Finding my voice means being able to speak up for myself, to feel comfortable freely expressing my thoughts, opinions, and feelings. It means being able to advocate for the things I want and need, as well as advocating for others.
As a child, I had learned that what I had to say didn’t matter. Whenever I stood up for myself, my parents would perceive me as talking back to them. My parents would shout at me, “No one cares what you think!” and “Who asked you?” and “You’d better keep quiet or else!”
These comments – usually spoken to me in anger or frustration and often accompanied by a backhand or a belt lashing – created in me a negative belief that what I wanted and needed was of no importance, and that I had nothing of value to say.
Growing up in a family environment of chaos, violence, and unpredictability created in me an intense need to people-please. I thought if I could make everyone happy, I’d have a better chance of surviving. As a child incest and rape victim, I was forced to keep secrets about what was happening to me, upon threat of violence and even death. I was literally afraid to speak up.
This fear of speaking up, and the need to people-please, carried over into adulthood. Also carried into adulthood was the belief that what I thought or felt didn’t matter. Repeated physical and sexual violence, and invalidation of my worth as a human being, caused me to have very little self-respect and even lower self-esteem.
I would let people treat me poorly, and take advantage of me. I kept whatever thoughts, feelings, and opinions I had to myself. I was afraid that if I disagreed with someone they would get angry and lash out at me, or worse, they would reject me and abandon me.
I allowed employers to force me to work long hours for little pay. I didn’t have the courage to ask for a raise, for fear that I would be fired. If doctors treated me poorly or insisted on a course of treatment, or prescribed medications that I didn’t want to take, I didn’t believe that I had the right to advocate for myself.
My therapist and I worked on developing my self-esteem, on challenging my negative beliefs about myself and my feelings of inadequacy. We worked on my fear of rejection and abandonment, on building my confidence by setting small, manageable goals. If I failed, we examined what I could have done differently. When I succeeded, we continued to set higher and higher goals, continually pushing my comfort zone. The more I accomplished, the more respect I gained for myself. I became stronger, more confident in my ability to handle situations.
As I grew in confidence, my therapist and I worked on my learning to speak up for myself. The thing that helped the most was role-playing. She would play the role of the person with whom I was having difficulty, and I would say to her the things I wanted to say to that person. She taught me about non-violent communication: State facts. State feelings. State values. Make request. I tried it with a friend who always interrupted me when I was speaking to her, which would trigger my feelings of inadequacy.
I set aside my fear and spoke openly and honestly about how I felt. I requested that she try to really listen to me when I speak to her. She wasn’t offended. She didn’t get angry. She acknowledged that interrupting people while they spoke was a habit and agreed to do her best not to interrupt me. Sometimes she would catch herself as she started to interrupt, apologize, and ask me to keep talking. This positive experience gave me the confidence to speak up to other people, to express what I want and need in a healthy manner.
As for sharing my thoughts and opinions with others, I’m getting much better at it; it’s still scary for me at times. I still want people to like me. I still, on some level, fear disapproval, anger, and rejection. But when I feel the need to set a boundary, or if a boundary I have set is being crossed, I speak up. I try to be gentle but firm when expressing what I need in order to feel safe.
I don’t like conflict. It makes me anxious. I still, at times, feel the urge to people-please. But today, when I feel the need to confront someone, I am usually able to summon my courage and try to get a dialogue going. Most of the time, people will work with me; sometimes they won’t. And that’s okay. I know that I have done the best job I can to take care of myself.