Can I get a witness? On telling your story and being seen.

A male hand and a big notepad on a wooden table
Over the weekend I ran into the mother of a friend from high school. As she pulled out pictures of his recent wedding on her phone she said, “They got married in front of people after all!”

He and his bride were absolutely glowing in the photos, and I was so happy to witness the happy snapshot. My friend is an anti-establishment, alternative kind of guy, and I can only imagine his wife is similar. So their decision to be witnessed as they made their vows apparently surprised, and thrilled, his mom.

As I tucked my veggies away in my tote I thought about my own wedding and how amazing and important it felt to be witnessed as I committed to Mike and our life together. For us, being surrounded by the people we loved most in the world on that day felt secondary only to the fact that we were choosing one another. Declaring it publicly was paramount.

Desperate To Be Seen

I also thought back to all of the workshops I’ve attended and spoken at where two things seem to happen a lot:

  1. During Q&A there are always a few people who, as soon as they get the microphone, tell the long version of their story instead of asking a question (or before finally getting to the question). This seems to happen even when we’ve been instructed to get right to the question.
  2. During breaks or book signings, there are always a few people who come up and say, “I just have to tell you my story.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with coming up to someone and telling them your story. Most of the time I’m quite delighted by it and often am moved to tears.

But from time to time when someone gets the microphone or pulls someone aside to tell their story, I can feel that their need to be seen (or heard) is overshadowing their perception of how long they’ve been talking, what’s relevant to the group, or whether or not the person they’ve pulled aside has to pee.

They’ve not created enough space to be witnessed in their regular life, and this unmet need comes out sideways.

A Universal Human Need

I was talking about this phenomenon with my cousin, and we both agreed that all humans have a need to be seen.

Being witnessed helps us feel like we matter. (Tweet it!)

witnessed
If you’re an external processor like me, being witnessed can also help us figure out what we think or feel. When I’m caught in my own head I can get lost. But when I’m witnessed (even by a girlfriend’s voicemail) I find myself.

There are so many healthy, helpful ways to be seen and heard. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Communicating with dear friends via voice memo. (There’s an app on your iPhone called Voice Memos. Record and text it to a friend! Way better than a voicemail because you can talk as long as you want. Plus, they don’t always require a response. Often sending the message is enough.)
  • Journaling. Yes, we can witness ourselves. It’s a beautiful feedback loop that’s never exhausted.
  • Blogging and other forms of writing for public consumption. I write to help you and to help me.
  • Women’s Circles or other semi-structured settings where sharing is encouraged. My weekly Qoya class is a beautiful setting for this.
  • Social media. While I don’t personally tend toward long, extensive posts on Facebook, I often read the pages of friends who do. I appreciate their stories and how they provoke new ways of thinking. I do, however, love sharing my life via pictures. Instagram, I find, is a particularly useful tool for sharing things I love and also being witnessed. (Plus, I love witnessing others’ lives this way.)
  • Talking it out with people I love. This can be done in person, on the phone, via text, emails, or even snail mail. No matter the medium, though, it’s salve to the soul.

No matter who you are, you need to be witnessed. It doesn’t make you weak or needy. It makes you human.

Getting our need to be seen, heard, and witnessed met in sane, healthy ways makes us not only feel whole, it makes us so much more pleasant to be around.

You, your story, and your life matter. And anything that matters deserves to be witnessed.

OVER TO YOU:

What are some of your favorite ways to be witnessed or to witness others? Leave your comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

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33 comments

  • April

    this is something i have thought about too the other day , and you are right , is about ‘witnessing’ , the other day, i recorded some of my experiences because i did not have someone to talk to , so i talked to myself,about my experiences during my childhood development and realized, omg ! this video is too long, or the info may be too overwhelming

    then we have human needs like going to the loo, ect..too, so you take a moment to do so, then go back to what you were doing with reason, land have to be professional, logically, i guess! this really matters, when people need to express their story sometimes they don’t need to share everything with everyone, is best to have boundaries. Ii know writing & journaling does help as you mentioned and talking with a friend, though sometimes do not want to be too much or too much info without proper relay or rapport! O:) is good to express ones feelings honestly and truthfully though! Ty :)

  • I see this quite a bit in the Senior Community. I always stop and listen. They need someone to listen and hear them. I have been telling the Senior Citizens that I come in contact with that they DO matter and I stop and listen. I have learned so many great things from their stories they share!
    From my own perspective, I have found that when I share my story it makes me vulnerable. When someone opens up to someone else they are leaving themselves open to judgment and criticism, which a person needs to be prepared for.

  • Ariel

    Ooh this was a good one for me today. I’m planning my wedding, and it’s exciting and overwhelming and exhausting and so so special. It also costs about three times as much as I thought it would, and I know there’s a time for every couple when they turn to each other and say, “wanna just skip all this headache and head down to the courthouse?” But being seen by our families and all our friends is so important to us, and it’s validating to be reminded that being witnessed is natural. I’m grateful that we have the means to make that happen. P.S. Your book just came in the mail! So excited!

    • Kate Northrup

      Ariel – I so hear you on the moments where you just want to scrap the whole wedding thing and elope. But I promise you, being witnessed is worth it. Big congratulations to you!

  • Dorenda

    Wow Kate this is such an inspiring post. Most people don’t realize this need. I am an external processor like you. I do get a lot if insight from various media outlets. I don’t feel like “being witnessed” is an unmet need for me. Mainly, because I understand this about myself. Yet, you’ve shed tremendous light on why Facebook is such a popular media channel. It allows many that outlet to be seen and there life’s witnessed.

  • Robin

    I’m flabbergasted at the timing of this post. I’ve been struggling with this very thing and in the attempt to not be ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ I’ve fallen into a depression.
    But this post has given me a bit of a different perspective… using the word ‘witnessed’ changes everything and gives me an improved understanding of my feelings and why I’ve been feeling so low!
    Thank you.

  • Karla Cienfuegos

    Thank you for writing this, Kate! As a Kindergarten teacher I noticed this pattern in my students and families. I started doing a Star Student of Week poster where families are encouraged to help their students contribute. In my personal life, I will notice something on a friend’s social media post and I will send them a congratulatory card in the mail instead of just saying “Congrats” in the comments. It feels good to spread joy.

  • Sarah

    This made me think of my daughter’s younger years and all of the times I sat on the floor next to her, bearing witness to her angst. Some might call the crying, kicking, and screaming a temper tantrum but I like thinking of it as her natural ability to fully express herself.:)

    So often she didn’t need a hug, discipline, or even the thing that she was crying about, she just needed me to sit with her and witness her sadness, anger, or frustration. She needed me to know that it was happening and she also needed me to hold space for her to fall apart.

    In her teen years this is still true, that sometimes she needs me to witness her pain, but more often nowadays she needs me to witness her joy and accomplishments. The big ones we celebrate and shout from the rooftops but it’s the little things in a day that can go unnoticed. These are the things that she needs me to see. Just see, not comment on, not praise, but just quietly notice.

    • Kate Northrup

      This is so beautiful Sarah! Thank your this amazing perspective and fabulous parenting wisdom!

      • Dawn

        I agree, this is beautiful. I loved and supported my daughter in the same way. She will soon be 22 and we have an ever-expanding connection that I am deeply grateful for.

  • Nikki

    Good post and observations about the need to feel witnessed. However, I must confess I did not feel the need to be witnessed during my recent wedding. My husband and I got married in March after 12 years together. It felt like a private moment between the two of us and not something either one of us wanted to share with anyone else. We are both older and introverted types. I do need to be witnessed in other ways, but when it comes to love and romance I am very private. The thought of a wedding mortified me so I skipped it!

  • Kate! Try the app Voxer! It’s like a walkie-talkie for your phone — SO FUN. (and free!) I use it to communicate with and tell stories to my friends on the east coast (since I moved to the westerly shores a few years ago). It’s an amazing way to keep in touch. Much hilarity has ensued over the stories told via Voxer… :D

  • Thanks Kate, I must confess, I’m one of those who don’t ‘land the plane’ as quickly as I could do… This was a good message for me personally. I’ll do more work on my remaining relevant to questions while answering as succinctly as possible.

  • Kathy

    While staying at a bed and breakfast, I noticed a couple who had just gotten married. She was in a wedding gown and he had his military uniform on. They had eloped. The bride was so beautiful and so excited but they had no one to share it with but me, a total strange. She ran up and gushed to me, a total stranger that she had just gotten married. Of course I complimented them and congratulated them, but I felt sad for them. The bride and groom kept talking to us the whole evening. I realized then that getting eloped really leaves something missing. No loved ones fussing over you or sharing in your joy. She was so gorgeous, but no one was taking pictures but the ones the staff took on the couples camera.

    So, I do agree about witnessing.

  • I work part time on a psychic phone line and I have noticed for many of my clients what they want more than a sense of direction or clarity is to be heard where they are in life because they don’t have people there to listen, to validate their confusion or pain and to support their desire to be heard. Our fast paced world, our insistence on reporting our successes rather than our sometimes painful and ignoble attempts at living and our fears of being vulnerable mean we don’t always have a safe place to be witnessed. I’m glad to be able to do that for others. Thanks for the post Kate!

  • oh Kate snap!
    I literally thought about this yesterday in the shower (all my great thoughts come to me in the shower!) and am in the process of making notes to blog about this… my particular thoughts come from my love/hate relationship with Facebook, as there are times when I am so over some of the posts I see but in ‘recognising the other person is me’ I came to the same conclusion about how we have this requirement to be witnessed.

    thank you for posting, as always love your energy, you rock x

  • Yay! Love this Kate, thank you. I love personal development workshops where everyone shares. It’s so beautiful and bonds everyone together so fast!
    http://www.calmer-you.com

  • So good, Kate. Loving the other comments – particularly about witnessing children (and the elderly, too.) When did we get so busy we don’t have time for that anymore? Or we rush a little one to our own conclusion of their experience? Witnessing is a gift you give yourself – by finding and creating the best outlets/support for you – but it’s also the gift of holding space for someone else. To do whatever it is they need to do in that moment. No judging, or pulling, or tugging them across an imaginary finish line. Just being. Thank you! Rachel

  • Korynn

    I think having deep and meaningful connections with people through conversation is the best way for me to feel witnessed. I’m generally an introverted person so I don’t tend to talk a lot or plaster long posts all over Facebook. In fact, it’s prevented me from having a blog/newsletter for a long time. But now that you’ve written this post my intuition has been confirmed – I want to start interviewing people for my blog/newsletter. It would give me a chance to connect with people (where I find myself being the most natural) and shine some light on how awesome they are too. Thank you, Kate :)

    • Kate Northrup

      I love that this inspired you to not only be witnessed as an interviewer but also to facilitate others being witnessed. You’re going to be awesome! Introverts often ask the best questions!

  • […] and feelings from our head or heart and put them out in the world, we find greater clarity. As Kate Northrup notes, when we are witnessed we find ourselves. Kate offers a list of healthy, helpful ways ways to be seen and […]

  • Love this! It’s so important to feel heard and seen.

  • Catherine

    It’s an interesting thought, I loved the comment about the bride and groom who eloped. On a different note, I moved to a new country and moved to a bigger flat and all I wanted to do was to share it with all my friends, but I couldn’t. and that made me really sad and made me think about what I had left behind…
    I think it is really an important part of our lives to see and be seen, to feel that we have others that are also on the same page as us.

  • Ahh, it’s just the universe to plop this in my inbox to read. I was thinking about this subject the other day. I have this blog where I share my gardening love and adventures. I don’t make any money through it. It’s purely for fun.. kind of a side thing. I was trying to decide if I should keep doing it and thinking of the reasons why I do it. It’s so fun that it gets my creative juices flowing and that bleeds into other areas of my life in a good way. And now I realize that it’s to satisfy my human need to be witnessed. Thanks, Kate!

  • […] Sicht der Dinge darstellen. Weltverbesserer sein. Austausch mit Gleichgesinnten. Gesehen werden. Wahrgenommen werden. Motto: Die Leserzahl eins reicht. Leser: Menschen, die sich für die Kunstwerke begeistern oder […]

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