What are survivors really hoping for by telling their #MeToo stories?

Tony Robbins recently made news by claiming that people sharing their #MeToo stories are just stuck in victimhood and trying to soothe themselves with momentary anger and a “drug called significance.” His tirade, and subsequent interaction with Nanine McCool, a survivor of sexual abuse who was in the audience and challenged his interpretation of the movement, were captured on video, including this statement:

“If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else, you haven’t grown an ounce. All you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good.”

There are now hundreds of mainstream media articles, blogs, and social media posts and comments with opinions both slamming and defending Robbins, and his people have had their hands full with damage control.

Whatever Robbins may have intended to do, whatever apology he may have issued, he has made a significant contribution to the direction and momentum this movement can have just by opening the door to this conversation.

Are We Looking for Significance?

Actually no, we aren’t looking for significance. We are significant. In our numbers, in our determination, in our personhood. By telling our stories, to one person or to the world, we are reminding ourselves and each other that we are not pawns, not throwaways, not insignificant. We are human, and we are worthy of decency and respect.

Abuse, by design, robs the victim of significance. It says, “I can do this to you because I’m more than you are.” It makes the victim out to be less as a human – less important, less powerful, less worthy, less significant. Abuse of a sexual nature not only makes you feel less as a human, but less of a human. It says, “I can attack this core aspect of your selfhood, this essence of your humanness, and you can’t do anything about that.”

So we aren’t really looking for significance, we’re reclaiming our significance. We are telling ourselves, and each other, “Your story matters, your pain matters, your healing matters, you matter. You always have, you always will.”

Don’t Let Significance Keep You Silent

Robbins’ denigration of the search for significance struck at the heart of what has kept a lot of survivors from claiming their power through telling their stories. Many of us who have healed through the phases of unworthiness and shame, of anger and despair, of detachment and dissociation, still did not speak out because we did not want our stories to be discredited as nothing more than pathetic or vengeful appeals for attention, sympathy, even notoriety.

Like many of the survivors now speaking up, I kept my stories to myself for most of my life. I had many reasons, and one was that I did not want to be seen as using my past as a springboard to success. But as I began to share some of the stories I saw the significance of what those stories could spark in my audience. For years now I have seen the hope, the release of shame, the sense of community that happens when people come to me and say, “Me too. That happened to me too.” 

I have seen the significance of sharing the journey and now that I have seen what I can contribute to the healing of other survivors I will never be silent again.

Planting the idea, which isn’t new or unique to Robbins by any means, that the only reason a person would tell their survival story is to gain significance makes it easy to discredit the story and the person. That’s a tactic that’s been used for decades, if not centuries. Whether Robbins intentionally used that tactic or whether it was simply a byproduct of a larger point he was making, his allegation that people telling their #MeToo stories are only looking for significance could have been dangerous, could have silenced stories that need to be told, but the movement has too much momentum for even someone with his influence to stop it now.

No One Else Gets to Decide if Your Story Makes the Cut

One of the more disturbing conversations I’ve been part of regarding the #MeToo movement had to do with what “counted” as abuse. A man had devoted rather a lot of time and energy to posting comments accusing women of “riding on the coattails of REAL victims” and downplaying anything that was not, in his opinion, severe enough to warrant the #MeToo designation.

He started his engagement with me by telling me I should be ashamed of claiming to have a #MeToo story. I told him that I had many, but that I had experienced incestual rape from age eight to 13 and had been raped by a date when I was 16. He then informed me that all those “other women” were insulting me by claiming that they had ever suffered abuse.

According to the comments of people who say they were present, this seems to have been a part of the Robbins’ presentation as well, that some people have truly suffered but others are just claiming to have been abused in order to find temporary solace and a sense of significance.

I mentioned two of my #MeToo stories here. They qualified me, at least in the eyes of the commenter, as someone with a “right” to take part in the movement. What I didn’t mention was the time a colleague walked me to my car “for safety” then proceeded to push me up against my car, kissing and fondling me, because he claimed we had chemistry and if I denied that the attraction was mutual I was lying. I didn’t mention the time that a writer I was working with gave me a manuscript to review that mentioned my name and profession and also referenced my other “attractive” qualities. In spite of saying that he did it “as a joke” he neglected to remove those references before sending the manuscript to his publisher for review. When I told him that this was disturbing to me he said it shouldn’t matter because “not that many people read it” and “they don’t know you anyway.” I’m guessing neither of those incidents would have been considered “abuse” and yet they were an abuse of power and a belittling of my person and of my credibility as a professional.

Having experienced both violent rape and a multitude of inappropriate jokes, innuendos, touches, and slurs I can tell you that the smaller offenses can be just as hurtful and just as effective at making you feel powerless if you let them. Do not think that you are in a position to judge the harm done to another, or that any other person is in a position to judge the harm done to you. What this movement must address is the actual power imbalances that result in the acceptance of sexual abuse. That means we need to address the entire continuum of how those power imbalances show up. Saying “this person has suffered enough to deserve our support but this person has not” only excuses behavior that, regardless of the amount of harm caused, is not excusable.

You Aren’t Making Anyone Wrong

From the part of the presentation included in the video clip Robbins seems preoccupied with the idea that those who are telling their #MeToo stories are out to gain significance by attacking and destroying the lives of their abusers.

When he says, “What you’re seeing is people making themselves significant by making somebody else wrong,” his language implies that the behavior wasn’t inherently wrong, the wrong only existed once that story was told. What we all need to remember is that reporting a wrong does not create the wrong. Regardless of where on the abuse continuum that behavior might fall, the wrong was done whether the story was told or not.

In fact, part of the healing journey is to accept that the other person’s behavior was wrong. Which you might think would be easy, but the shame, the secret suspicion that we somehow deserved that treatment or brought that abuse on ourselves, is one of the barriers that most survivors have to push through. Once we are clear that we are not to blame for the actions of the other we can begin the process of forgiveness, compassion, and release. Sharing our stories, seeing how wrong and yet how unfortunately common that behavior and abuse of power really are, can be a step toward self-forgiveness and healing.

Robbins also seems to believe that #MeToo in the workplace is hurting women. He told a story of a famous, powerful man who supposedly told him that he was so stressed about the movement that he would not hire a highly qualified, but unfortunately beautiful, female candidate, choosing a less qualified male candidate instead. He said, according to Robbins, that he “did not dare have her around because it was too high of a risk.” At least a dozen men, Robbins says, have told him the same thing.

This too, is nothing new. People have been hiring, or not hiring, women based on their looks since women entered the workplace. Yet not all, not even most, of the #MeToo stories are from women who would have been hired or not hired solely on their appearance, and workplaces certainly exist where beautiful women are treated as valuable human beings rather than sex magnets. The truth is that sexual abuse and harassment take place at work against women of all ages and all levels of attractiveness if the business culture allows that abuse to go unchecked. Any business leader or coach boasting of fame and fortune should also have what it takes to build a business culture where a woman’s appearance has no bearing on her hireability or how she will be treated once she is hired.

So while a large number of people would like to believe that most of the #MeToo stories really “aren’t that bad” and that survivors are “just” trying to get revenge and make themselves important, or that woman are ultimately only hurting themselves by “pushing back” and angering the men in power, the truth is that there is a wide spectrum of abusive behaviors that we have been conditioned to accept as normal and we need to learn to recognize and reject them all.

What Are You Looking For?

I’ve never made working with survivors openly part of my brand, but when you have walked a path, especially a path of healing, it is natural that you will attract others who are on that path. In more than 20 years of coaching I have heard hundreds of #MeToo stories. Many of them started with, “I’ve never told anyone about this, but …” Some of them had told their families or their partners, some had even shared with their communities or their clients. Regardless of how they told their stories, or who they told them to, very few were looking for vengeance, or for attention.

Since the #MeToo hashtag started trending I have heard and read more stories than I can count. Again, very few of them were looking for vengeance, or for attention.

What are we looking for? Everyone is on a different path, and a different point in their journey, so there may be no universal answer to that question. But what I have witnessed, in my work and in observing the stories coming out of this movement, is that people are looking, not for momentary attention or significance, but just to be seen. Whether their story is of violent rape or layers of sexual aggression and discrimination, they want to know that the day can dawn when it is not accepted, not excused, not overlooked.

We, all of us who have been doing our healing work for years and those who are only now addressing the stories of their lives, are finding our way, not to significance, but to personal power. We are united, not in victimhood or helpless anger that cannot be sustained, but in the truth – the acknowledgement that these things happen. They happened to me. They happened to you. They are not rare, or even unusual. And they are not OK.

For most of us, myself and the many, far too many, survivors I know, being part of creating that future is more important that being “happy.” It is why we share our stories. It is why we see the person behind each story for the significant, powerful being that they are. We are united, not in helplessness, but in power. The power to create a future where these things might happen, but they are named for what they are – the abuse of power, the abuse of privilege, the abuse of another human being.

As Robbins says in his apology, he has a lot to learn. We all do. Perhaps we can stop looking at him and asking what he intended or didn’t intend, what he should do or shouldn’t do, what will or won’t happen to him or for him. Perhaps this isn’t about him at all, perhaps he is only serving to ignite a deeper conversation than he is able to lead. 

Let us step back and ask what gift has come of this episode in his life. What doors has it opened, what conversations has it sparked, what biases and hidden truths has it revealed? Let us put aside the role of the judge and take up the role of the student. Let us learn together what must be done to heal, not only the survivors among us, but the abusers as well. This conversation and the #MeToo movement can bring about that kind of healing if we unite to make it so.