The Surprising Power of Bearing Witness

bearing witness

When someone you know and maybe love is facing something tough, it’s easy to want to help. But it’s not so easy to know HOW to do that, exactly. I want to kick off this week’s episodes by pointing out just how powerful bearing witness is and simply letting someone know you are there for them. Whether you say that in words or in deeds, just the knowledge that they have someone who cares about them and is keeping an eye out is just mega, super, powerful.

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Researching this episode, I found a couple of studies that show you what I’m talking about

The first one is pretty trippy. In 2008, researchers stood at the bottom of a hill on the campus of the University of Virginia and asked students who were passing by – either alone, or walking with one other person–to do something weird. They had either the single student or one of the pairs put on a backpack that had been filled with enough weight to equal about 20 percent of their body weight. So, for a 150 pound person, this would be a 30 pound weight. THEN they had the person wearing the backpack to share how steep they thought the hill looked. Those who were alone thought the hill looked steeper and the climb more challenging than the students who had a friend with them. AND, interestingly, the longer the students who were in pairs had known each other, the less steep the hill seemed.

Another study asked female college students to do some challenging math problems. The students who were in the room by themselves had a bigger spike in heart rate, which is a sign of stress, than those who had a friend in the room with them.

Cool right?

So, for the people in your life who are facing something challenging…

It’s tempting to think, “Oh, they’re going through something. I’ll leave them be. I don’t want to bother them.” When the truth is, in many cases, your checking in is going to help them through, even if you don’t do all that much more than just let them know that you’re there.

Of course, there will be situations and people where someone may prefer–or need–to go off the grid for a while, and that’s OK. But too many of us keep our distance. Even if we think it’s a respectful distance, it can actually be making the challenge seem more difficult to the person who is facing it.

I’ll talk more in other episodes about what to say and do when you check in

The point of this episode is to simply help you see that giving a friend or loved one the opportunity to share what they’re going through is an important service.

Bearing witness is a term used in psychotherapy often in relation to survivors of trauma. I mean it here as simply being present. Just knowing you are there and you are interested in hearing whatever they are ready to share has tremendous therapeutic value.

Maya Angelou wrote “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” By being present, you make yourself available to hear those stories. And even if the other person isn’t quite ready to share the full extent of their experience, knowing that someone else is keeping an eye on them helps them know that at least part of their story is at least being witnessed.

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is to think about someone in your life who’s facing a challenge. Be honest with yourself–have you been checking in with them? Or have you been keeping a distance, whether you’ve been doing it on purpose or perhaps unconsciously?

I think we have a secret fear that other people’s misfortunes might be contagious, and so we keep our distance maybe partly out of respect, but also partly out of a weird drive for self-preservation. But that’s not how misfortune works.

There’s a Swedish proverb that says “Friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief.” No one gets through this life without facing challenges–being there for someone else during the tough times not only helps the other person see the hill they have to climb as less steep, it also helps make it so that when you’re the one at the bottom of the hill, there will be a person standing there who will help your backpack feel lighter. And remember, just your paying attention and being observant is so incredibly powerful.

If you’re curious about how to do more than that, I’ll share three helpful questions to ask someone who’s going through a tough time, tomorrow.


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