One Sunday when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was sitting with my dad in church. As a kid I always had a stuffy nose and my nose was kind of running while I was sitting there. I didn’t have a kleenex and I didn’t know what to do.
I know this is kinda of gross, but I was a little kid, so I wiped my nose with the inside of my hand and wiped it on my pants. Then I became really uncomfortable and my nose was still running. I started to get more and more miserable by the second as I wiped my nose again with my hand and wiped it on my pants. I was beside myself with shame and embarrassment and I wanted to cry. I guess I spoke up or my dad noticed and he offered my a hanky, which I accepted with relief and gratitude. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked me. I didn’t answer because I really didn’t know why.
Now I know. It was because you didn’t talk in church. It was because you didn’t bother people while they were praying. It was because my needs just didn’t seem important enough to warrant speaking up. Not only did I not know how to express myself, I didn’t even know it was an option.
The messages given to us in childhood can be powerful and long lasting. For example:
- Children should be seen and not heard.
- What you think/feel is not important.
- Keep your mouth shut.
- What you want doesn’t matter/I don’t care what you want.
- Don’t be a bother.
- Don’t say anything stupid.
- I don’t want to hear it.
These negative messages can go deep into our subconscious minds, where they become known and familiar patterns of thinking and behavior. This “programming” over time can negatively influence our behavior well into adulthood by limiting our ability to express ourselves in a way that is appropriate and effective. It can become so habitual and so deeply ingrained, that as adults it can be difficult for us to see them for what they are: childhood associations that no longer serve us.
Their influence can show up as:
- Low self esteem/lack of confidence
- Social anxiety
- Fear of public speaking
- Fear or discomfort with authority
- An inability to set physical and/or emotional boundaries with others
- An inability or discomfort to stand up for one’s self
- An inability to be assertive, that is, to be able to ask for what is wanted or needed.
- Co-dependent behavior, which is putting low priority on one’s needs while being overly concerned with the needs of another
- An unreasonable desire to avoid conflict and “keep the peace” at all costs.
- A tendency to let things build up inside until you explode in ways that are not appropriate or that are destructive.
Rather than blaming our parents for what they said to us, it’s more productive to take responsibility for who we are, as well as for who we want to be. With practice and intention, we can learn to have authentic self expression, allowing us to engage more honestly and powerfully with others, and to participate more fully with life.
If you have the feeling that you should be more assertive, or if you find that you get angry or frustrated that you can’t say what you want to say, here are some tips that might help.
- Develop Awareness. See if you can begin to notice when you feel shut down in your self-expression. Perhaps it’s at work in front of your boss. Maybe it’s with your spouse or partner when talking about certain subjects. Notice when you walk away from a situation feeling powerless. Identify these triggers.
- Affirm to yourself that what you have to say is important. Use affirmations or positive self talk to create and nurture the belief that you have a right to be heard and that what you think matters. Work on your self esteem.
- Practice. Actually practice out loud saying those things you need and want to say so that when the time comes to say them you have the words available to feel in control. Be aware of how you are coming across. Remember that whatever you need to say must be said in a way that allows it to be heard.Come to believe that expressing yourself is a skill that you can learn.
- Realize that you can express anger or other negative emotions without being loud, intimidating, rude or inappropriately emotional. You can say in a calm, but strong voice “I’m pretty angry right now” or “I’m not happy with this.” Give yourself permission to say what is going on with you, even if all you can say is “I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now.”
- Be sensitive to time and place. Allow a space for your communication or try to create it. There is a time to express yourself and there are times when it’s best not to.
- Listen and allow others their self expression. It’s ok that you don’t like or don’t want to hear what they have to say. However, be prepared to draw boundaries such as “I would like to hear what you have to say but not if you scream at me.” or “I’m not going to listen to you if you insist on being (rude, mean, disrespectful, sarcastic, etc).”
- Join a group such as Toastmasters to practice expressing yourself.
There is no need to live feeling like you can’t say what you need or want to say. You can learn to speak authentically and powerfully. I did.
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Your companion on the path to transformation,
Ted A. Moreno