Trauma-Informed Storytelling

In the anti-trafficking sector, many movement leaders are hesitant to disclose lived experience for fear they won’t be taken seriously as a professional. And many who do disclose lived experience feel they then have an uphill battle to prove their professional credibility or get access to genuine, empowering development toward their movement leadership goals.

While these struggles are different, they both come from the same binary: that we can be either professionals or survivors, but not both. Those who want to be seen as professionals may hesitate to share any details of their lived experience for fear it will cause them to be seen as “acting from their trauma,” not working off of the evidence, or incapable of objective leadership. Those who enter the movement as survivor leaders may find that traumatic storytelling is expected from them, or that it is the only way they can be useful to the movement. In fact, sensationalized storytelling with highly traumatic details is so normalized in the anti-trafficking movement is so normalized that we often forget how constant exposure to vicarious trauma impacts us and our colleagues.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! We can rethink our approaches to create a more sustainable movement in which we can bring all our insights and wisdom into our work, without dividing ourselves up, and without minimizing the unique value of both lived and professional experience.

Watch this video on Trauma-Informed Storytelling in Training to learn how overly sensationalized or unnecessarily trauma details can decrease the effectiveness of your work.

After watching the video, think through what space the following examples might be useful in.

Case 1: Sharing your story for an audience that might include pediatricians or family physicians, teachers and school administrators, but also those working with adults in abusive situations to help them understand the power of moving slowly, giving space, and offering validation.

As a child, my teachers never recognized what was going on with me at home because I just seemed like a troubled kid. Through this I learned that people would blame me for the bad things people did to me, so why speak up anyway? By the time the abuse started in my relationship, I had already internalized that message. I was so ready to blame myself for the abuse. Feeling heard and validated after being silent for so long was powerful for me, as was having support in undoing years of false guilt and shame I’d been carrying. This is why it is so important that care providers recognize the importance of slowing the pace, listening, and gently pushing back against self-blaming narratives when they suspect their client may be in an abusive relationship.

What do you notice about this story? What details were included and how? Any abuse survivor reading this knows that there were probably way more examples of victim-blaming and gaslighting that could be used to illustrate the point, but since they don’t serve the purpose of this specific work and would only add extra vicarious trauma they can be excluded in this circumstance.

Case 2: This is an example of using your story as part of a broader piece of advocacy for organizational or systems policies that help streamline services and ensure continuity of care.

Whenever I started to build support in one community, my partner would find an excuse to move us… a lost job, a new opportunity, an “unexpected” crisis. Every time we moved, I had to start over… with a new DV center, with a new doctor, with a new everything. This is why I’m here today to advocate for (policy here).

What do you notice about this story? What details were included and how? Notice how this example shares enough of the details of the lived experience to set up the need for the policy, but then leaves ample space in the presentation to then address the policy, how it works, why it is needed, and how it would impact a broad diversity of survivors.

Case 3: This is an example of using your story to advocate for things that could include better funding for local, grassroots, culturally-specific efforts or a greater emphasis on collaboration with culturally-specific organizations.

I was already so used to microaggressions from well-meaning white staff in service agencies, and it discouraged me from seeking help for so long. They tried to reflect back my experiences, but there was always something about my story I felt they weren’t getting. And then, I walked into Daybreak Health Clinic. They didn’t just have diverse pictures on their website and walls. The staff who welcomed me looked like me. They spoke my language. Instantly, I felt my body release some of the tension I’d been carrying. I later found out that Daybreak was founded by people in my community who were tired of having to “fit in” other places. It was created to be welcoming for people like me. We can never overstate the importance of inclusion from the start of planning a program, especially among the leadership.

What do you notice about this story? What details were included and how? In this story, the person doesn’t even share their lived experience of trafficking or trauma, but instead shares their experiences of services and gaps. Remember: speaking from your lived experience doesn’t even mean you have to talk about your trafficking. Sometimes sharing about your experience of services and systems can provide more effective, targeted advocacy.

Case 4: In this example, the survivor uses just enough details of their story to illustrate the impact of policies that mandate reporting of abuse experienced by adults.

When I first started sharing with my healthcare provider about what was going on in my relationship, my biggest fear was still that I’d be separated from my partner. I knew it was bad, but I was terrified to leave. My partner had even threatened custody — “Go ahead and tell people your sob story,” they’d say. “I’ll just tell them how crazy you are and then you’ll never see the kids again.” If I thought my provider was mandated to report to the police, I never would have risked opening up like that. If they had reported, it would have been bad. It would have made me less safe. It would have given my ex more leverage to control me with. What I needed was support. What I needed was gentle listening mixed with real talk. I needed options. I needed time to build trust, time to build my confidence, and time to build my lifeboat. We don’t always give survivors that. It isn’t a quick fix. It doesn’t give us our “be a hero” boost. It isn’t fun. But it’s what many of us need.

What do you notice about this story? What details were included and how? Notice how the person shows the impacts that are often unnoticed – we can use our stories to highlight gaps or the unintended impacts of well-meaning policies. Notice also the compassion in the end – the acknowledgement that people may be feeling urges to help in ways they think will “fix” issues but that may not be relevant to the lives of survivors.

Think about your story – your lived experiences of trauma.

Consider your own story:

  1. What elements of your story might be helpful in illustrating gaps in healthcare provision? In criminal legal responses? In legal remedies? In shelter or crisis response nonprofits in your community?
  2. What elements of your story might be helpful in illustrating needed legislative policy changes? Needed changes in organizational protocols? Needed changes in frameworks and movement norms?
  3. What elements of your story might be helpful in illustrating connections to societal norms whose impact on trafficking risk may often be overlooked?
  4. What elements of your story might be helpful in pushing back against assumptions that cause harm in ways people with power often don’t see or are unwilling to acknowledge?

Consider how to tell those elements in trauma-informed ways:

  1. How much detail is just enough to illustrate the point without veering into unnecessary graphic trauma details?
  2. How much detail are you able to share without becoming dysregulated in a way that makes it hard to stay grounded in your intentions for the storytelling? Meaning: Do you feel like this is a part of your story you have healed and integrated enough to be able to share it without dissociating or feeling overwhelmed? If not, this might not be a part of your story you are ready to share.
  3. Have you processed these parts of your story sufficiently in safer, therapeutic spaces to feel grounded in your truth? When we get dissociated we may find ourselves sharing far more than we meant to, in more detail that we meant to, and in ways we may regret afterward.

Remember: You don’t have to choose between no storytelling and only storytelling. You don’t have to choose between sharing your knowledge and sharing your experiences. The middle ground is messy and complex, for sure, and your approach may change over time as you learn what works best through trial and error. And it’s also where the transformative growth and learning happen, for you, and for your colleagues.

Also see this training from Self Help Alliance: LINK