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?