wearing signs


It only takes a second for the heart to soften.

This weekend, I strolled into one of my favorite shops and chatted with the clerk behind the counter. We spoke only for a few minutes before she broke my heart.

A simple conversation paved the way for moments of truth-telling. Maybe it was the quiet store, the gentleness of the day, or the pause in my step, but two women began to tell stories. “My best-friend died a few years ago,” she said. Life has never been the same. She couldn’t have been more than 25 years old. No one that young should die. No one that young should lose their best-friend to a grave.

Days before my life intersected with hers, I read an article that left a powerful impression with me and was the inspiration for this post. The author told the story of her own heartache, the tragedy of her family. She spoke about the public appearance she mustered, masking the private pain she carried. Please take a few minutes to read her words. If she had shared her pain with the world, she would have worn this sign. (Photo credit to Melody Ross.)

1-signs-husband

Right now, if you were to “put your heart on your sleeve” (or around your neck), what sign would you wear? Maybe these words?

My boyfriend isn’t the nice guy everyone sees… and I choose to stay.

I have a disease no one can see. I suffer more than anyone knows.

Whenever I feel sad and angry, I punish myself with a razor blade.

My husband would rather watch porn than be with me.

Everyone I’ve ever loved has left. It must be my fault.

I don’t think I’ll ever become a parent, and I cry every night.

I’ve had seven miscarriages. I stopped telling people after the third.

My dreams are dying and I’m running out of time. Hope is hard to find anymore.

Ten years later and I’m still alone. I’ve never gotten over him.

I live a secret life no one knows about. I’m swimming in shame.

As a therapist, I’m invited into the private stories of people’s lives, especially those of pain – the stories often unaware to the outside world. There are public faces and private faces – and they seldom look the same when we’re hurting. Our private pain, our stories in their fullness, is rarely offered to the outside world. Which brings me back to the idea of wearing signs.

The idea of wearing signs telling our story is a novel idea, but I don’t think it’s a fashion statement about to trend anytime soon. So, how shall we live instead? I offer these two reflections toward a more whole-hearted way of living where our stories aren’t silent nooses around our neck:

1. Know you aren’t alone. You’re in the good company of billions of people on the planet who carry stories of pain, despair, and resilience. As story-teller and researcher, Brene Brown said in a recent interview, “The truth is— everyone has a story that will break your heart.”

While this is true, sometimes we can feel alone in the absence of sharing with others how our heart is journeying on the planet. We need to speak our truth. However, when we speak our truth and share our stories of pain, we must also use wisdom in choosing those who have the privilege of entering these spaces with us. Not everyone is deserving of hearing our stories. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Brene Brown talks about the six types of people who are undeserving and unsafe when deciding who to let experience tender spaces with us. The leap to vulnerability must be done with people who we can trust.

Not everyone deserves to hear your story. Take 5 minutes to hear her words.

Who do you trust? Who in your life do you need to think twice about before sharing? Let’s not cast pearls before swine. Our stories and our hearts deserve better.

2. Since everyone has a story that will break your heart, work to see past the public persona of others. Pretend you know their private stories—and be gentle. Let’s all be gentle with each other, for we’re all carrying tender places. We do ourselves and others a great service when we walk through the world with empathy and grace. When we imagine ourselves in the shoes of another and seek to be gracious with their lives, we honor the stories of those in our lives and ultimately our own stories too. While the details of our stories are all different, we share a common bond of knowing heartache and disappointment and pain. We dishonor ourselves and others when we start measuring who’s pain matters more. We all matter. We all wear invisible signs.

As we consider our stories or pain, let’s not stay there. Where there are stories of heartache, there are chapters of resilience and story-endings of overcoming.

How do you want your story to unfold? How can you transcend your pain? What sign would you want to wear this time next year? Let these words bring hope as you dream of wearing a new sign…

I finally found love with a good man. I always did deserve better.

My disease does not define me. My life reflects grace.

I haven’t cut in months. I’m trading punishment for self-compassion.

My husband’s addiction ruined our marriage, but it didn’t ruin me.

I found people who stay—and I know I’m worth it now.

I’m becoming a foster parent. My tears are now of joy.

My miscarriages have a legacy. I help support women who share my story.

I’ve started dreaming again. One is coming true this month!

I’m still single, but I no longer feel alone in my life… and I have a date tonight.

My secret life ended last month… and I’ve never been more proud.

And while we’re waiting for a time when the old sign doesn’t fit anymore, let’s all be gentle with ourselves and everyone else. Let’s see the world for the signs we wear today… and let’s hope together for the signs of resilience and healing to come.

One final thought? The greatest stories of changing the world and impacting the globe are often inspired by great heartache. We want our pain to matter—giving purpose to pain is part of the how it lessens and heals across time. We need beauty for ashes. So, when you think about wearing a new sign, consider giving your new words to the world. We can never have enough stories where lives change the planet. Take heart, be inspired. Grab a pen. Let’s all start writing…

 

SHANNON WEST

is the owner and founder of Speaking Pink, a private therapy and consulting practice devoted to teen girls and twenties women in Seattle / Kirkland, Washington. Shannon is a licensed family therapist, a private consultant, and a writer about all things on the journey from girl to woman. Follow on Pinterest and Twitter or send an email to Shannon@speakingpink.com.