Fear blocks the truth we need to tell. Walk yourself through these 5 questions to realistically evaluate your responsibility to others and courageously face the consequences that come with speaking up.
My story of trauma and healing is a doozy and anything but straightforward. Because it involves sensitive details about the people whose lives have intersected with my own, I have not told the full version in a forum as public as the Internet.
I’ve already owned my story and blasted through much of my self-censoring tendencies by telling my truth in therapy, support groups, and with close friends and family. But one of my continual struggles as a writer is striking the right balance between telling the truth and avoiding damage to others.
We have a right to tell the truth. I’d argue that we need to tell the truth. But along with that right comes responsibility—the responsibility to carefully weigh the impact on others and the courage to accept the inevitable blowback that comes with saying something of substance.
Reading Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir gave me new insight into both writing and telling the truth. It came on the heels of a conversation I had with memoir author Paul Samuel Dolman who has lived the struggle and mastered the balance.
His bottom-line advice: write the truth.
3 Reasons You Need to Tell the Truth
Nobody decides to write a memoir for the hell of it. Depending on how you define success, the chances of achieving it are slim and the potential for criticism is high. Likewise, it’s the rare person who blurts out a family secret or traumatic experience for the sole purpose of getting attention. It’s hard to write. It’s hard to tell the truth. We do it because we have to—we need to.
Drawing from Barrington’s writing and my own experiences, here’s why:
1. You need to tell the truth for yourself. Authenticity is a key ingredient to living a life of satisfaction and meaning. We all have the need to be heard and felt, to stand unapologetically in who we are and what we’ve experienced. It’s a key part of the healing process. Suppressing parts of ourselves and our stories leads to unnecessary shame, suffering, and stagnancy.
2. You need to tell the truth for your family. Barrington articulates this point powerfully: “Sometimes those who most need you to speak out are those very people who plead with you to keep the family secrets hidden.” Unhealthy relationship patterns and other damaging dynamics get passed down from generation to generation. Until someone is brave enough to call attention to it in themselves or others, the damage continues. You can’t change what you can’t see.
3. You need to tell the truth for humanity. Suffering in silence robs us of the opportunity to connect with others and learn from our common experiences. Telling the truth demystifies the taboo and allows others to come out of hiding when they discover they aren’t the only ones.
5 Questions to Ask Before You Tell
Truth is a big deal. It’s heavy and comes with consequences. Where, when, and how we tell it matters. These five questions can guide us forward on what can be a confusing path, wrought with ethical dilemmas.
1. What is the truth? There are as many versions of the truth as there are people in a story. Memory is fallible and perspectives are variable. We have to recognize our stories as a point of view. Instead of trying to nail down the elusive, hard truth, Barrington urges us to have the courage to examine and share where the “integrity” and “honest heart” of our story lies. We are, after-all, the experts of our own lives.
2. What parts of the truth need to be told? Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it needs to be told. Ask yourself the classic questions: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Other helpful questions to consider are: What is your motivation for telling? What would or would not change if you told?
3. How will speaking the truth impact other people? Our need to tell the truth must be balanced by our responsibility to the people in our stories. This isn’t usually an easy balance to strike. Will someone’s livelihood or reputation be severely damaged by the truth? Or will we, as Barrington puts it, be guilty of “colluding with a system of denial that allows for the continuation of abuse or exploitation” by keeping silent? A follow-up question that Barrington suggests is “Which decision is most life enhancing?”
4. Are you speaking from open wounds or scars? Speaking or writing publicly about a fresh trauma usually is not wise. (Caveat: any form of abuse should be openly and fully confronted.) Glennon Doyle explains why by talking about her process for writing her memoir Love Warrior. We need the time to examine and process our wounds so that we can identify the universal gold that comes from our pain, she says. Those are the parts of our stories that need to be told widely.
5. Are you asking to be heard and felt, or are you asking for more? Revenge, pity, and victimhood are calls for therapy, private conversations, and healing—not speaking or writing to an audience. We may experience a new level of healing in the process of speaking or writing the truth, but our motivations must be pure. Any need for revenge will taint and overshadow the universal, healing truths contained in our stories.
To Tell or Not to Tell
In the end the decision is intensely personal, and it may not be an all-or-nothing path forward. There may be a creative solution that satisfies both our need to tell the truth and our responsibility to others.
Barrington reminds us, “Rather than getting stuck in an either/or situation, I always try to remember that there may be a solution that satisfies both values—there are often options beyond the simple choice of telling or not telling.”
What matters most is that you’ve weighed the decisions and potential solutions carefully. After that, all that’s left to do is go boldly forward in your conviction.
Still struggling with how and when to tell your truth? Check out Blue Venus Rising’s resources for support groups and therapists to get you started. You can also experiment with telling your story anonymously here.
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