In the 1990s the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape case because they assumed that since the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have assisted her rapist in getting them off, thereby acknowledging consent. The next day, women in Italian parliament wore jeans in solidarity and for the past 19 years Peace Over Violence has run the #DenimDay campaign, to raise awareness about sexual violence. As a mental health therapist and social worker, raising awareness and speaking out about sexual violence and advocating for gender equality has always been an extremely important passion of mine. The majority of my work has centered around empowering survivors of trauma, and sexual trauma is unfortunately one of the most common and complex experiences to navigate given the all too common stigma and shame it's often associated with. That is why the #MeToo  movement has always been a human issue for me, not a political one. Brené Brown researches and presents about shame, vulnerability and empathy, all things I know have so much power over people and how they live out their human experiences. She says; 

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” 
-Brené Brown

And she is right. Bringing this topic to light is the only way we can make a change in the larger culture. Making sexual trauma less taboo is the only way to help people feel empowered to seek help. My role as a therapist has always been to make the uncomfortable, more comfortable. To peal away the shame by openly speaking about those things we hide away out of fear; it's the only way to make them less scary. Brené Brown says that shame can't survive being talked about and this is exactly where we need to start. This is how we change culture, we expose difficult truths and find ways of dealing with them. We talk to each other, we don't always have the same opinions but we all listen, we all learn, we all shift. This is magic of conversation and connectivity. And this is why we have things like #MeToo, #TimesUp and #DenimDay. We aren't letting shame take our power, our voices, our experiences from us. We all have a responsibility to welcome one another, listen to one another, help one another.

So when you have this opportunity to listen, to help, to sit with someone sharing something that could easily fall into shame- what do you do? Well again, Brené Brown puts this so simply, something I thought only therapists could do. She says we can sit in the dark with someone. We don't need to console, we don't need to give feedback, we just need to share. Share yourself with someone, be present, be there to listen, be there to take on some of the pain by simply acknowledging, validating, being real. For example, when a client shares something extremely painful or just straight horrific with me, I respond as a human, wow, that must have been so difficult, I'm sure that was painful, I am so sorry that happened to you, what was that like? Before going to graduate social work school, I spent so much of my time trying to 'fix it' for everyone else. To have those magical words of advice and say the 'right thing' that would instantly heal someone. As well intentioned as I was, I realized I was really discouraging my friends from authentically expressing their feelings. Having the right answer was about helping someone else, but it also meant I was superior in some way, that I knew everything. 

Sympathy is about feeling sorry for someone, empathy, however, is about understanding them. Empathy requires us to tap into our human-ness and find a way to connect with another person's pain. Not all humans have the exact same experiences, but we all have felt pain in some way or another and we are all capable of having the same feelings. Empathy evens the playing field, as it reminds us all that whether we are currently suffering or not, we all are equally susceptible to it and we share that with one another in this human experience. We are all equal and therefore pain is not to be shamed, but to be shared. As a therapist all my clients have told me about experiences I have not personally had myself, but I have never not been able to imagine what it must feel like when they share their stories with me. This is why we cry when we hear songs, watch movies, listen to stories. I'm not married to a country singer suffering with addiction but I did cry when Lady Gaga sang that last song in A Star is Born. We are all capable of empathy, of having some smidge of an understanding about what it must have been like to go through something challenging, painful, scary, violent, terrifying, exciting, inspiring, hopeful, fulfilling, lovely. We can relate, you can relate, and it's really all we need to do for one another. 

So when we have a day like today, #DenimDay, we don't have to be victims of sexual trauma or therapists. We just have to be willing to sit in the dark, to listen to the stories of our friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues. To make the scary feel a little more safe by allowing these difficult conversations to take place, making the world more aware, making shame less powerful. 

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