A reader emailed me a couple of weeks ago with a question about one of my posts. It was such a great question that I wanted to dedicate an entire post to it.
I found your blog through Cup of Jo and really enjoy your writing, especially your two posts on dealing with strong negative emotions. This paragraph especially stood out to me:
"My tendency is to completely hide my emotions in the face of conflict and play it cool, pretending like what the other person doesn’t hurt or affect me. That’s not healthy either because it’s important to stand up for ourselves. It’s something I’m working on and I’ve had a few successes this past year with conversations I really didn’t want to have because I was scared. But afterwards, I was so proud of myself and my relationships with these people got so much better."
I completely hide my emotions as well. Almost no one ever realizes I am upset about something, not even my husband, until later on when I vent to him about it. I always feel like a deer in the headlights in these kinds of situations when my feelings are hurt, because even if I am anticipating them (such as with my mother-in-law), it's so difficult for me to even identify what I am feeling exactly or an appropriate way to respond in the moment. I almost always realize it later or think of what I should have said instead. I think some of it has to do with being raised to be a people-pleaser and never having healthy ways of dealing with conflict modeled in my family (we tend to avoid conflict and are just passive-aggressive instead...we're Mennonites.) At any rate, I was wondering if you'd be willing to share more about what has been helpful to you as you've learned to stand up for yourself in a future blog post.
First off, a huge thank you to this reader because she articulated what I’m sure many of you feel. This is especially a big struggle for…you guessed it…WOMEN. Women in our society are raised to be pleasant, nice and non-confrontational. When we do stand up for ourselves, we’re seen as overly aggressive or the trait we are most afraid to be: unlikeable. Thankfully, there is a lot of emerging literature addressing this cultural bias, which is raising the consciousness of women today and empowering us to speak up and be true to ourselves.
In addition to the wonderful resources that are already out there, I do have a few tips of my own that I’ve gained through my personal (tumultuous) journey of discovering my voice.
1) Experience: The best way to discover your own voice and bear witness to your most authentic self is also through the most difficult way—through time, experience, failure and learning. I struggled with speaking up for myself for years and years and years. And it was only by feeling so much regret after each instance of hiding myself that I knew I had to change.
So, the first and most important way to develop and empower your voice is to notice each time you don’t speak up for yourself. You’ll recognize these instances because you’ll experience the following symptoms afterwards: regret, shame, possible resentment towards those whom you think are responsible for pushing your voice down, thinking of how you wish you responded and practical consequences that confirm you should have said something to begin with.
I have so many examples of this so I’ll just share one. When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, my second year internship was as a Chapel Minister. We had chapel services from Monday to Friday and there was a team of us who put those services together. We were responsible for recruiting people to lead the services and crafting the services. For one of the services, I assigned one student to do the introductory prayer. She told me she had been really touched by a poem recently and asked me if she could share it. Now, the introductory prayer time isn’t really a time to share a poem but here’s the thing, I didn’t have the heart to say no. So, what I did was this half-hearted thing where I told her that she could incorporate the poem into the introductory prayer. Now, as soon as she delivered it, I knew this was a big mistake. It was awkward. Everybody was confused and she was embarrassed and I felt like a big, big failure. I thought I was protecting her by giving her a meek “yes” to her request but in fact, I would have been protecting her more if I told her that we could use the poem another time and just focus on delivering a prayer.
This kind of experience repeated itself over and over again with my friends, family members, colleagues and my own husband—where I would withhold something in order to not hurt their feelings or to not cause any conflict, but the consequences would be horrendous because I avoided feeling any kind of discomfort.
So the first thing to do once you notice you suppressed your voice is to be very, very compassionate towards yourself and forgive yourself. The second is to ask, what could I have done differently? And then do a mental replay of the situation with you behaving in a way you would have been proud of. With practice, the time will come when you will respond exactly how you want to. And as you keep doing this, that muscle will get stronger and stronger to the point where you will rarely have moments when you wish you spoke up for yourself.
2) You have to be okay with discomfort. Yes…you read it correctly. You have to be okay with feeling discomfort for a little bit and the possibility of not being liked. And you have to trust that you will move through it and create a better situation because you were strong enough to feel the temporary discomfort. As I see it, you have two options: A) You avoid conflict but you feel inner-conflict or B) You deal with the conflict then and there and feel freedom for the longer-haul. You choose.
3) Be willing to say no. Oh gosh. I have had the BIGGEST difficulty saying “no” to opportunities, requests and people. But once I had a kid who zapped a large portion of my time and energy, I realized I had to be much more selective about what I said “yes” to or I would wear myself down. It’s okay to put yourself first. It’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s okay to know what you need and to protect that need—in fact, it’s not only okay, it’s the only way you will be happier. When we say “yes” to people when we really mean, “no,” we will be tired and super resentful of those well-meaning folks who did the asking. But it’s not their fault. It’s our responsibility to define and protect our capacities.
4) Finally…I’m not encouraging you to be rude, mean, reactive or defensive by any means. Despite the image and title of this post, aggressiveness does not equal strength and authenticity. In fact, it’s the opposite. We are aggressive when we feel weak and defensive. You may find yourself being aggressive when you begin to speak up for yourself as it’s natural to go from one extreme to another extreme as you try to find the gentle equilibrium. This is okay, just notice your reaction, be compassionate towards yourself and remind yourself that other opportunities will come up when you can respond better.
Ultimately, we all long to have the best possible relationships with ourselves and all of those whom we love. The fact that you’re reading this post and trying to figure this issue out means that you will eventually figure out a way to be both true to yourself and in good relationships with others. Not surprisingly, the two go hand-in-hand.
I wish all of you the very best as you now take these tools and apply them in your lives.