Graphic by Haley Morkert.
ABIGAIL PLUFF | OPINION CO-EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
Full disclosure: I am not a licensed therapist. Honestly, I am not licensed in anything whatsoever, besides to operate a motorized vehicle. I’m just a gal with lots of opinions who enjoys giving unsolicited advice to almost anyone around me. So, if this is adverse advice, you can’t sue me or my place of work. Sorry!
Content warning: discussion of sexual assault.
“I don’t feel safe participating in some classroom discussions, not because I fear getting hurt but because we are discussing topics that directly impact me and I don’t want to ‘out’ myself. I know I should participate because I have first-hand experience that could help others understand the perspectives of those directly impacted by these topics, but I just don’t feel comfortable. Is that bad?” – Loyal Reader
Trust me, I hear you. I’ve been there. Recently in one of my classes, a classmate led their argument with an example of childhood sexual assault in a discussion. It was unprompted and used in a way that was not appropriate to the topics we were covering.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by an adult that I knew, I immediately felt my stomach drop to my knees. While I wanted to respond with my story to put the situation into context for this person, and to educate them about how I felt as a survivor, I was shaking and too filled with anxiety to say anything. I was concerned that this person would discredit my experiences, that my classmates would look at me with pity or that my professor would see me in a different light.
I felt like I was letting down other survivors by not standing up for us, but I just couldn’t bring myself to overcome my physiological response.
I sat for hours after this class going over what I ‘should have said’ in my head. Snappy comebacks and detailed explanations came easier once I was on my porch with room to breathe. I began to regret that I didn’t act — until I realized that I did not owe this person anything. I did not owe them my trauma, and I did not owe them an education.
All of this to say, you are never, ever required to share your experiences if you do not want to. Whether you don’t feel comfortable, or simply don’t feel like it, it is not your job to be a spokesperson for others who are in a similar position as you.
Your trauma does not have to be educational, to anyone at any time, and you are never required to disclose your story to educate someone who is ignorant.
Your trauma and your experiences are yours to share at your discretion. If someone wants to be further educated on a particular topic, there are a myriad of resources at their disposal. Documentaries, blogs and social media accounts tackle almost every topic known to man/woman/gender non-conforming folks. A person could also just start with a simple Google search.
In short, you have no obligation to be their resource.
Classroom discussions can be difficult, especially when it’s about something that you are deeply connected to. It can be a challenge to reign in your emotions, to keep a level head, even though you should never have to. It can feel impossible to express yourself clearly to the other side when you’re afraid that they will refute or combat everything you’ve said.
If things get to be too much, you can send a quick email to your professor and let them know you may have to leave or not participate for your own mental health. If the situation pops up with no warning, like in my case, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to suffer the consequences of participating in the discussion. Leave the class if you need to, or stay silent, and chat with your professor afterward to let them know the situation. You don’t have to go into any detail if you don’t want to, you can simply just say the discussion was triggering for you. They’re sure to understand.
And if they don’t, well, toss me an email and I will personally go to war on your behalf. I’ve got your back.
When you enter a class discussion, realize that it is a communal space. It’s important to try to understand how certain topics may trigger others, and therefore it’s important to be sure that you are still careful about what topics you bring into the conversation. You never know what your classmates or professor are carrying, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. Make sure you’re being empathetic, mentioning trigger warnings before you introduce a new topic and not going into detail about sensitive subjects. If you aren’t sure how a topic will be received, it might be best to table it until a later date.
If something is brought up in the discussion and one of your classmates or your professor shares their experience, believe them. Validate what they say, thank them for sharing and accept their experience as truth, whatever it is. And as always, don’t be an a**hole. It doesn’t serve anyone, and it just makes you look bad.
Your experiences are your experiences. Your thoughts and emotions are valid, and no one can ever take that away from you. Whether you decide to participate in the discussion or not, nothing they say is more important than what you have lived through.
You should never feel guilt for not sharing your story with anyone, especially in an academic or classroom setting. It is yours and yours alone, and you get to choose what to do with it.
I believe you, no matter what you’ve experienced.
You are valuable, valid and loved,
If you have a question that you’d like to see discussed in Ask Abby, feel free to contact me via email, carrier pigeon or telepathy.