“I’m telling my story… but I’m not telling it for me. This is about what my story can do for others.”
I’ve heard this sentiment expressed literally hundreds of times from individuals who are sharing their personal stories to advocate for a cause they believe in.
And I felt the same way when I told my story.
Every day, thousands of us make the choice to publicly share our lived experiences in order to make a difference for others, whether we’re raising awareness of an issue, advocating for new legislation, raising funds, or encouraging behavior change. We share our experiences — sometimes deeply personal ones — as “living proof” of a problem or a solution.
What drives us is the desire to help others — but we may sometimes be concerned that others will view our choice as self-serving. “I’m not doing this for me,” we say to others and to ourselves. “I’m doing this to make a difference.”
As a result, we are often surprised by — and even hesitant to accept — the incredible benefits we receive in the process.
A few years ago, Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, a local cancer support nonprofit where I volunteered, asked me to share the story of losing Gianna, my sister and best friend, to cancer. As the organization promoted its annual fundraising breakfast, it wanted to demonstrate in a mailer the importance of the social and emotional support that Gilda’s Clubs across the nation provide, free of charge, to anyone impacted by cancer.
I agreed immediately. After all, much of my work as a communication coach focuses specifically on helping others realize the power of their personal stories to create change. So I viewed this as an opportunity for me to practice what I preach — and turn adversity into advocacy for a cause that was near and dear to my heart.
I knew well how devastating a loved one’s cancer diagnosis could be — and had witnessed firsthand the value of social and emotional support. Even though I have a close family and a wide circle of supportive and generous friends, few of us knew what it was like to live with and around cancer. But the people and professionals at Gilda’s Club do. They offer a place to go where people get it. Gianna — and each one of us impacted by her diagnosis — could have benefitted from that.
So I shared my story, including the sense of isolation and hopelessness that my family and I felt. My story was featured in the Gilda’s Club fundraising breakfast mailer, accompanied by two photos: one of me and Gianna when we were younger, and one of my sister as I will always remember her.
As I held the promotional mailer in my hand, I was pleased to know that my story might help spread the word about the value of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities and encourage others to invest in this important community resource. What I didn’t expect was the added emotional benefits.
Telling Gianna’s story publicly — as an advocate — helped me in three surprising ways:
- It helped me step through pain that I didn’t think I’d ever get past, and restart a grieving and healing process that, frankly, had stalled.
- It reminded me of the importance of “pointing to the positive” when sharing a personal story as an advocate. No matter how deeply our stories are rooted in loss, pain, or trauma, they can drive positive change when we balance the darkness of experience with the vibrancy of action.
- It renewed my commitment to helping other advocates share their lived experiences with a laser-sharp focus on helping others.
Would I have realized these gifts had I told my story solely for my own benefit? Perhaps.
But I believe that doing so as an advocate — with an outwardly focused intent — is what enabled me to experience these benefits so deeply.
I continue to advocate for Gilda’s Club Twin Cities and — like the thousands who daily make the choice to share their stories — am thankful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.
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