As a child, I was conditioned to keep my mouth shut if I wanted to be seen as a good girl. I picked up early that arguing was pointless, and that only bitchy girls insisted on being heard. I did my best to fit in and keep others around me comfortable and happy. It seemed logical to maintain the peace rather than escalate any problem. Besides, the affection and positive attention I received by being a good girl made the choice easier. From teenage on, I perfected my sunny attitude using smoking as a pacifier to entertain myself while staying silent. Unfortunately, when I stopped smoking in my early-thirties, my reliable smoke screen disappeared. Thankfully, through the many years that followed, I’ve gradually grown strong enough to speak my mind when necessary.
This confession might sound strange coming from someone who seems to have plenty to say about all sorts of things. But the truth is far more complicated. It’s very easy for me to write about and share ideas that I find helpful and valuable. Yet, that is very different from speaking up about things that matter deeply to me—especially when I am concerned about being shamed or ostracized by people I care most about. And I don’t think I’m alone. That’s why I decided that sharing this particular fear might be a good step in helping others move past it as well.
Something that regularly pushes me out of any of my comfort zones is being challenged by books written by people I admire. Obviously, that is a big reason I read so many books and share them with all of you. This month, for one of my book clubs, the selection was Brene Brown’s Braving The Wilderness—The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. As a fan of Brene’s I was certain she would provide me with food for thought.
A repeated message in Brene’s work is the reminder that true authenticity and vulnerability require courage. In fact, they are synonymous. It is impossible to be true to yourself and stay open to whatever comes along without great inner strength. But as Brene points out in this book, while it is important to speak out and speak up, it should never come at a cost of civility and compassion. And that, for me at least, is where it sometimes gets sticky.
In the past, when I struggled to speak up over something that I disagreed with, or whenever I feared the consequences of the controversy, I usually convinced myself it was wiser to hold back. After all, isn’t it better to avoid conflict? Even with my close friends, or Thom my husband, it often seems sensible to ignore the impulse to speak. Why trigger any potential judgment, anger, or rejection that might come? Unfortunately, if I stuff and deny important issues, they only seemed to grow and fester. At that point, my frustration, fear, or anger would grow to the point where I simply explode over some seemly minor issue. The concern nearly always comes out anyway—but usually not in a way I desired.
Adam Galinsky from the Columbia Business School speaks frequently about what it takes to speak out when it’s challenging. He teaches that we all have a “range of acceptable behavior,” that guides our willingness to speak up. That dynamic “range” within us determines whether the action is either easy or difficult for us. As Galinsky says, “When we stay within this range we are rewarded; when we step outside of this range we are punished by being dismissed, demeaned, or ostracized.” Galinsky believes that “To speak up, we need to both understand our range and also learn how and when to expand it. The key thing that determines that range more than anything else: your power.”
I can see where my sense of my own personal power in the world determines whether I speak up or out. As children we are dependent on others to take care of our needs, so we learn to play by the rules and fit into our families for our own survival. And then, as we age, depending upon our race, our sex, our education, our income, and so many other factors, that range can be unequally restricted across the board. Obviously, the more we find ways to expand our range, the more freely we will be able to speak out when necessary.
Yet, although Galinsky’s perspective makes sense in a business environment, or from a more societal perspective, does it address those within close relationships? You know what I mean—those one-on-one relationships where we feel most vulnerable and often attach our sense of self-worthiness. Are we still free to speak up and bare our soul when it’s hard? Maybe yes—maybe no. Perhaps it depends upon how you define power.
I found an answer that works for me in Brene’s book that addresses how power, strength, and courage itself often has many definitions. Finding the personal power to speak up compassionately when it’s difficult, flows from having what Brene calls, a “Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.” She illustrates this concept beautifully in a passage written by “Roshi Joan Halifax, who says:
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open…How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly—and letting the world see into us.”
When we are courageous enough to speak our truth without trying to please others or prove ourselves, that is a demonstration of personal empowerment. Instead of maintaining the status quo so others don’t feel uncomfortable or pretending everything is just fine when inside we are in turmoil, is never the answer. Staying true to ourselves and allowing our wild heart to bear witness to what our soul longs to say, is true freedom. Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.
Chances are good this won’t be my last blog post about speaking up when speaking out is hard. I am a work in progress. But this last week I had an issue with a close friend, and I really, really didn’t want to rock the boat and speak up. Yet, I could feel the anxiety in the center of my chest that signaled my self-betrayal by not sharing my thoughts. So, I took the leap. I did my best to speak my truth as kindly and compassionately as possible—but I did speak. Did the earth explode? No. Like so often happens, my fears and hesitation were all in my head. Instead, the satisfaction of honoring myself was profound.
I’ve read before that in Australia they have what is called the “tall poppy syndrome.” There, many parents raise and encourage their children not to be the tall poppy. Don’t stand out, just try to fit in, don’t make waves—if you do, you will just get whacked. Sound familiar? Regrettably, this is something that parents and society teaches around the world trying to make us safe.
On the other hand, I am reminded of the courageous high school students in Florida who are speaking out against a violent and angry opposition. Yes, to their courage to be tall poppies! I salute them. I am also reminded of the women and men who have braved the ridicule and lies surrounding the #MeToo movement to share their stories of abuse by those in power. Yes! Good for them. And think of all the whistle-blowers who have spoken up and risked their very lives to tell their truth.
I fully agree with Brene Brown that it is possible, and important, to come from a place of compassion and peace when we feel the need to speak out. But speak up we must. May we each be inspired to do the same whenever necessary. And to always remember that it is SMART to keep our back strong, our front soft, and our heart wild.
Okay your turn. Is it easy or difficult for you to speak up when it really matters? Do you prefer to stay silent to avoid conflict? Where did you learn that? What advice can you offer anyone who might find it challenging to say what needs to be said?
Growing up in a houseful of boys, I was told I was “bossy.” The strategy that I developed to buy myself space to speak was by becoming an overachiever. If I was a top student, or a good athlete, etc., I believed that people would be less likely to silence me when I expressed my own or non-conforming views. To a certain extent, it worked, but it was not an easy path. When I found myself in a leadership role in my career, my courage and integrity were sorely tested. I love Brown’s advice: “Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.” These words would have helped me back then.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jude! Thank you for sharing a bit of your personal path with us. I think we all either came up with “strategies” that helped or completely rebelled! And like you said, they did work to a certain extent but I think we knew deep down that they are strategies and really wished we didn’t have to do them. What I love these days is that we are learning to support and encourage each other more, and as we do that, it becomes easier to be true to ourselves. ~Kathy
Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com says
What an interesting discussion (sometimes it pays to comment late so I can read all the other comments 🙂 ). I don’t think I was ever a passive “good girl” – with two older brothers, I had to learn to speak up – but that’s not to say I was overly confident either. I think as I get older, I’m less likely to worry about what someone else might think BUT I’m am also careful to pick my battles and I try my best to be kind. We don’t always need to speak our minds or give our opinions.
Tracey Gee says
Yes, I also grew up with that message and I also love Brene Brown’s book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I think I have the wild heart and the soft front, but the hard back remains the issue. Unlike you, Kathy, I seem to be moving the opposite way. When I was younger, as a teenager, in my twenties, and even in my thirties, I was much more outspoken, not caring about what others (teachers, parents, friends) thought about my opinions. As I get older, I feel like I need to take a step back. My impulsive comments can have bad consequences. I am finally “growing up” and learning how the world goes round. I have never enjoyed confrontations and I have never meant any harm, but finding the balance between speaking up because you “have to” and making sure you don’t hurt anyone or embarrass yourself is not easy, I find.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Thanks for your interesting perspective on this. You are in the “middle” stage at this stage so it will be interesting to see if you swing back again as you get older. Something tells me you will because you are not a quiet and shy person at all. And I do believe that we can be honest AND kind at the same time. While I don’t think the majority of us ever want to be “mean”, what happens by not being more honest with others we are actually being VERY mean to ourselves. At some point, the futility of that catches up and we just have to speak up. My goal is to learn how to do that with dignity and grace. ~Kathy
The older I become, the less it pays to be a good girl! LOL. Just to be serious for a minute, Kathy, being older seems to bring out the candid in many of us. It happens gradually, until you notice that suddenly you are a lot more outspoken and strong within your beliefs. It’s important to reach these stages, and acknowledge them, as we age. Articles like this help us to identify what is happening, and how to take the best advantage of the changes in us!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! Yes I agree! What’s the point of being a “good girl” at our age, right? In fact, if more of us were raised that way I can’t help but believe that many things in our world would be different. And thanks for confirming that it gets easier. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I am an optimist so no doubt it will come. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
I was a good girl too, but once I got into my late teens and 20s, I stood up for myself in work situations, when I, or others, were unfairly treated. I remember getting a performance evaluation stating I was argumentative. I’m still not a person who would speak out on political issues, because I don’t want to do the research and I don’t want the stress. Interesting about the tall poppy syndrome, I’d never heard of it.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! Thank you for sharing some of your personal story with us. Your example highlights something I read from Adam Galinsky’s work when he was explaining how many of us, especially women, can often expand their personal power and speak up when they are doing it to benefit others. I found that fascinating because it explains how some rather mild and shy women can go on to found powerful movements that transform our society. When these women began to speak out they did it to help right a wrong and found all the “power” they needed in that mission. It sounds like you might have done something similar at work. And of course, I am not surprised that you would have been judged “argumentative,” because aren’t many women called that when they are assertive? Putting our willingness to speak out in context with the perception of power we have in any particular area is pretty helpful for me. And yeah, as Leanne from Austrailia has confirmed, the tall poppy syndrome is alive and well Downunder! ~Kathy
Hi, Kathy – I wouldn’t have guessed that you once found it easier to stay silent on issues that matter to you. That’s the thing. We often miss the struggles that others go through (or have gone through)….especially those whom we admire! Thank you for opening this important dialogue. I’m glad to hear that this will not be your last post on this topic.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! I know right? People like you who know me personally are sure to wonder how it is I EVER could be silent! But as you say, we never know what others are really struggling with or have gone through for sure. Maybe this is another example of why I am such a big fan of self-awareness. Hopefully, themore we understand ourselves and our motivations, the more we can move through the world with peace, happiness and compassion. ~Kathy
Lynne Spreen says
This is so tricky, as you suggest, Kathy. I know people who are a strong front shielding a soft spine. They tell themselves they’re “confident,” but in reality, they’re crass. And the power question. Surely those who have power and lose their minds, crushing everyone in their paths, aren’t examples to follow. I so appreciate your looking at all sides of this. It’s tough to know what to do, and I think it’s situation-specific, with a heavy weighting to being good to oneself. So I might not tell an asshole she is one, if I can get away and not have to deal with her again. But if it’s a family member, I have to. It’s just a matter of saying it lovingly–with friends, too–with an eye toward preserving the relationship. But sometimes the old saying works: discretion is the better part of valor. Great post as always.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lynne! Thank you for pointing out what I hoped to communicate. Honesty with ourselves and personal responsibility are key. No one else can ever really know what’s going on in another person–and much as we might like to be, we are not mind readers! So if recognize I am holding back when something inside me really wants to speak up, then only I can make that call about what to do. And I agree the situation makes a great deal of difference that will affect our decision. But I’m not sure it is any easier with a family member if you’re afraid what you would say could alienate them. Tough love is that because it can be really tough. Discretion can be wise in some circumstances, but what happens if you use it as an excuse to not be true to yourself? Ultimately we will reap the reward OR the liability from our actions. I guess that is why self-awareness is something that serves us no matter what. Thanks for your thoughts on this. ~Kathy
In the current climate that has struck our country, I always want to speak out, to voice my opinions and I have many–but sometimes I fear I might alienate people. Thus, I learn to enter a conversation with care–but If I find myself in a situation (like the time people smiled at me and said, YES, that was good thing in relation to the birther movement) then I am going to stand up, say something final and leave the room. Which I did. I don’t speak with those people any more. Was I wrong?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Thank you for being honest and bringing this up. I actually admire you for your outspoken nature. But Brene brings up some REALLY interesting thoughts about the idea that we ever draw the line in the sand and refuse to interact with others that see things dramatically different. And please understand, I don’t claim to be able to do this myself–yet! She spends a great deal of time in the book pointing out that one of the surest ways for a violent and oppressive regime to take over is to “dehumanize” the opposition. For example, she talks about how it was very easy for many people in the south to become slave owners because they conditioned each other to see blacks as animals. When you reduce someone to either an enemy or an animal, it’s easy to justify anything we say and do to them. And Social Media makes it not only easy but funny some of the time. You can find photos of either side of the political divide that “dehumanize” the other side, and then it’s not hard to understand why we all go about feeling justified by putting them down. She also talks about how SM makes it easy to have an opinion about things that we don’t even understand deeply or thoroughly. I know some very intelligent women that can’t seem to control themselves–even when it is clear that what they are posting comes from a very biased point of view. Of course, I’m not saying you or others are doing anything wrong. These are very challenging times so we all do the best we can. But after reading her book I am more convinced that I need to ask and listen more–and REALLY be able to hear the other side. Not because I want to change their minds but because in many cases we both want similar outcomes…we just see the path to get there in dramatically different ways. Does that make sense? I hope I’ve given an adequate answer to your question but she does a much better job in the book! ~Kathy
Carol Wuenschell says
I think you have it right, that it’s important not just to speak, but to speak from strength and with compassion. Just spouting out one’s personal grievance can be an act of selfishness that is likely to cause hurt and harm — unless the person on the receiving end is working from a place of strength and compassion. And when the words start flowing back and forth, it’s also important to listen.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Carol! Yes, Brene speaks a great deal in the book about how so many have grown accustomed to just sharing personal opinions about things that we ignore what it means to have meaningful dialogue with others. In the book club, someone brought up the idea that it seems easier to “agree to disagree” and yeah, it might seem “easier” but Brene says that we sacrifice true connection with another when we do it. A big part of Brene’s book is the acknowledgment that we need community and others but if we continue to deny our true selves, we are more isolated than ever. Learning to speak with understanding and compassion builds bridges with others–and yes others who see things differently. But the benefits to community and self-worth are valuable. And THANK YOU for pointing out the importance of listening to others!!! Thanks for all your thoughts on this!
This post resonated with me because at some point I need to speak out to some people I volunteer with each week. I’ve avoided the issue for months, actually more like years, and it does cause some resentment. When I was growing up, speaking out meant getting shot down or even worse by my father. I still have an intense fear of men who yell.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Shiela! Thank you so much for sharing a personal example. And also thanks for pointing out how that holding back often feels like growing resentment. I too had an overbearing father (maybe not as bad as your own!) but enough to use another “technique” like crying when the conversation got too painful. But if you are anywhere close to my age (62) I’m hoping that I am getting closer to having the inner strength to speak up instead of run away, get angry and loud, (or cry!) Brene offers so nice perspectives on why it is so important because until we are brave enough to be honest with others, we deny ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to be over that!!! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. ~Kathy
Women have been socialized from an Early Age to be passive. Let’s hope the next generation is more equal in thought and deed. Your not speaking up has more to do with sociatial values than your own character.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Ann! Yes I am so encouraged by those teenagers in Florida and all the women willing to speak up and out. Surely that good that is arising helps to counterbalance some of the challenges we are facing in our country and our world these days. And I agree that speaking up (or not) has a lot to do with societal values…but I think it really depends on how you define character. Sure some personalities may find it easier than others, but ultimately if we define character on a soul level, we should all have the inherent right to speak when it is absolutely necessary. But building that inner strength demands it. Thank you for bringing up this perspective. ~Kathy
Very thoughtful post Kathy! I have been the recipient of explosive pent up silence and it is not helpful, healthy or easy to forgive.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Oh, so sorry to hear that you’ve been subjected to such anger. And as you say, once it pops out it is impossible to take back, and VERY hard to forgive. Something Brene says in a couple of different ways is that when people are adamant about something, even when it looks and sounds very wrong to us, they are as convinced that they are right about the issue as much as we are. I think we all know that intellectually, but when it’s happening it can be very difficult to see the other person’s point of view. No wonder most of us don’t want to say anything if we can avoid it! Still, the more I stay aware of this the better I believe I am able to handle it. Thanks for bringing this up! ~Kathy
Speaking out has gotten easier with practice especially when tempered with thought vs emotion. A quote comes to mind – Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t say it mean.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Mona! That saying is a GREAT way to remember huh? Brene talks about how Social Media has made it so easy for people to just blast out their opinion on so many things. She not only advises us to speak compassionately when we encounter those who see things differently, but she gives a couple of excellent reasons why it is really important for our own soul. One, of course, is that we don’t use the same kind of violence and hate against those we disagree with because that diminishes us both. Lots of good stuff in the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! ~Kathy
Karen Hume says
I could always speak up very easily on issues related to my work in education. But that doesn’t really count – I was the expert and the author. People expected me to take big stands and defend them vigorously.
When it comes to closer relationships and matters of the heart, I worry about offending, about hurting people. In childhood, one parent taught me to be aggressive and powerful, the other to be silent and keep my own counsel. The combination makes for an uneven and rocky landscape of responses. I’d say it is still that way.
I’ve also read Braving the Wilderness. Roshi Joan Halifax’s statement that you quote also resonated for me. Reflecting on that quote and on the book as a whole would be my best advice for anyone who finds it challenging to say what needs to be said.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Karen! Yes, Adam Galinsky explains that if you are competent and well regarded at work that gives you the power to speak up when necessary. I too can join in most discussions quite freely because I don’t take the conversation so personally. I agree it is that fear of offending or hurting people that are close to us that is most challenging to me. On the surface, it seems like it should be “easier” to talk to those we love but it isn’t. I actually didn’t care for Rene’s book too much in the beginning because she focused on certain issues that I find very difficult these days–but by half-way through she had lots of powerful insights to share. And the final chapter (which includes that quote from Haifax) is brilliant. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au says
I love Brene Brown Kathy – she speaks such honest truth and has such a great way of encouraging us to be our authentic selves. And yes, you’re right, Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well down here in Australia – don’t put your head up too high above the crowd or it will be lopped off and the lopping is often applauded. A blogging example of this is Constance Hall and her “Like a Queen” movement – she was shot down in flames for standing out from the crowd.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Leanne! Thank you for confirming the “tall poppy syndrome.” We don’t have a formal name here in the U.S. but I think the intention is universal. It has to be particularly hard for parents because they do all desire their child to be safe–but at what cost? Far better to teach each other to speak freely with compassion than to hide who we are don’t you think. Of course that is ALWAYS easier said than done. ~Kathy