What’s That You Said? The Fears That Prevent Us from Speaking Up

By Brenda Williams

Do you value being seen and heard?

Do you want to have truly successful relationships?

Do you want to make an impact on others?

Then speak up!

Of course, for some people, that’s easier said than done. You might prefer to train wild lions than tell another person what’s really on your mind. But it is possible to develop an assertiveness connected to head and heart that clears the way for honest, empowered living—without being rude to others or surrendering to “nice-itis.”

“We all need to learn to dance in rhythm to the beat of our own soul,” writes Kelly Bryson in his book, Don’t Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others.

Those who stay mum when they would be better off speaking their mind do so for a variety of reasons:

  • Fear of being rejected. Any time you risk disclosing yourself, you become vulnerable. Communications skills, such as those taught in Non-Violent Communication (NVC) or Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC), teach how to combine vulnerability with strength and compassion for powerful connections.
  • Fear of what you would tell yourself if you or any requests you make are rejected. If you speak up and tell your teammate how much you would like to go out with him or her, you definitely risk rejection. But if you are rejected, does that really mean you’re unlovable? Destined to a life alone? Or is that just a story?
  • Fear of hurting feelings. Related to this is the belief that it is better to please others, even at your own expense. As Bryson points out, being Mr. or Mrs. Nice Guy or Gal is actually a form of violence to yourself and others, and an escape from a fully lived life.
  • Fear of “rocking the boat,” or upsetting the status quo. The writer Muriel Rukeyser spoke to this fear in her memorable quote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
  • Fear that you have nothing worth saying. Years of poor self-image can lead to this.
  • Fear of sparking a conflict. If you have an abusive or volatile family history, you may have learned to keep quiet or be invisible to avoid confrontation. And yet the danger is that constant suppression of powerful feelings can lead to frustration and possibly aggressive or abusive behavior. As Rollo May writes in his book, Power and Innocence, powerlessness is the precursor to violence.

It is important to distinguish between being assertive and being aggressive. Aggression trespasses on another’s boundaries without regard for feelings. Assertiveness, on the other hand, communicates feelings, thoughts, and needs clearly and directly.

Speaking up after years of zipping your lips may not be easy. You may need to take baby steps—take classes or workshops, consult with a counselor, join an assertiveness support group. But the payoff is more effective relationships, genuine intimacy and, more than anything, an increased feeling of self-respect and empowerment.

Cheers to Speaking Up!

Cecelia Morris

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