What Happened To You?

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*story by Sarah Claire Smith who holds her Masters in Counseling and is an all-around special human being.


“What is wrong with you?”

“She’s crazy.”

“Is there something wrong with me?”

“Suck it up.”

“Get over it.”

“Just don’t do that.”

“Just move on.”

These statements and questions can sting. They illicit shame. They are shallow. Would you take a moment to swim with me from the shallow end of the pool towards the deep end?

A professor once told me “Therapy is like open heart surgery without a scalpel.”

How true this rings to my ears. So many of us carry wounds in our heart and soul places that at some point in our lives cry out for attention. Like a hungry or sleepy child, our wounds cry to be noticed. Listened to. Heard.

If you are a living, breathing, risking human then I imagine that you have fallen, tripped, scraped your knee, been bruised, and even broken. It’s physics. It’s the spiritual journey. It’s life.

We have now entered the middle part of the pool. Where you can still stand but the water is creeping up to your ears.

Keep going with me.

The concept I am about to share has single-handedly transformed the way I practice therapy and the way I lead and love.

We need to stop asking people:

“What’s wrong with you?”

and ask instead:

“What happened to you?”

Allow that to jump from this screen from your eyes to your brain, and settle there for a moment.

This concept was originally presented to me as a call to helping professionals (therapists, doctors, even teachers) but I think it is important to ask in our daily lives as well as into our mirrors.

Let us be honest. We so often see people or interact with people and think to ourselves…

”What is wrong with that person?”

A valid response...

But what if we shifted the focus and asked them...

“What happened to you in your story that has affected the way you are responding today?”

I believe this shift can revolutionize the way we lead, create, parent, and love.

I work primarily as a therapist with adults who are afflicted with a substance abuse addiction. Once they come into our facility they are required to remain substance free. Sober. No longer seeking drugs and alcohol to escape, numb, or be transported to another consciousness. Not long after they admit we soon see that the drugs are rarely the problem. Many of them have been asked “What is wrong with you?” or “Can’t you just stop?” by loved ones and society. Shamed.

What if they were asked the better question: “What happened to you that has led you to need to cope with drugs and alcohol to this extreme?”

Daily I sit with brave and broken humans who have suffered from abuse, neglect, bullying, chaotic upbringings, trauma, and deep lack of self-worth/purpose/significance. I strive to ask them with compassion in my eyes and empathy in my tone … "What is your story?”, “How did you get here?”, “What happened to you?”.

Some of the stories have me fighting tears across from the brave soul sharing with me and ALL of them bring me to my knees at night.

I not only hear these harsh statements to self out of the mouths of my clients but out of my friends, family, and out of my own mouth.

So again… what if we asked “What happened to you” instead?”

Brene Brown explores this idea that pain will find a way to be known in her book Braving the Wildness:

“Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working. How much longer are we willing to keep pulling drowning people out of the river one by one, rather than walking to the headwaters of the river to find the source of the pain? … Pain is unrelenting. It will get our attention. Despite our attempts to drown it in addiction, to physically beat it out of one another, to suffocate it with success and material trappings, or to strangle it with our hate, pain will find a way to make itself known.”- Brené Brown

If pain is not shared and allowed to heal IT WILL COME OUT SIDEWAYS.

I know this to be true in my own story and in the stories I hear daily.

WE ARE NOT WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO US... but unless we share it, connect to it, grieve it, and heal from it... it can strongly affect our present and future.

The next time you find yourself asking "What's wrong with you?" Or “What is wrong with me?” in a tone of judgment... try on some compassion and risk to ask "What happened to you?"

And move closer to listen. Seek out a professional to hold space with you. Seek out a community that holds space with you. That encourages healing and not perpetuation of the pain.

I also see now how therapy is also BRAIN surgery without a scalpel.

Our brain is the single most complex and magnificent mechanism on this planet.

Everything we see, feel, touch, hear, or experience is filtered through our brain.

I am no neuroscientist but I am a mental health counselor with a deep fascination and awareness of the importance of our brain health.

While it is the most resilient of organs, it is also incredibly fragile.

When we experience trauma, loss, pain, abuse, neglect, perfectionism, fear, anxiety, grief, rejection, unattainable expectations - OUR BRAINS SUFFER.

This is important to know. We are not bulletproof. We just aren’t. We are mailable, sensitive, evolving creatures.

Our brains are at their best when we cultivate peace, mindfulness, rest, hope, worth, and love. It sounds woo-woo but it’s science. It’s spirit. It’s how we are designed.

When we live in silence, darkness, shame, and chaos, our brains will be affected and it will eventually show itself in some sort of behavioral or physical manifestation.  When we seek out healing, peace, and restoration, we find our way home. 

This is why caring for our mental and soul health is important. We want to go home. 

Where we feel safe and where we belong. It is how our bodies and souls were designed to function best. 

So the next time you find yourself in a cave of shame, move in on yourself with compassion and curiosity. If there is something in your story that is showing up sideways, I deeply encourage you to seek our mental/soul health care. 

Call a therapist. Sit with your pastor. Find a coach. Call that friend who has empathetic and non-judgmental skills. Be that friend. Become curious about what is behind that behavior, thought process, belief. This it is a call to come out of hiding. A call for awareness, curiosity, processing, and peace.

You deserve a place to be known and heard.

You are made for freedom.

This is the deep end, my friends.

My hope is that you find your worth.

Your voice.

Your peace.

Take courage.

Take heart.

  • SC


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