What to do when you can’t speak your truth
Losing access to your inner voice: it happens to a lot of people – you know what you have to say and it’s stuck inside your body.
If you were unable to stand up for yourself or speak aloud something that was trapped inside your head, I know how this feels – it’s traumatizing. It’s like you are doing it to yourself and you are the cause of your own pain, which in turn makes you feel ashamed. This can set up a heavy behavioral loop that compounds a new truth: I am hopeless. I am a liar. I am invisible. I am a coward. No one can see me suffering. No on can help me, including me.
Well let’s get to some positive information, shall we? There are 3 parts, the what why and how – the tools. Before I go into this one, I don’t want you to go into any memories that might leave you feeling raw and upset. So use your best judgment – if this goes too deep, then stop reading and watch Ratatouille – or Zootopia!
Part 1: The What
When we don’t act even though we know we should, or we don’t speak up and we regret it. Maybe you talked yourself out of saying something or doing something that you really desperately wanted to say. It can feel like fear – like you are paralyzed and hoping if you don’t move you can disappear or this will be less real. Or, like a brief moment of extreme ambivalence: like you’re telling yourself to do something but simultaneously telling yourself “you can’t” or “you won’t” or “it’s too late.” Maybe your situation is confidence-related: you wanted to stand up for someone or yourself, and you couldn’t. Or maybe you were frozen in place, watching what was happening but from a distant and indifferent state. In retrospect, you realize you knew better or wanted something different and this fact makes you hurt.
Part 2: The Why
When we can’t speak up for ourselves, we can’t say something or we get trapped in our heads, unable to move our bodies, it signals a divide between your conscious awareness and the mental processes needed to comprehend and then take physical action. We have different parts of the brain that do different things to protect us and sometimes they conflict with what is best in reality. We often have emotions that don’t correlate to our perception of the situation. In basic terms, we’re either trapped in analysis, unconsciously ambivalent, or disconnected from our bodies as a soothing mechanism. A metaphor used to describe our emotional brain vs. our logical brain is a wild horse and a rider. When you have really strong emotional reactions, the rider is occupied, struggling just to manage the horse. If you were unable to be honest or you acted in ways that don’t make sense to even you, there’s likely a tie to a strong emotional reaction. Your particular why is something I want you to reflect upon as you read through the following examples.
1. Coping Style.
However we learn to deal with intense feelings growing up, we will revert to as adults. It might be something as simple as going silent when you were upset because you could never win in fights with your mom. Or maybe you were invisible to caregivers, so you coped by forcing others to give you any kind of attention. If you acted against your own truth, check to see if there is any overlap with how you coped growing up. Our set-in coping style will be our auto-pilot setting for a similar feeling of threat, as an adult.
2. You’re Controlling.
Let’s say you got trapped in thought when you tried to voice something: you told yourself to act but then not to act, almost starting then stopping– going in mental circles. It’s the kind of ambivalence that paralyzes and drives you insane. Below the surface, this is usually a resistance to feeling pain, one tied to extreme vulnerability and low self-worth. It’s a way to feel in control of what is out of your control – the brain is attempting to strengthen personal ego. Uncertainty feels intolerable when you’re used to feeling in control of your life. When you can’t stop trying to solve things or find the “correct” solution, it’s because you are resistant to knowing something that is already true. An attempt to control pain or to create some grounding for yourself. However, this habit gets in the way of your ability to sense what you feel and act on that.
Modern-day humans are prone to overthinking because the balance between thought and rest is out of whack. We have a habit of making everything into life or death – when it’s all really just life. Our ego’s job is to protect us from threat, including being wrong– so the rationalizations are like an over-used muscle. Most often, the bad feeling we’re resisting is the one we have burned into us from childhood –commonly– being a bad person, being unseen or not being loved enough. When you can’t control things and you are set on preventing all pain, what happens is you get into a state of even more painful ambivalence. This is when you find yourself unable to say the thing you want to say, instead replaying the reasons you should or shouldn’t.
If you’re an over thinker you are likely type-A, and there’s a good chance you are low on serotonin. It can also be influenced by low blood sugar. When your glucose is drained by a day of tedium or traffic – you can get extremely indecisive.
3. Learned Helplessness.
Many experts believe that learned helplessness is a primary cause of depression, anxiety and loneliness – because they are self-perpetuated states of being. We learn that we are “sufferers” because we try to help ourselves and fail too many times in a row. The pain of powerlessness is what creates acceptance: we grow tolerant to the pain and stop believing anything can help.
It’s common for kids and adults to learn helplessness in moments of emotional suffering. If you could never manage to save your sibling and stand up to a bully, you likely learned “I am a coward.” Which is not true, but becomes true with rehearsals of the belief.
Quite literally, the most damaging experiences are those of pain we are helpless to stop. Pavlov called it “inescapable shock” – it’s when we are powerless in a situation yet fully aware of our need to change it. Inescapable doesn’t mean we have to be bound and gagged– it can mean conceptually stuck between two bad outcomes. Often we allow ourselves to be hurt or we become immobilized because there is no safe option. Children will endure a lot of pain in order to stay safe in something they know. It takes an exceptionally brave kid to run away – it is rare. Partners who endure abuse cannot leave because the pain of the loss they face is too great (love, home, familiarity). Therefore, the physical pain of abuse is preferred.
The saddest part is that when we learn helplessness, we learn a new identity – one very difficult to see your way around. Our decisions are often confusing to us and so we judge ourselves harshly. Universally, we humans will believe something is our fault and that is because we will always choose the version of a story in which we are in control. It’s by far the most painful to feel powerless in a situation – powerlessness is what creates trauma. For example, let’s say you had an alcoholic parent – you might encourage them to drink as a way to control the source of danger and with that, the anxiety you feel around whether they’re going to get drunk. Somewhere inside there’s the real you who is afraid and helpless. But then there’s the new identity of the person doing the crazy things, that you can’t reconcile. So that other voice gets so quiet that you stop believing it exists. In order to survive, you’ve got to “own it” and this is where the false set of values becomes your own. If you were never able to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t – it means you didn’t have success in the past. Now is a new and different time.
4. Loss of Purpose.
Studies say that all creatures on this planet need purpose, above all else, to survive. Purpose is essential to meaning, value and the motivation to function. For animals maybe it’s making babies and foraging for food before winter. For us, maybe it’s getting our kids into a good school or saving the world via a blog. When we lose our experience of any kind of value, we also lose our purpose. Everything turns into a zero-point game. This is what happens when we are humiliated or traumatized. Humiliation degrades the self and with that, our relationship to worth: in ourselves or what we do. When we are traumatized, our brain chemistry changes so that we are trapped in a threatened state. This is when we lose the ability to feel our feelings, read the motivations of others, have social connections, experience self-worth and joy – and all value is gone. Hence, a reason you might have done nothing even when you were aware of what you should have done. In order to act like a human, we have to feel human – and when you get stuck in worthlessness, the hole gets deeper with new acts. It’s not an excuse for inhumane acts, it’s just a truth that must be acknowledged and mourned.
This is for anyone who talked themselves out of speaking up when they knew better. Culturally, we gain more by maintaining normalcy than by speaking up. The prospect of upsetting someone is worse than staying quiet. This is the bias behind many victims of attacks by strangers: we talk ourselves out of feelings that are extreme or socially uncomfortable – whether it’s anger, fear, mistrust, or just “something’s not right!” Because what if we’re wrong? That’s the ego again – defending you from possible failure. However, your intuition is the most intelligent sense you have. If you show a person a fake piece of art, they will know – but they won’t know why. Experts are the ones who get duped. It’s also much easier not to act than it is to act – because when you’re passive, then you feel less responsible. So if you talked yourself out of saying something you felt, it might be because you don’t make a habit of speaking up, at all. As a culture, we are taught to say things nicely and not to think badly of others. And, if you’re in a rich country, you probably don’t often use the volume of your voice.
If something happened to you in part because of this, first, you must become conscious and aware of what your gut is telling you – and second, you must obey it at all times. Third, begin to practice being confrontational and voicing what you feel. If you don’t like speaking up it doesn’t mean you can’t – it just means you’ve got to start practicing it, consciously – beginning with smaller, less-threatening situations. I also highly recommend taking self-defense classes that teach you to acknowledge danger in the right ways. If this one rings true for you, check out the book “The Gift of Fear.”
What I mean by trauma is an unprecedented, negative experience, intense fear, helplessness in the face of imminent danger, powerlessness to help yourself out of emotional or physical pain, shock, or experiencing triggers an old experience like this. When you’re triggered or really intensely upset, the part of your brain that allows you to make decisions despite your emotions is shut off. If you were to see a brain scan, you would see that it’s blank. When that part of your brain is shut off, you lose a sense of time and space and you become trapped in the moment. That’s why old traumas are like emotional movies: there might be sounds with short clips or snapshots of objects. There isn’t a holistic experience because we don’t connect to the rest of our brain. When you are stuck in this state, you cannot relate to the shared reality in really important ways: you can’t identify how others see you or how they feel, and you cannot make sense of things using the knowledge of past experiences. Not to mention, you cannot enjoy things like intimacy because you cannot be vulnerable: you’re stuck on the defense.
Long story short, if you get triggered – you will be incapable of saying the thing that the rational you might say, because not only are you unable to perceive the reality that is occurring, you are unable to access the correlated emotional response. Hence the reason you are unable to understand what to do – or think about what to do, when you are emotionally triggered. A lot of people either get really angry and over-reactive, super anxious and panic-y, or they shut off and drift away.
I find that most people who have PTSD or past trauma, don’t believe in their own suffering. They think, “Nah, I am smarter than that.” Or, “I didn’t go to war – so I have no excuse.” You might be hard on yourself thinking you knew better than to be triggered and to grant yourself that description would be like giving yourself a fake excuse. Well that’s what most people think and yes, you do know better – in retrospect. When you’re in a balanced headspace you can think and decide what you want to do and then do it. When you’re triggered into a threatened state, you cannot. The marbles inside are flying everywhere! Which brings me to the next why…
Some people cope with stress by leaving their bodies. It feels kinda like zoning out, you go into an empty-headed state and your body gets almost numb. This could be something that happened to you for the first time in this intense situation – it could also be something set up by a trauma from a long time ago that you don’t even remember.
When people are really freaked out, sometimes they freeze, shut down– like a possum. It’s not a decision– it’s an unconscious reaction, and your propensity is largely dictated by your coping as a young child and your personality type. So if you’re very introverted and passive, your body might shut down as a means to cope with the overwhelm. Your body chemistry follows the emotional trigger. During this zoning, you might be watching yourself from far away – like a movie is being played, but feel nothing. It might be horrific and conceptually upsetting and yet you have absolutely no emotional reaction to it. It’s a defense mechanism that is very confusing because you might WANT to feel something, but your body has chosen to protect you by cutting everything off. This feels similar to having your brain draw a blank. You might report things that are very upsetting, very matter-of-factly – or have no idea how you feel about something despite really wanting to, which can evoke guilt. If this is a coping mechanism that sounds familiar, then you likely have watched someone else get upset at you or believed you didn’t care about something because of how little you could feel. Well, it doesn’t mean the feeling doesn’t exist – but it takes work to get to it. It’s kind of like reconnecting wires that were disconnected a long time ago: therapy is like a retuning process. The current treatments involve reconnecting to your senses via movement, touch, rhythm and physical activity like drumming. If you want to look more into this check out “The Body Keeps the Score.”
There are a lot of situations when there are really good reasons to do something and also really good reasons NOT to do something. How we interpret these reasons is where the shame comes in. When we have opposing strong feelings, often we’re unaware of a lot of them. They stay way below the surface of logic – especially when we’re young. So when we don’t do something, it’s usually because there’s a threat to our survival that motivates us in an opposite direction. For example, standing up for a friend who is bullied. You have to be completely bulletproof in your self-knowledge: practiced in enduring mental and physical injury and confident in who you are, something most often filled by parental love. When your tank is full, you can do pretty much anything and let go of what it means. Everything gets simple because you are loved no matter what. That sense of relief is why I do this podcast: I want everyone to have that feeling of wholeness that comes from a full tank.
If there’s something you didn’t say, and it hurt you not to say it, I want you to reflect upon the idea that maybe you had a real and valuable reason that you didn’t say it. It hurt a part of you not to say it – but it protected another part of you to hold it back. There’s a point in our lives that we are able to do what we idealize as “the right thing” and that comes when we are internally aligned in our sense of self. If you didn’t act on something at a certain time in your life – there’s likely a reason. You might not be aware of it now, or you might feel differently now, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you weren’t there then, you simply weren’t – it doesn’t make it wrong. It just is. It’s here for you now to learn from it and the most important thing is for you to do that and not use it as a lash to martyr yourself. THAT would be wasteful and self-indulgent.
Part 3: The TOOLS!
1. Ring Out the Volume
If you’ve been helpless and vulnerable for a long time, then it feels like you have no access to your voice.
A lot of us are afraid to be noticed or seen. That sounds weird, but if you are in pain or you are depressed or you don’t have confidence or you were abused, it’s much more comfortable to be invisible. And whether or not you are conscious of that instinct, your body language will correspond. I remember being so hurt and vulnerable that I would speak in whispers because I literally didn’t want to be heard. When we can’t speak our truth, it’s usually systemic – tied to deep feelings of sadness, loss, or inadequacy. So here’s a tool for you to practice using your voice. Because through the practice you will actually grow stronger. Think of this one like doing pull-ups.
Having been voiceless myself, I can tell you it’s there but it’s kinda like a muscle: you just have to start to practice using it, as hard as you can. Picture it like it’s inside your abdomen and sometimes when you can’t use your voice, you just have to squeeze it out by contorting your body and ringing the words out like a shammy. So if you are unable to say something, next time giving yourself the Heimlich or squeezing even the tiniest whisper out of your upper body. The next time it will get a little bit louder, and after that – a little bit louder. The point is to get SOMETHING out so you know your voice is real. Give it an external presence even if it’s puny at first. In addition to that, practice yelling when you are alone. Do it in the car. Do it in your pillow. If you can’t seem to speak up, another trick is to use a very subtle accent – like an alter ego that no one else recognizes. In high school mine was a super annoying, sing-songy voice – think Mean Girls. Start by practicing it on the phone with strangers – like when you call to order food. It creates the tiniest bit of a buffer between you and the world.
2. Take the Tangle Apart: Journal Exercise!
Regret is like a worn out romance novel: bad writing, over the top plot and imagery and a cheap cover that eventually falls off. We tell ourselves a story about our pain and we keep telling it the same way forever, and it becomes this truncated narrative with oversimplified characters. But it’s romanticized by us in the act of retelling and it doesn’t represent the truth. It represents how we internalized the pain of shame we felt in another time. And what that means is this thing didn’t align with who we are. That’s why it hurts. We told ourselves a specific story about how that thing defined us in that moment, and then we reinforced it via the replay loops of regret. And then we get used to it– it blurs into who we are. But I want you to look at it today right now, from a new vantage point – with your journal. Because you, today, are very likely not accurate to the person who lived that experience. You get stuck in the old movie and you relive it – emotionally – like it were true, but it commandeers you from your present – one that is different and much more okay than the memory feels. Painful memories are like triggers in that they take over your body – removing you from your present emotional awareness. These emotional memories are attached to experiences like shame. So whenever you feel a similar shame, today – you might feel the shame of your old self.
3. This is the tool: I want you to rewrite the more objective story of this thing, by taking it apart in your journal, from a new and present angle. One that records all the context and places it in the right order. I want you to start by writing a list of the valid reasons someone in your situation would have – for doing such a thing. Include objective facts like your age at the time, the emotional factors that lead up to it, your coping style, reasons you were ambivalent. Once you’ve gathered all your info, you can craft an accurate narrative of this event that is more outside of it. Context is everything. Next, I want you to write down a description of the person you are now and how you have changed. Maybe that’s in part because of this event. Record the qualities you have and the actions you would take, now, if this were to happen today.
Let’s say you wanted to tell your parent that you got married to the love of your life – but you chose not to, because you knew they would disown you, and you weren’t ready to say goodbye just yet. Is this wrong? No, not at all. Everything is a personal choice and no one can make it for you. You get to choose the right and wrong way to live your life. Most important is choose for the right reasons: weigh everything out so you can see what is of the most value to you and once you decide, you’ve got to accept what is, and forgive yourself. You can’t make everyone happy and sometimes the best outcome is not great. If you made a certain choice that compromised your truth, maybe that’s because it was worth it to you. The truth isn’t always the best decision – your terms are personal.
4. Make a Right.
Anytime you feel guilt or shame or helplessness in the face of evil, make one right in this world. This is like the universal tool for all suffering. If you are suffering currently, then I want you to do it right now. If you can, affiliate your positive act to the source of your suffering. Let’s say you didn’t tell someone you loved them, before you lost them. Tell 10 friends on the phone you love them – or write a letter to that person, and read it aloud then blow out a candle. Or if you were abused and didn’t protect yourself or someone else, volunteer some time or donate some money to help another person. Do it right now!
The worst part of any negative act is allowing it to continue to create badness. It is your duty to counter this thing and make it mean something new, for you – and the best way to do that is to help others. It’s like a miracle drug. No joke.
5. Beware the Pedestal.
This is a tool for anyone who hides their truth and feels ashamed for feeling it. A common habit of people who find themselves voiceless is polarization. They’ll either put others on a pedestal and put themselves lowest, or the opposite. It’s a go-to for managing anxiety, common to type-a-er’s, because it gives you a sense of control over pain. But when you do this, you separate yourself from action and remain trapped in your head. So here’s the tool: the next time you have a thought or a perception that you are starting to use to beat yourself up, say that– aloud. Like a big nerd. Literally say to someone, “I feel guilty but I am angry right now.” Name it. Narrate it. Or put it on paper. Because this is how you truly control pain and anxiety and also how you grow aligned as yourself. By telling yourself a pedestal story, you isolate and you also create a me-centric focus. Maybe you feel bad for feeling certain things and you say to yourself, “I’m always so selfish…” Those thoughts – themselves, are selfish. They build a narrative between you and real-life feedback. So get used to naming the feelings that no one names. That is how you build comfort with yourself and then confidence and ultimately, create intimacy.
Depending on your circle, you might get weird reactions. That means you are around people who are insecure. Be prepared to accept their discomfort. It can sting at first but you might find that being bravely honest allows you to find your true tribe.
Before I close, I want to thank my latest sponsors – this is long overdue but a big thank you to Brandi! Thank you for your amazingly huge and awesome donation! You’re an angel thank you thank you!!! And I want to thank all my monthly sponsors for believing in me and for valuing this work. When I become Oprah jr. I will invite you all to my studio audience and give you new cars.
You get to choose what your truth means to you, today, and how you bring that into your present. If this is a past hurt, you can decide today whether or not to accept it, forgive it, and let it go. That process starts by forcing some objectivity on this thing – maybe you do that with a little help – for example, a therapist or a help group. Even if you don’t believe it’s possible, you can change how you perceive yourself and all that you are ashamed of. Everyone thinks they are secretly bad or worse than others think they are. Once you can welcome the perspectives of others and discuss yourself openly, you will eventually get to a point that you believe in your own goodness. It just takes time and openness. The goal is to be transparent with yourself and allow for other perspectives to be heard. That is how you can align with everything you feel – for good and for bad. It removes the shame part and things become sooo simple. It’s like oxygen. It feels so good to be on the level with yourself.
We all do our best with what we have at a given time. Sometimes we don’t have enough belief, or enough confidence to speak the truth. And sometimes we are so vulnerable and confused and distant from ourselves – that we can’t organize all those parts to move our bodies and mouths to speak as one. It doesn’t mean this thing – this time, this act, has to damn you or define you. Or that it was “meant” to happen differently than it did. I say that not to validate wrongs that shouldn’t have been done, but to tell you to look at this now, as something new. Pull out a stepladder and stand on the highest step: how does it look from here, now? What else can you understand about it? There’s something that will loosen the knot just a tiny bit, on this memory. It doesn’t have to be so black and white. It’s usually a rainbow of cause and effect. I hope this has helped you in some way and if you think anyone might benefit from it, please share it. And if you listen to the podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes!
Much love and don’t forget to smile. xo