In marriage and in relationships with individuals you love the most, the majority of you wind up refraining from saying what you think. For example, Mitch sat at his Thanksgiving table and heard a member of his family say some things that were appalling to him. He perceived their words as provocative and angry. His thought was, “I don’t need that at my holiday celebration, even if it’s my dad and my mom, who had been divorced for over twenty years, but he said nothing.
As a result of this incident, the rest of his day was ruined. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t rid himself of his irritability, or recapture the holiday spirit. In his own words, “It’s no wonder I was upset and mad. They’ve argued all my life and, if that wasn’t enough, my wife spent the day saying, ‘I want a baby.’ And you know something? I’m not sure if I do or not, but I’m afraid to tell her. To add to the problem, I still had to visit her relatives, who I’m also reluctant to speak up to, so, I’m angry at them, as well.” The question I pose is, would he still be angry if he had been able to speak up for himself?
Mitch isn’t atypical;. I can’t begin to count the number of patients I’ve asked, “What’s bothering you?” who answered, “Nothing I do is good enough”, “He never picks up after himself. He thinks I’m his mother or his maid”, or “She hung her clothes in the closet, off the knob of MY drawer. And you know what I did?”
“No, I have no idea what you did.”
“I took all her clothes and threw them on the floor, so she’d get the idea I didn’t like it.”
“But, you’re still upset”, I said.
“Yeah. Because all she thinks about is herself.”
“That may be true, but I doubt it has anything to do with why you’re angry. You’re not this upset because she, he or they did or didn’t do something. You’re upset with you because you didn’t say anything.” Let me note that there are a myriad of ways you don’t speak up. When you’re silent, if you throw things on the floor, anesthetize yourself with alcohol or drugs, or yell and scream, you’re not speaking up. Each of them provides a way of hiding from what’s really bothering you. Like Mitch, you hide behind another behavior instead of having the backbone to say, “You’re my parents and what you want to do between yourselves is up to you. But it’s Thanksgiving and I don’t want to hear you two arguing over issues that are thirty years old any more.” Or, “Honey, I get irritated when you repeatedly talk about having a baby. It makes me realize how scared I am that I’ll wind up screwing up my kids the way I feel I was screwed up. The truth is, I don’t speak up because I try to be a nice guy who doesn’t argue with anyone. I keep things inside, but emotionally, I’m a mess. The good part about this whole thing is, I’m growing and beginning to think it’s okay to express what’s on my mind. What I’ve come to realize is my resentment toward everyone else is really anger at myself for my own cowardice. The worst of it is, right now I can’t win for losing. I don’t feel comfortable when I say what I feel, because it’s not congruent with my good little boy role and I hate me when I don’t say anything.”
One of the best examples of this behavioral dilemma was told to me by a twenty-six year old man I helped get off drugs. The fewer drugs he took, the more he realized how resentful he was of his mother. Then one day, he went down to the kitchen and saw his mom cleaning out the pantry. Half the groceries and canned goods were on the floor and he decided it was time to tell her, “I’m tired of the way you differentially treat me from my sister. It’s bothered me for years. Dr Ed told me it’s better to tell you what I think than to take drugs. Well, what I want is to be treated with the same consideration. She gets away with murder and I wind up murdering myself. I undermine me to get at you, and I don’t want to do that anymore.” His mother broke into tears and ran to her room. Inside, he felt so guilty that he decided to apologize, but the groceries were still on the floor, so he finished cleaning up the pantry and neatly organized everything. Mom returned and asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to make up for getting you mad at me”, he said. You see, he couldn’t win for losing.
The incident didn’t work out entirely the way I would have hoped, but it was a wonderful learning experience. One, he did stand up for himself. Two, he recognized what he felt. Three, he reacted on his feelings; and Four; most importantly, he learned that growing isn’t easy. When you’ve been trapped inside yourself most of your life, honest words are difficult to express in the face of any perceived signs of disapproval or rejection. Thus, being honest and open and speaking on your own behalf , although positive in nature won’t be comfortable and can cause guilt, fear and stress. That’s not unusual. When you attempt to alter old behaviors, you’re apt to feel, “This isn’t me, I don’t do these kinds of things”, but do it you must. Note, however that, in the process of change, you will frequently often swing from one excessive position - too weak, too capitulatory, too acquiescent - to another - too vocal, too hostile, too strong. It’s only over time that you discover a happy medium. But that’s alright. It’s part of the process you experience when you grow. In the end, you’ll be able to take a position that says, “I’m scared to say what I feel or to hurt you or risk you being angry at me, but it’s better than hurting myself and hating you.”
Sadly, the result of speaking up can, on occasion, prove disastrous to a relationship. Your partner, parents or friends may not appreciate the new you but, in most instances, you’ll realize that being in a relationship in which you can’t be you is neither emotionally healthy nor desirable. Your goal needs to be either modify your old relationship, or find a new one where you can speak up, i.e.; one in which you are loved for who you are.