5 min read

Writing about trauma: sharing our stories with care

A pale, peach coloured rose
Photo by Narly Brad / Unsplash

It's important to handle our stories with the care that they - and we - deserve.

This post is the last in a three-part series. First we looked at why self care matters when we write about challenging material, then I shared some practical tips and resources for self care. In this final part we'll look at how to take care of ourselves and others when we share our writing.

Telling our stories is important

Many people struggling with trauma are powerfully drawn to tell our stories, for many reasons.

There's healing in the telling; in the process of sorting through for ourselves what happened to us, how it affected us, how we responded, and what we want to do now. There's an important process of integration and meaning-making that happens when we tell our stories, both in therapy and in writing.

By exploring our stories, and making choices about how we tell them, we can shed secrets that might have made us ashamed, regain our voice, that may have been silenced, and reclaim our truth, which may not have been accepted or believed.

Sharing our stories of trauma - and of healing - can also connect us to others. It can be extremely validating, and empowering, to have someone truly hear your story, really see you, and bear witness to what you have endured, and that you survived. By sharing our stories we can find that we are not alone. We can grieve, and laugh, and learn together in community with others.

If you are in that place where you feel your story pressing against your ribcage, and it feels urgent to tell everyone everything - to get it out, somehow - the rest of this post might sound like 'don't'. What I really mean to say is 'wait'. How long is up to you. The right time is up to you.

Write for yourself

If the thought of talking about your experiences with anybody else feels frightening, that's ok too. You are the most important audience, and there's no obligation at all to take it further than that.

If you have access to a counsellor or therapist, or even a listening helpline, sharing your story with them can make a positive difference. But at the end of the day, the choice is yours and that's what matters.

Whether or not you think you would like to one day publish something about your experiences, I would recommend writing for yourself first and foremost. That means putting to one side, as far as you can, concerns about whether your writing is 'good', about how it might be received, about what people might think when they read it. And do look after yourself as you write.

Choose what to share

Many of us have struggled with feelings of doubt, especially if we have experienced 'gaslighting' or have memory problems. This can lead to feeling that we need to provide evidence - to ourselves, to others - that it really was 'that bad'.

While coming to terms with what we have experienced and how it affected us is an important part of healing, we don't owe the details to anyone. This is one reason it can be helpful to write for ourselves first. Choosing what to share in public is a separate step.

There are many ways to tell our stories

Writing about trauma doesn't have to mean writing a complete, literal, realistic description of your experiences. It can, if that works for you. But there are lots of other approaches available to writers.

We can choose to tell our stories through fiction or poetry, we can use metaphor and genre tropes, explore creative non fiction and speculative memoir, write a graphic novel or a hybrid piece including music or artwork.

No matter what style or form you use, the details you choose to disclose in your published work are up to you. You can write around an event or an experience, or focus on the effect it had on you rather than what happened.

Share with a few trusted readers first

If you do decide you would like to develop a piece of writing into something for publication, I'd recommend sharing it with a few trusted readers first. That might be a partner, friends or family, a writing buddy, or writing group.

Whoever it is, give them a heads up that what you'd like to share might be difficult to read, to make sure they're ok with that and prepared to support you. Think about what you want from the experience; maybe understanding, encouragement, sympathy, support, validation, simply to be heard, or critical feedback on your writing. If you can, communicate what you'd like to happen with the person or people that you're sharing it with.

Notice your feelings

Telling our stories can bring up a huge range of different emotions. You might feel anxious or afraid, there might be fresh sadness and grief. You may feel relieved, tender, proud. There might be shame or anger. Or all of them at once!

There are no right or wrong feelings. Just try to notice what you're experiencing and how it shifts or changes. Be ready with grounding techniques, self-soothing activities, and contacts for your supportive people in case you feel overwhelmed.

Prioritise your safety

If there are other people in your story who might read it and recognise themselves, think about how you will handle or respond to this. It's your story, and you have the right to tell it, but you may want to take steps to keep yourself safe, whatever that looks like for you.

For example, you may want to publish under a pen name, or change key details of the story. If you have a relationship with the people involved you may want to discuss it with them before it is published. Think about your physical and emotional safety, but also your legal protection.

You're not alone

When you tell your story, use content warnings to help others who may also be struggling with trauma to take care of themselves.

When your story is out in the world you may find that it resonates with people who will want to tell you about their experiences, too. Think about whether and what kind of boundary you might want to set around this kind of sharing. Making these kinds of connections and being part of a community can be very healing, but try to stay tuned in to your needs as well.

Be aware of some possible reactions

People may react in ways that seem surprising. For example, if someone is unsure what to say, or worried about saying the wrong thing, they might not acknowledge what you have shared at all, which can seem cold or uncaring.

Or if your truth threatens someone's beliefs about how the world works, they can get angry, even try to argue with you about what you have experienced.

Sometimes people can struggle to stay present with hard emotions, and might make comments that seem dismissive or minimising, offer unwanted advice, or attempt to 'cheer you up'.

Or it may be that something in your story connects with something another person has experienced and they may find it extremely distressing, perhaps without even knowing why.

Writing about trauma is hard. Really hard. When you've done all the work to be able to tell your story in the way that you want, it's worth taking your time and preparing yourself before you hit 'publish'. It's important to handle our stories with the care that they - and we - deserve.

Trauma writing workshops

If you're working with trauma or other challenging material in your writing and you'd like to learn some more techniques and approaches to support you, I have two online workshops coming up which you might be interested in:

Further reading and resources