Growing up, we might have heard old folk proverbs from our parents and grandparents reminding us of the virtue of silence countless times: ’speech is silver, silence is golden’, ’least sad, soonest mended’ or ’better to remain silent and be thought a fool’. Upon hearing these we can unintentionally develop beliefs that we are good and loveable or that we are accepted if we remain silent or say what the other person wants to hear. To this day one of the key characteristics of a good child is that they listen, do not talk back, do not argue and avoid conflict, since adults are always right.
It is no coincidence that standing up for ourselves and voicing our thoughts and feelings is one of the most difficult things to do in our adult lives. Saying no to our boss to the extra work, telling honestly our partner that we need more help with household chores, or saying in a restaurant that the food is tasteless, is very difficult. It is difficult because we become vulnerable to the potentially negative reactions of other people and the repercussions we might need to face.
Why is it so hard to speak up?
We might hesitate to voice our opionions for different reasons, yet it all goes back to the same root cause: we are afraid. We are constantly evaluating our situations and decisions, and try to make choices to be well liked and accepted. Trying to avoid or minimize the perceived loss in any situation is an evolutionary phenomenon. The way others perceive us matters a lot and if sharing our opinion potentially reflected badly on us , we’d rather stay quiet.
Neuroscientists call it the ’social threat’ when speaking up puts us at risk of damaging our social image. It happens when we feel we have to choose between being accepted (by the group) and what we find acceptable or unacceptable based on our values. Whenever there is a conflict between these two and we feel pressured to choose in favor of one or the other, an internal tension arises and in order to alleviate it we gravitate towards the seemingly easiest solution: we remain silent.
The price of silence
Giving up our voice masks our true identity and diminishes our uniqueness. Others may think we don’t have ideas, opinions or simply don’t care. At the workplace we even risk becoming literally invisible. Our silence is a form of approval, we are ’saying’ things are okay as silence implies consent. If we regularly repress what is inside us, it can seriously harm our wellbeing and even lead to illness because suppressed emotions can manifest in the form of various physical symptoms like irritability, tension in the neck and back muscles, headache, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies and other somatic conditions.
Get my voice into the room, but how?
By making our voice heard we will be seen and respected, we can inspire and give others strength , we can set healthier boundaries and show that we are the leader of our own life. Sharing our thoughts, ideas and emotions increases the feeling of bonding and trust, which improves also the quality of our relationships Finding our own voice is not easy, but just like a muscle it will get better and easier with regular practice and training.
- Start with the easiest
Share an idea first and gradually move to more difficult situations such as challenge someone else’s idea or decision. Build self-knowledge, stretch your comfort zone and learn what comes easily and what is difficult for you.
- Ask a question
If expressing your opinion is difficult, ask a question to make yourself and your perspective visible. In many cases a powerful question can trigger deeper conversations or even make the other person consider different perspectives.
- Look for a role model
’Who is the person in my life who stands up for themselves even in difficult situations and could serve as a role model?’” Learn from someone you look up to by initiating conversations and watching them behave in difficult situations.
- Right vs. easy thing to do
When faced with the decision whether to raise an issue or not, don’t make a decision out of habit but ask the following questions: ’What would be the right decision now? What would be the easiest decision now?’ Oftentimes the right decision and the easy decision are not the same, hence this way your own internal compass can give you guidance on how to act .
- Experiment in a safe setting
Experiment with expressing your opinion in a safe environment. ’Who are the people in my life whom I can be completely honest with?’ Practice with them on topics and in situations that really matter to you.
- Body consciousness
Pay attention to your body’s signals, especially when it comes to suppressing your own truth and voice. ’What recurring sensations do I feel in my body when I don’t say what I want?’ There might be psychological reasons behind several physical problems, for example the psychosomatic background of cough and sore throath: accumulated and unspoken feelings, silencing honest opinions.
Learning to speak your truth and voice your thoughts, feelings and inner values is not something you can learn on a 1-day training. We often learn, practice, refine, develop and shape it over a lifetime. But eventually it becomes a skill that has a positive ripple effect on your whole life: through your ideas you can have a real impact on the world; it helps you better deal with conflicts; your relationships will deepen; you can enforce your boundaries assertively but not agressively; you can give strength to others and stand up for those who are oppressed and can’t be heard; and last but not least you can live a life true to yourself where you dare to show who you really are.
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