Have there been times when you have you kept quiet when you had something to say?
For example, when…
- Someone crossed your boundary or hurt you?
- Another child mistreated your child?
- You didn’t want to do something you were being asked to do?
- You didn’t agree?
- Someone asked you how you are and you weren’t doing so well?
- You needed a break?
- There was an opportunity to share a desire or dream you’ve been secretly holding onto?
- You wanted something but it might inconvenience someone else?
- A medical professional told you there was nothing wrong with your child but your gut told you otherwise?
- You needed help?
In many ways in our daily lives, mothers (and women in general) stay silent or share what they perceive to be a more acceptable or agreeable version of who they are and what they think and feel.
Why do we stay silent
It’s not always a conscious choice. For many women it’s a pattern that we’ve been playing on repeat since childhood, and it happens so quickly we may not even notice we’ve done it or understand why immediately.
It’s just what we do. It feels safer. More appropriate. Good.
Good girls don’t make a fuss or seem demanding. They don’t inconvenience anyone or put themselves or their needs ahead of others. Good girls aren’t selfish and don’t ask for more than they deserve. They don’t make others unhappy or uncomfortable.
Good mothers don’t either.
These beliefs are running around in our subconscious, driving our choices, behaviours, actions and feelings.
They’re not the truth, but rather a result of internalised socially constructed ideals around women and mothers. They tell us how we should be in the world and with every positive intention, we try to live up to those ideals. But in the longer term, the outcome is rarely as positive as we might expect.
The longer term effect of staying silent
I don’t know about you, but I thought that being a good girl and good mother would mean that everything would work out for me. People would always like me, my life would go to plan and I would be successful (in the masculine, external way the world deems as right).
In some ways living this way will appear to serve us because society will reward us for taking on those expected roles, but the standards are unrealistic and eventually we will fail. What also happens, is that by pursuing these ideals, we slowly become disconnected from ourselves, focusing on what others think we should be rather than getting to know and trust what we feel is right for ourselves.
Dana Jack, Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, who pioneered research into this area, says women self-silence while inner feelings grow angry and resentful. When we cannot say what we need to say, or give voice to who we really are and what we really need, we are not ok. We might say “it doesn’t matter” or “I’ll be fine” but inside, the effect is compounding. Self-silencing has been linked to depression, disconnection and other health problems in women.
If you reflect on your own life, can you see how some of the anger and resentment you feel may be due to staying silent over and over again?
Is this what you really want for yourself?
Your anger and resentment is telling you something isn’t right and if you are ready and willing, you can choose differently for yourself.
How to start speaking up
It can be really scary to start speaking up if you have silenced yourself for a long time, so be gentle and kind with yourself as you learn.
Here are 3 steps to help you begin to speak up.
1. Notice what happens in your body when you stay silent
I have personally found it useful to pay attention to how I feel when I am staying silent. Our bodies respond quickly and being aware of the response helps us notice patterns and choose differently. Some of the things I have noticed in my own moments of staying silent are (these can vary across situations and don’t necessarily happen all at once):
- Contraction in my chest
- Tension in my shoulders
- Tightness around my throat/neck and jaw
- Shoulders rounding forward
- Head tilting down more
- Heavy feeling in my gut
- Disconnection with the person I am talking to.
Other signs may include sweating, shaking, feeling jittery, shallow breathing or getting goosebumps.
Notice them with curiosity rather than judgement. These feelings are showing you something needs your attention. If they are hard to detect at first, keep trying, because so many women have learned to ignore the signs their bodies are giving them. It will get easier with practice.
2. Try to identify what is stopping you from speaking up
Often these signs represent the fear, anxiety or worry that is making it hard for you to speak up. Again, get curious without judgement.
What is stopping you from speaking up?
What would it mean about you if you did speak up?
What are you scared will happen?
Often what we are worried about is unlikely to happen, but even where your fear is justified and it did happen, can you trust that you would be ok? Can you put some support in place to help you navigate whatever will arise?
3. Practice in a way that feels manageable
Look for little opportunities to express your needs or say what you really think with trusted people or in environments that feel a little safer. You could even start by just speaking your own needs out loud to yourself if you have a tendency to dismiss them altogether without consideration.
Let’s look at some examples:
- A friend messages you to ask how you are and instead of replying “I’m ok” when you’re not, you tell them the truth – “I’m having a really hard time today.”
- Your children ask you to play with them but you haven’t sat down all day and are exhausted. You gently tell them “I’d love to play with you after I have sit down for 15 minutes. You get started and I’ll join you soon.”
- Your mother in law is sharing her opinion on the way you respond to your child’s tantrum and it’s not favourable. You politely say “We think it’s best to do it this way” and continue with what you are doing.
- You have 30 mins to yourself. There are dishes piled by the sink and washing on the dining table waiting to be folded. You really want to go for a walk in the fresh air. You say to yourself “I want to go for a walk” and you do.
- Your sister calls to invite you and your children to a park after lunch. You have had a busy morning and you don’t feel like going out. You say “Thanks for inviting me, but I need to stay home this afternoon.”
You might also like to practice asking yourself “what do I need to say today?” and pay attention to what comes to mind.
Remember, people don’t have to agree with or like what you say. They don’t have to do things the same as you, or even understand what you need. You still have a right to say it and it can be said in a kind and respectful way while staying true to yourself.
Speaking up doesn’t make you a terrible person or a bad mum. What you have to say, is just as important as what others have to say. Your needs, desires and opinions are just as important as the needs, desires and opinions of others.
What do you need to say today?