Do you have problems speaking up for yourself when others are being uncaring?
My counseling clients often complain to me about interactions they had with a partner, friend, parents or co-worker. When I asked the question, "Why didn't you speak up for yourself?" here are the most common answers I receive:
- "I want to keep the peace."
- "I don't want to rock the boat."
- "I didn't know what to say."
- "It won't change anything."
- "He/she won't listen."
- "We will just end up fighting."
- "He/she will make it my fault."
Charlie is in his early 70s and has been married to Esther for 43 years. Charlie and Esther love each other very much, but there has always been a problem in their marriage, and Charlie finally decided to get some help with it.
The issue is that Esther often speaks to Charlie with a harsh, demeaning, parental tone -- telling him what to do. All these years, Charlie's way of dealing with this has been to comply -- to be the "nice" guy and try to "keep the peace." But every once in a while he suddenly blows up, scaring and hurting Esther. She has asked him over and over to tell her what's upsetting him so much, but when he has, she doesn't listen and turns it back onto him. In his mind, he has been in a no-win situation. The last blow-up led Charlie to seek my help.
The problem is that Charlie had never said anything to Esther in the moment about her tone. When he did say something, after the fact, Esther would have no idea what he was talking about, so she would explain, defend and turn it back on him.
"I don't know what to say," said Charlie.
"Charlie, how do you feel inside when Esther speaks to you with a harsh, demeaning tone?"
"I feel small, diminished, like I did when my father would criticize me. I feel like a helpless little kid. I hate it. It hurts me."
"And when you suddenly blow up, what do you say?"
"I tell her to shut up."
"Are you telling her to shut up about what she is saying?"
"So you don't say anything about her tone of voice or how you feel?"
"No, I don't think I have ever said anything about her tone of voice."
"Charlie, if you were to say something in the moment, not about what she is saying, but about how she is saying it, what would you say?"
"I'd say, 'Your tone of voice is harsh and diminishing and it hurts me.'"
"Great! Would you be willing to say this the next time Esther is harsh with you?"
The next week, Charlie reported that he and Esther had a great week together. He had quietly responded the way we had rehearsed and he was shocked at how Esther responded. Instead of getting angry, defensive, explaining or attacking, she said, "You're right. I'm sorry. Thank you for telling me."
All this time Charlie was certain that if he spoke up for himself, things would get worse. Instead, he discovered that Esther was very open to hearing his feelings and experience when it was in the moment, and she was thrilled that he finally spoke up for himself.
Telling others what they are doing wrong, or trying to get them to stop doing what they are doing will generally lead to a difficult interaction. But speaking up for yourself with the intent of taking loving care of yourself will make you feel much better, even if the other person doesn't hear you. At least you are hearing yourself, and this is what is important. And you might be surprised at how the other responds!