For some, opening up about abuse can be a challenge. Here are several therapist-backed suggestions to make it easier.
Whether you’re in an abusive situation right now, or you’re ready to talk about one from the past, it’s common to get tongue-tied around the subject.
It can take several months — or even years — to come to terms with what happened, let alone open up about it.
Yet sharing your experience can be an important part of the healing process. If you’re ready, your unique story deserves to be told.
If you’re having trouble trying to figure out how to open up, you’re not alone.
“Abuse is a taboo subject in most countries, making it very difficult for most individuals to openly discuss it,” says Shagoon Maurya, a psychotherapist in Adelaide, Australia.
“It’s the guilt that may keep it hidden and burden you with the heaviness, isolating you,” she adds. “Ironically, the only way out of shame seems to be to talk about it with trusted others, which many individuals find extremely difficult.”
Some other barriers may include:
- believing it’s your fault
- confusion about what happened
- concern about people’s reactions
- fear of judgment
- second-guessing yourself
- wondering if you’ll be believed
- worry that the aggressor will retaliate
It’s up to you how much, or how little, you want to disclose. Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat here.
Choose people you can trust
As bestselling author Brené Brown says: “People need to earn the right to hear your story.”
Before you share, assess whether your loved ones will be able to hold space for you, says Sybil Cummin, a licensed professional counselor in Arvada, Colorado.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How do they treat other people?
- How do they talk about them?
- How do they respond when things don’t go their way?
- How comfortable am I asserting my boundaries with them?
Dip your toe in, first
“You can start the conversation by saying something like: I have something that’s difficult to share and am wondering if you could sit with me and listen,” says Cummin. “Start small to see their initial reactions, rather than jumping right in.”
If you’re met with compassion, curiosity, and understanding, that’s a green light to divulge more information.
- I believe you.
- I’m here for you.
- That was not your fault.
- I’m so sorry that happened to you.
If you don’t hear these, you can politely end the conversation.
Be prepared for mixed reactions
If you’re revealing information about a mutual connection, particularly someone who has a good reputation, your loved one may have a hard time accepting what you’re saying.
It’s called cognitive dissonance.
In response, you might hear:
- But you seemed so happy.
- How could you let things get that bad?
- They would never do something like that.
- Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly?
- You must have escalated the situation somehow.
To manage this, try to stay calm and firm in your story. Don’t allow someone to blame you for what happened — in no way was this your fault.
Reference abusive behaviors
If you encounter skepticism, remind them that abuse can come in many forms:
It can come from any gender and type of relationship, as well.
Try to concentrate on specific behaviors that happened to you rather than someone’s personality traits. It’s harder to argue with those.
You may need to speak up about it to family and friends several times and show them information about signs of abuse, says Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee.
“Some might not believe it if they don’t see large, exposed wounds, but that isn’t the only sign of abuse,” says Wind.
“Don’t stop looking for someone who believes you,” he advises. “There are people out there who understand what you’re going through. Reach out to support groups and organizations to get help.”
First, try to be certain that the person who hurt you can’t retaliate if they find out that you’re sharing information. Make sure you’re in a safe location with trustworthy people.
Next, you may find it helpful to share your story when you’re feeling grounded. That way, no matter how someone reacts, you won’t be swayed.
Self-reflective activities like journaling and meditation can help you feel self-assured.
Sharing looks different for everyone.
If talking about it one-on-one sounds too intimidating, explore different options to find out which ones provide catharsis and healing.
- talk about it with a therapist in the room
- write down notes to read out loud
- hand someone a letter
- read a diary entry about an incident
- play voicemails or share texts
- express it through art, photography, poetry, or music
- write a blog post or article about it (like I did)
Hey, it’s a big deal that you’ve decided to express yourself.
It takes a lot of courage, so take a moment to celebrate the sacred act of sharing. With every person who opens up, the stigma and stereotypes dissipate a little more.
To support your journey, you may find it empowering to work with a therapist, join a support group, or educate yourself on the topic of abuse.
Some helpful resources include:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- National Dating Abuse Hotline
- Pathways to Safety International
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- Casa de Esperanza (Spanish-speaking hotline)
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
- National LGBTQ Task Force