Do You Shut Down Instead of Speak Up?
In yoga asana (the physical practice of yoga), the pose begins when you want to leave it. It’s when we can notice that resistance (and sometimes muscle scorching discomfort), take an inhale, and then exhale more deeply into the pose that the real transformational work happens. I believe the same can be said for life, relationships, career, and in general our overall personal and spiritual growth.
Can we notice the moment where we tense up and want to flee, take a breath, and then lean in or get even more present? Can we have the difficult conversations regardless of what we think the outcome will be? Because that’s where the real self-work is.
I’m always pushing my clients to put their emotions into words and to speak their truth. I myself battle internally with being someone who likes to think a little too much about what I want to say before I say it. I’m an over-analyzer, and sometimes I can analyze my way out of speaking up altogether. I do, however, like to own what’s mine before talking to my partner, or a family member, or friend about a conflict or a hurt feeling. And, I do believe that if you are very activated or worked up it’s ok to not speak in that moment. Especially, if you know you have a tendency to say things you’ll regret, or to get intensely angry, or to lash out to hurt the other person.
Even in the moments when you don’t want (or don’t know how) to speak up for yourself, you can still take notice of what’s happening internally for you. You can still feel the tightness in your stomach, the burning in your chest, the lump in your throat. I challenge you then to try and name it physiologically first. Eventually, the emotional correlation will come. If you are new to recognizing and verbalizing emotions, simply naming the physical feeling might be the first step for you, and that’s ok, start where you’re at. If I’m feeling particularly worked up I close my eyes, place my hand on the part of my body where I can feel the sensation and name it. And then when the physical sensation changes, I name it again, and again. And so on.
Perhaps in the moment while you’re learning how to not be reactive and instead be responsive, you can try simply telling the other person that physiological response you’re having, without putting any emotional language with it. “Right now my chest feels tight.” “I have a lump in my throat after what was just said and I need a minute.” “My stomach is feeling really unsettled right now during this conversation.”
When we grow up experiencing it being unsafe for us to say to someone, “what you said really hurt my feelings,” or “it makes me feel like this when you say or do that,” we learn to internalize the messages and possibly shelve them entirely for survival. We learn not to rock the boat. That a rocking boat is far worse than just swallowing our truth. A rocking boat can look like many things based on your family or relationship history: blow-ups/yelling/anger, verbal abuse/nastiness, emotional abuse/gas lighting, silent treatment/coldness. It can be one or a combination of these, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that because we are naturally sensitive and loving creatures who need connection to survive, we hate to feel the effects of these defense strategies. So, rather than stand firm, speak our truth, and allow the defender to sit in their own unhealthy responses, we take and shoulder their discomfort. A part of us might believe we deserved the attack, that it’s our fault (i.e. we’re bad), or that it’s our responsibility to keep the other person happy and calm. None of those beliefs are true.
This is where the practice to grow comes in to play. The practice to stop doing what’s comfortable and speak up, regardless of the risk. If we rock the boat and it tips over, then the boat was shotty from the beginning and would have tipped over eventually anyway. This practice begins entirely with awareness.
According to Tara Brach, there are two wings of awareness. 1. Recognizing what’s present, and 2. Allowing. In order to grow and become a more authentic, emotionally mature, and tuned-in version of ourselves (not to mention to finally let go of or restructure unhealthy relationships, and/or to find and nurture healthy, supportive, growth-enhancing relationships) we first need to (like I said above) recognize the internal physiological signs of hurt feelings or conflict and not try to push them away or distract ourselves from them. Once we can become aware of what’s happening in our body, we can then start to attach the emotional language to the sensations. Fear, embarrassment, anger, shame, unworthiness, vulnerability, etc.
The practice of allowing is very important here. These feelings are not fun. Our natural human reaction is to want to push them away, run from them, or distract ourselves through any means possible. For me, remembering that you feel the feeling, but you are not the feeling can be helpful. It reminds me that feelings are temporary. They will swell up like an ocean wave, potentially crashing over your head, but then like all waves they will wash onto shore, settle and recede back into the sea.
Once you can notice and name the physical sensation and articulate the emotion behind it, the next step is to open your mouth and communicate this experience to your partner (friend, family member, co-worker, etc). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you are only responsible for you and what and how you say it, you are not responsible for the other person’s emotions or reactions. You are communicating with kindness (and not reactivity), but you are speaking your truth. You deserve to be heard, you deserve to be seen, and your emotions deserve to be recognized.
If the other person blows up and walks away, let them. If they roll their eyes and tell you you’re too sensitive, let them. If they cross their arms and give you the silent treatment, let them. Easier said than done, I know, but remember these are their reactions, and they are theirs to hold and to work through. If the reactions, in turn, hurt your feelings, you would then start the whole internal process over again in order to communicate that to them as well. If they refuse to hear it, or acknowledge it, or communicate in any way, that is information about the relationship and about their emotional maturity that you need to take in and evaluate.
I promise the first few times you push through the discomfort and rock the boat and that person stays unwavering and hears you, truly hears you, without turning it around on you or defending themselves, it will knock your socks off. It won’t immediately make you a grand communicator of your emotions, but we build skills through experience. It took experience for us to learn it wasn’t safe to communicate, so it will take experience to unlearn it. You owe yourself those experiences.
“The cure for the pain is the pain.” –Rumi