As a child I heard that “children are best seen not heard” so often I never spoke up in public about anything. We are taught to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves from an early age.
Gender differences in communication
Girls are taught subtly in the classroom to keep their ideas to themselves.
There was a study done years ago (sorry, I don’t recall the source) where they counted the number of times girls were called upon in class to boys, and the number of times girls were punished for speaking out of turn as opposed to boys. This study revealed that girls are called upon less, and punished for speaking out of turn more.
Boys, of course are taught to hide their feelings from toddlerhood. Our culture doesn’t even allow boys to learn the words for feelings. Then, older boys, fathers, brothers, teachers, and coaches shame them if they show any sign of having a feeling other than happiness or anger.
So it’s no wonder communication is so hard for us. Yet those of us who can overcome our difficulties with communication are the best equipped for any career and have far more financial and social success.
Environmental effects on communication styles
For myself, my “dysfunctional family” further complicated all the cultural edicts against communication. I learned to keep secrets, to protect others from my feelings (I didn’t want anyone to know how badly I hurt because then I would have to tell them why), and to try to guess what others wanted from me since they wouldn’t come out and tell me.
Coming into a marriage with this kind of baggage at age 43 and a history of two failed marriages did not bode well from my new partner. Yet he took the gamble (Yea!) and I think it has paid off for both of us.
To get to good communication from the very beginning we had to fight a number of difficulties.
First, I was phobic of his anger (anger in my family meant someone would get abandoned or hurt) and because of his own Self-Protector mode anger was his primary emotion. Second, I hid my real feelings because of how I had been trained as a child.
The first year of our marriage was turbulent and extremely painful at times. It was a good thing we were so crazy about each other or we could never have survived it!
Overcoming communication difficulties
Overcoming the fear of really being heard was a tough thing for me. I was pretty thoroughly entrenched in the “Victim” role. It has been an evolving process that resembles the peeling of the layers of an onion.
My husband loved me enough to hang in there with me as I peeled off the excess skin and let him see my real self. Because of my childhood wounds I never believed anyone would or could love the “real” me. Yet the opposite has proved to be true. The more I allow my real self to be exposed the more he loves me and the better friendships I develop.
But exposing my real self means telling people what I really think, feel, and need and that can make me feel very vulnerable. What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t like me? What if they get mad at me? What if they leave me? What if “something terrible” happens?
But the worst thing that can happen is my abandoning myself. It may not feel like that is the worst thing in the heat of the moment. In the heat of the moment the fear of the other person’s reaction feels worse than the consequences to the quality of the relationship, or the impact it has on you. But it is not. Abandoning yourself in this way prevents you from getting what it is you really want in your life and in your relationships. And ultimately, it keeps you from feeling good about yourself.
The ugly truth
The ugly truth is that if we speak our truths, if we say what we really feel and want (in ways that are both respectful and empathetic) the other person could still reject us and we could lose them.
But which is worse, rejecting ourselves or being rejected by another person? My personal experience is that if we are maintaining the relationship with a lie about who we are the relationship is doomed anyway.
In the course of my second marriage I seldom told my whole truth, I struggled to keep up the lie that I was okay with how things were going. I have never been so depressed as I was during those years.
Today, though my husband doesn’t always like it, I tell him what I think and what I need. This adds depth and authenticity to our relationship and cements our commitment to each other.
Speaking our truth may be hard. It may be terrifying in fact. But not speaking our truth can condemn us to unsatisfying, painful relationships with others as well as with ourselves.
Taking Ownership if our needs, wants and feelings while being Respectful and Empathetic with those we love can transform our lives and our relationships. It may be unsettling at first, but oh, is it ever worth it!