I hoped that I could keep my thoughts less complicated if I wasn’t processing what everyone I know was thinking at any given moment.
Sharing a personal story is no small thing. It expends a special kind of energy, and I think it’s important and healthy to acknowledge the impact. I’m doing my best to balance all the motivation I am feeling after my travels with gentleness and patience for myself. I’m appreciating the value of self-care rituals. I’ve been reminding myself that it is vital to take the time to reflect. Personally, I would consider allowing space for recovery to be the minimum cost to factor when deciding when one is ready to tell their intimate truths.
I went to my good friend and brilliant storytelling inspiration, Piper Anderson, for additional self care tips for sharing your story. Piper is a writer, educator, and cultural worker who has spent more than 16 years leveraging the tools of art-making and community engagement to create social impact.
Self Care Tips for sharing personal story. (Piper Anderson)
First thank you for sharing your story, Sharda. I know what risk it is to put your experience out there to share with the world. Through my work with Mass Story Lab, I travel the country inviting people to share stories about some of the most painful and traumatic moments in their lives– their experiences with the criminal justice system. I think it’s important that people feel supported as they do this difficult yet necessary work. Here are a few tips for you and all the courageous storytellers who allow their personal narratives to serve as an illuminate force that can heal us all.
Before sharing your story for the first time, ask yourself: “Am I ready?” If you can honestly say you’re unattached to the outcome- reaction that others might have about it. Then you know you’re ready. Telling a story before you’ve fully owned it can leave you feeling empty and even a little ashamed if people don’t react the way you’d hoped. Owning the story allows you to own the outcome.
Arm yourself with support. Call on your people. Ask them to be in the room or be the first on social media to response. Knowing you have support might make you feel less exposed when you put your experience out their for the first time.
When telling stories in public I coach my storytellers many of whom are survivors of trauma, I encourage them to ground themselves. Rely on the breath to help you stay present. Notice any sensations in the body. Notice if you feel “stirred up” by the experience and continue to come back to the breath to help you stay in the present moment and not stuck in the story you’ve told.
Practice gratitude toward yourself. Acknowledge the courage that it takes to tell a story like yours. Know that it will have an impact. Someone you may not know will hear/read it and it may serve as a reflective beam that shines a light on something in their hearts that they need to examine more. Honor and celebrate that gift.