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Oprah opens up to Hoda Kotb about how her childhood trauma informed her life's work

"Everybody wants to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to know that their story matters."
/ Source: TODAY

Oprah Winfrey is opening up about how the trauma she faced in childhood helped her to build the skills she needed to do her life's work.

During an interview with TODAY's Hoda Kotb on Friday, the talk show legend, 67, said growing up in poverty and facing sexual assault at an early age taught her to have compassion for other people and their struggles.

"I wouldn't take anything for having been raised the way that I was. It is because I was sexually abused, raped, that I have such empathy for people who've experienced that," said Winfrey. "It is because I was raised poor, and no running water, and going to the well, and getting whippings that I have such compassion for people who have experienced it."

"And so it has given me a broader understanding and a deeper appreciation for every little and big thing that I now have," she added.

Winfrey said her 25 years hosting "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which frequently dealt with challenging topics, proved to be a kind of "therapy" for her.

"The first time I was able to admit that I had been sexually abused, raped, assaulted as a 9-year-old happened on television," she recalled. "And it happened on television because a woman was sharing her story. And I thought, I swear, until that moment I was the only person who ever had that happen to me."

"So in the middle of her in a show sharing her story, I went, 'That happened to me.'"

Winfrey has teamed up with Prince Harry on a new documentary series about mental health called "The Me You Can't See." To prepare for the series, which launches this weekend on Apple TV+, Winfrey dug into her past.

"Did you find as you were digging through all this that there were actually some grief inside you that had yet to be resolved, had yet to be healed?" asked Hoda.

"I didn't, but your just asking the question makes me emotional," Winfrey responded, adding, "I don't know how I did it."

Winfrey credits her faith with giving her the strength to overcome the pain.

"My grandmother, who was very harsh, but like a lot of Black parents during that era — the idea of hugging and loving on your child or even allowing the child to feel seen was just not a part of her life," she explained.

"But she did give me Jesus," Winfrey added, laughing. "She did give me a belief in something bigger than myself. So I am grateful for for that."

The OWN mogul also reflects on her childhood in her new book "What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing," with co-author Dr. Bruce Perry. Writing the book helped Winfrey understand how her past caused her to be insecure despite her massive success.

"I think that certainly all of the feelings of not fitting in, or my disease to please, or feeling like, if I don't do what everybody wants me to do, I'm going to be rejected somehow — what I was afraid of in every instance, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get a whipping. I'm afraid I'm going to get that whipping,'" she said.

She added, "Even though I'm the boss lady, even though I'm the one in charge, even though I'm the one who's running the business, I was still trying to process and figure that part of myself out."

Winfrey's willingness to examine her own painful past has given her what she calls "post-traumatic wisdom." And it's made her even more eager to talk to others about the challenges they've endured.

"Everybody wants to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to know that their story matters," she said.