To Write a Book or Not: How to Transform Past Pain into Hope for Others

Has anyone ever told you that you should write a book? That you should write down the story of your life or the story of that one experience you had nobody can believe?

And you said, “Yeah, I should. But I just can’t.”

Me too.

People started telling me that I should write down my story years ago. The first few times it was suggested, I dismissed it right away. It sounded ridiculous. How could I share all that information about myself—and everyone else in my life—with perfect strangers? Not only would I expose myself to all sorts of judgement, I’d be setting off an emotional bomb in my family.

Since then, I've shared a great deal about my life and story on an international level. Not only do I feel liberated by this process, but I’m hearing over and over again from people how my sharing is helping them to reframe their own lives, find healing, and share their stories of healing with a hurting world.

So if you’re considering sharing your story to give hope to others, I want to tell you how I went from clammed up to open book. Maybe it will give you some ideas.

See Your Past as a Teaching Tool

Here’s the truth that I think we all know deep down:

When you share your story the right way, the pain of your past will transform into courage, wisdom, and hope for others. [Click to tweet]

This is a powerful truth. It becomes evident to us the first time we share the painful story of that breakup or loss or betrayal with a friend going through something similar. The sigh they breathe as we speak lets us know that our own experience is sinking into them, soothing their sense of isolation, and giving them hope that they will one day be on the other side, sharing their own journey of survival.

We need to identify with other people when we’re going through tough times. That empathy with others is balm on what I’ve heard called “terminal uniqueness”—the feeling that we’re the only ones who ever suffered this way and therefore must somehow deal with it all on our own.

When you share your own story of suffering with someone else, you give them a perspective shift. You show them the light under the door they’ve closed on themselves.

The question becomes: If your story can be so powerful in helping one person, how powerful could it be for more people? And why aren’t you telling it?

Acknowledge the Past Pain

To share the pain of our past, we have to first acknowledge it. Acknowledgement involves a lot more than memory. We have to place our memory in perspective, process the feelings we have as a result, and then forgive and let go. That’s a lot of work. Let me give you an example.

When I was 8 years old, I taught myself not to be ticklish on my feet. I sat at my friend’s house and watched "Three’s Company" and "Gilligan’s Island" reruns while I ran my fingertips along the soles of my feet, willing myself not to twitch or laugh.

After a few days, I managed to do it without laughing, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the twitching to stop. I tried thinking of other things while I ran my fingernails along my skin. Ice cream! Chocolate cake! Christmas! But nothing worked. My foot still jerked away every time. My subconscious mind and autonomic nervous system were too strong to fight. Until I tried pain.

As I ran my fingernails along my feet, I told myself that knives were carving into my skin. I envisioned this with gory detail. I also envisioned some of the worst moments of my life. My heart constricted in pain. My whole body tensed. But my feet stopped twitching. 

Now, I told this story to people my whole life. Each time, I told it with a sort of pride at how I had used my mind to overcome a limitation. I felt like it was a great personal power story. Right? Wrong. Other people, I now realize, thought I sounded crazy. I sounded like a very disturbed child.

It wasn’t until years later that I acknowledged the rest of the story. I taught myself not to be ticklish on my feet because my mother had a boyfriend who was trying to molest me. He would grab my foot, tickle it, lean in close, and say, “I can see your panties.”

I had asked him to stop and told grown-ups that I didn’t like it. But the seduction worsened. So I took matters into my own hands, literally. One day, I lay on the floor after he had grabbed me by the ankle and didn’t flinch when he tickled me. He never did it again.

Now how crazy do I sound? Maybe a little, but it makes more sense now, right?

But I only figured all that out by working through my memories, by talking with others, by feeling the grief and anger that accompanied those memories. I had to acknowledge not just the memory of old pain, but the source and solution of that pain as well. Only then could I turn that terrible experience into a story that can illustrate resilience to others.

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Find the Courage to Share

After doing the work to acknowledge the pain of the past, we can start sharing it when appropriate. I started with people closest to me. I told my husband. My friends. A therapist. And finally one day, I wrote it down and shared it with people I didn’t know.

The courage came in baby steps. In seeing the reactions others gave me as I shared. And in feeling a sense of empowerment as I claimed my own story.

No matter how anyone else feels about what happened to you or what you did, those experiences are yours. Your story is yours, and you have a right to tell it. The trick is to tell it in a way that doesn’t harm anyone unnecessarily.

Extract the Wisdom

One of the best ways to tell about past pain without causing too much harm to those involved is to really focus on our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. Most of that story about the tickling boyfriend is about me. I talk about that story not because I want people to think ill of that man or my mother, but because I want people to know the truth.

The truth is what it is, no matter what anyone else thinks of it. The truth is the truth whether it makes them look good or bad. There’s a certain level of detachment I’ve had to reach about my life and its experiences in order to share them.

I don’t hold this experience against my mother. That’s the other side of wisdom. I know that who I am today is a direct result of the suffering and recovery of my life. Without that day when I lay on the floor and watched that man's face fall and then twist into anger when I didn’t squirm with delight, I might never have become the kind of self-determined person I am today.

As I've heard said, “If you’re going to blame them, you have to thank them too.”

Before you share your story of past pain to help others, be sure you’ve reached the point of healing that can truly offer someone else perspective, not just another excuse to stay bitter.

Give Others Hope

Hope is the goal.

We know this about healing, but hope too can enter us through the voices and faces and hands of other people. [Click to tweet]

If your story gives hope to one person, how long are you going to make everyone else wait before you share it? How long are you going to hold onto the idea that your uniqueness makes your story useless? How much longer are you going to deprive us of the balm that comes from seeing you reach the other side of the mountain. 

My hope for you is that you decide today to share something of your story. Maybe it’s only a slice of what happened. Maybe it’s the whole enchilada. Whatever. Just tell us. Show us who you are. Share with us the lessons, the choices, the steps you took to get out.

Because someone is still in there, longing for a way out. And you, my friend, are it.

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