Why We Need Our Trauma Stories Validated (When Abusers So Often Minimize, Deny & Gaslight)

Lissa Rankin, MD
7 min readJan 31, 2023

In spite of every pretzeling attempt his child self made to be obedient to abusive fundamentalist parents growing up, my partner Jeff’s family shunned him, making up a scapegoating story about his essential badness that left big scars on his good, good heart. No amount of protest or trying to set the story straight on his part worked. His family just didn’t believe someone so fundamentally bad could possibly become a doctor or a medical school professor at Harvard or the author of a bestselling book or a guest on Oprah, even though a quick Google search could have set them straight. It’s boggling to imagine how they must have had to twist their own stories, or at least what they said, in order not to believe or validate his story.

Then, after almost forty years of excommunication, his brother reached out a few years ago and said, “Bro, I believe you. And sometimes the same things were done to me.”

And then his sister recently said that it came across on her Facebook page that twelve years ago, he was scheduled to be on Oprah, suggesting that she maybe did know the truth all along.

That changed everything. It’s amazing the mental contortions people will put themselves through in order to not know what at a deeper level they know to be true.

When we’ve been hurt and we naturally protest the abuse, people with malignant narcissist parts can really mess with our heads. Instead of admitting that they’ve made hurtful or even criminally abusive mistakes, they feel a need to uphold an image of themselves as perfect, untouchable and beyond reproach. This means they have to make you wrong because they’re too fragile to handle the humbling of the kind of genuine apology that can lead to real healing.

But it’s not easy to distort reality enough to make you the bad guy when they’re the ones who have done the bad thing.

Strategies Narcissists Use To Suppress & Discredit Your Story

They’ll try simple denial. “No, that never happened.”

They’ll try minimizing it. “Well, maybe you were beaten with that club once or twice, but I don’t call that abuse.”

They’ll try gaslighting. “You think you were abused? You’re obviously confused. What actually happened is that you abused me and I was just defending myself.”

They’ll try blaming you for protesting. “How dare you shame me and give me a stomach ache with your crazy lies?”

They’ll try attacking you. “Watch your mouth, you conniving, worthless piece of soiled trash.”

They’ll try shaming you because empathy isn’t on the menu. “Get out of your victim story.”

They’ll throw the spiritual bypass your way. “Well, your soul chose this so you should be grateful I’m helping you grow spiritually.”

They’ll toss distorted religious teachings your way. “Jesus says you should turn the other cheek and forgive,” or “This is just your karma coming back to bite you.”

And if all else fails, they’ll shun you and avoid ever giving you the validation and apology you so deeply deserve when you’ve been hurt by someone who you were supposed to be able to trust.

Many people never get the validation and apology they crave from the abusive narcissist. Like Eve Ensler (V) wrote about in her book, The Apology, sometimes you have to write the apology that you needed and deserved to hear so that your young parts can begin to heal. your own apology and validate yourself.

But from the perspective of trauma healing, it’s even better if you can tell your story to trusted, compassionate humans with open hearts who can do what Jeff’s brother did and say “I believe you” or even “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

Getting Validation For What Happened To You Helps Your “Parts” Heal

I learned the powerful value of this kind of validation from my writing teacher Nancy Aronie, back when I was in recovery from PTSD after leaving the moral injury of my life as a doctor in the hospital in 2007, in the wake of my father’s premature death, when I had a newborn baby and a slew of other tragedies that crashed me to the ground all at the same time. I was working on my first book, and I expected to be taught how to write the way teachers taught me in medical school and how my ballet instructors taught me in the ballet company I was in- by tearing me apart, criticizing me relentlessly, mocking me, looking down at me, and picking apart what was wrong with me, all in the name of helping me get better.

I didn’t know there was any other way to learn.

So when Nancy began our writing class by saying that there was only one rule- that we would ONLY tell each other what we loved about the memoir stories we were about to write, I felt ripped off. I was broke at the time after leaving the hospital, and I had put the workshop on a credit card I wasn’t sure how to pay off. I needed to get my book published, which meant I needed someone to redline my writing with ruthless editing and uninhibited criticism.

Or so I thought.

I had missed the point. What I didn’t realize, but which Nancy had figured out long before I did, is that the best memoirs usually include the stories of our deepest vulnerability and most distressing pain. And it’s so tender to expose these stories on the page, even to ourselves, much less to other people who might judge us, attack us, criticize us, minimize our stories, be insensitive with us, not believe us, or worst of all, shun us.

Why We Need Compassionate Witnessing (From Ourselves & Others)

Nancy showed me the healing power of telling our stories and having other people compassionately witness our stories, not only believing that what we’re writing is true, but sitting in a circle with others who are showing us the loving gaze so necessary in trauma healing, the soft eyes, the tears we shed when someone reads their story out loud to us and we feel it in our own hearts, the hugs we might receive when someone resonates with our story as part of their own.

She showed me that those of us who didn’t get adequate attunement growing up respond very favorably to unconditional positive regard, to attuned listening, to mirroring back the beauty in the stories we risk sharing with one another. When I shared bits of my story with other writers and trauma survivors in Nancy’s class, I can’t explain how healing it was for me to have other people say things like “Oh my God, the way your writing made me smell the blood and feces and hear the sound of the IV pole alarming and feel the heartbreak of you and that mother crying over the dead baby you held in your arms and feel the rage of having that male doctor scream at you and humiliate you for crying with a grieving mother is the most beautiful piece of art I’ve ever heard. You should totally write a book. I would read it.”

So I am encouraging my partner to begin to write his own story, and when he risks telling me bits of it, I try to say the kinds of things I heard other people say in Nancy’s workshops.

“Wow, the way you crafted the poetry of your heartbreaking words to describe the splinters shattering your delicate skin when your mother ordered your father to beat you with a 2×2 club or risk divorce made my skin crawl and my heart burst for you. Your writing is so gorgeous. I’ll bet anyone who went through something similar would find healing in your story. You should totally write a book.”

His first book was called CURED. I told him his second book could be called SHUNNED. I would totally read it, and I suspect any of you who have ever been scapegoated unjustly would find his story healing, should he ever choose to write it down.

Write Your Own Story (& Share It If You Have Someone Safe Enough)

And if you’ve been hurt or abused or experienced loss or somehow been treated unjustly, I encourage you to find safe, trustworthy, validating people who will help you undo the damage caused by the trauma. You might need a therapist to do that job, but if you can find safe friends, that’s sometimes a place to start.

You’re also welcome to join me and Nancy Aronie, my writing teacher, for our six-week Memoir As Medicine class. We start on January 18 on Zoom.

TELL YOUR STORY IN MEMOIR AS MEDICINE

It’s not quite the same as sitting in a circle at a retreat center, the way I first met Nancy.

She’s teaching at Just Start Your Memoir in person at Kripalu at the end of January, so if you can afford to get there in person, I highly recommend taking her in-person workshop. If you can’t, Zoom is the next best thing, and it’s WAY more affordable than traveling to Kripalu during a work week and spending five days at a retreat center.

Either way, please write your story anyway. And find someone you can read your story to out loud, someone safe and trustworthy, who can uphold the boundaries Nancy sets- “Only say what you love about what we write.”

Back in 2007, I didn’t believe I could possibly learn anything about writing from hearing what people loved about what I had written. I only thought I could learn from getting torn apart. But after I took that workshop back then, I deleted my Word document of the memoir I had written so far and started over. I had finally found my writing voice- because my story and my writing had been loved and validated by people with soft gazes and open hearts, people who believed me and didn’t think I was crazy, people who hugged me and said, “Me too.”

Seven published books later, I can vouch for Nancy’s wisdom. I will be forever grateful to my teacher, which is partly why I invited her to teach with me now, to say thank you and share her with all of you. Because telling our stories in this way isn’t just good for our writing. It IS medicine, the very best kind.

*Art by Kelly Rae Roberts

Originally published at https://lissarankin.com.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.