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  • Writer's pictureAzrael Encarnacion


Learning to Speak Up

Speaking up is an important part of communication but it can get awkward sometimes. It may be to clarify an opinion or to ask that an uncertain one be clarified. Or to correct a misrepresentation or set a boundary. Or even to admit what we don’t know but are expected to or to identify what we expect but aren’t receiving--Depending on who we’re communicating with, speaking up can potentially be uncomfortable. But however nerve wracking as it may be, it’s a habit worth practicing. The result of course, may vary, but one welcomed side effect is people have access to what’s on your mind, and with that, are given an opportunity to better understand and engage with you as a person.

None of us are, as of yet, telepaths. But that fact works to undermine the magic of language. Through it, we can share thoughts from mind to mind, we just have to bottle them up in containers called symbols which we speak, write, or sign to one another. The thoughts themselves are also the bottled up approximation of feelings. Which are hard to fully define when there are no words to encapsulate them, as is frustratingly the case when a person speaks more than one language and tries to translate certain words that have no exact equivalent in the other language. Yet somehow, because we’ve isolated noises, scribbles, scratches and gestures to hold collective meaning, we can exchange a nuanced variety of otherwise inexpressible feelings.

For its connective capacity and reach, language was like the internet before the internet. And we would be part-time suckers to not revel in this marvelous invention and utilize it to speak up whenever necessary. But sometimes other factors come into play.

The main one, I think, is fear.

We fear the result. Speaking up, after all, usually happens when something is off. A conflict between our inner selves and an external situation. A crooked line that needs to be set straight but to do so may require a confrontation. A moment where pleasantness is interrupted to point out a mistake or admit one; to feel judged, or humiliated, vulnerable and subject to objections or defensive, and maybe even, unpredictable behavior. And while true, speaking up can just as likely result in acknowledgement, praise, understanding, or gratitude--Our past experiences may make some of us more apprehensive about the uncertainty of how our thoughts may be received.

I wish neither to say trauma is easy to overcome nor that context shouldn’t be taken into account when speaking up. But in some instances trauma isn’t the issue and the context actually supports, rather than discourages, the clarification. For instance, if someone mispronounces your name (or calls you by a different one altogether) you would want to correct them. If you don’t, they would literally be perceiving you as someone you are not. The confusion might vary in seriousness depending on who the person is and where the mistake occurs. At work for instance, you can imagine how this mistake might branch off into a series of further awkward moments like many a sitcom might explore. Is it worth remaining silent to simply spare the initial person the smaller discomfort of being corrected?

There might be some disagreement as to which discomfort is actually the smaller offense to endure. One may also question whether insisting others suffer because one is suffering is fair. And with good reason, such logic quacks too close to eye-for-an-eye. So then 1: Let’s just say both offenses are equal. And 2: Let’s make a distinction between someone hurting you (making you suffer) and someone allowing you to suffer alone. The example of the wrong name, is the latter case in so much as it’s like someone letting you carry a heavy weight for them, up a flight of steps--And despite they’re physically capable of helping, instead proceed empty handed. If you’re struggling with the weight, you can either pretend you’re not (and suffer alone) or ask for help. Speaking up to correct someone about your name is to share the discomfort which has been created and to follow it up by attempting to collaborate in “carrying” the resolution together.

This is why speaking up can seem intimidating because it might require more effort, more steps, more communication. It’s the inevitability of holding a personal truth, in this example the correct name, and having to show up for this truth, if it is in fact true to you. The interaction, the clarifying conversation is an important one to have. The energy you bring into it, as well as how yours is received, is also important. It may have been harder than letting things be, but that’s what makes it special and worth pursuing, especially if the easier option involves you suffering alone and possibly harboring resentment toward both the person and yourself.

It can feel very lonely to be judged, ridiculed or dismissed, but it’s also quite lonely to hold your tongue and not express yourself.

To self-quarantine in the subjective spotlight of your mind, from which you swoon the absent audience of an empty theatre with your rapturous soliloquy! The endless observations and definitions pouring like champagne on Bastille Day. The secret performance. Measuring every action, theorizing every future. And starring a self-projection which you aim for; an ideal version of who you wish to be. The ‘higher self’ dressed in all your potential. But this ideal is no more than a shadow, without any real reach or grip of its own on the physical world, other than what we act out with our physical bodies.

As a species we evolved in groups, isolation often meant death. Fear of banishment is still real, and we often use prisons and public shaming as modern effective versions of exile. Retirement homes and asylums also espouse that same energy of places to rid societies of those individuals deemed no longer able to function within it. To be trapped in your head, is itself a type of banishment; a mental prison for which the practice of expressing yourself can continually unlock doors and sneak you past the guards. Hell, it’ll get the guards on your side! But it isn’t enough to do it when it’s easy, it’s actually almost more important to communicate and express yourself when it’s challenging.

This may be to the general point that there’s value in facing adversity. That testing one’s convictions actually strengthens them. It isn’t the only way but there’s something to this idea that standing up against oppositional energy chisels out the confidence to express yourself via words and actions (since communicating requires physical representations of psychic thought). The better you become at this, the more conversations you’re able to have without fear--Ideally counterbalancing the freedom to express yourself with the capacity to also listen, and hold space for those who wish to communicate with you, and speak their truth.

Despite being good at listening to others speak up, I tend to struggle with doing it myself. Communication will eventually bump into the requirement to speak truthfully. It can be time consuming to give an honest response in every exchange, followed up by a conversation to iron out the kinks. Reserving candor for closer relationships might be more useful than walking around as if you’ve been injected with truth serum. But for me, the habit of omission can trickle into those closer relations at the growing expense of continually misrepresenting myself. And with that misrepresentation, come interactions that keep the doors to the theatre shut, and the mad thespian, shouting monologues from under an iron mask. The thing is, only I can remove the face cage, and open those doors. Only I can raise the volume.

I’ve learned no one knows what you want. It’s not as obvious as you think. Not everyone knows how to treat you or how to satisfy you. You have to meet them halfway. By remaining consistent between internal and external expression of yourself, you’ll manifest who you are and how you wish to participate with the world--And in turn, how the world can make use of you, which I believe it should. The ways in which this self is challenged when forced to speak up, exercises integrity and commitment. Of course, this too can become misguided and abused to speak up in bad faith. That is, not to stand up or clarify yourself but to posture your ego and self-importance. This pantomime tends to drown out who you are on the inside, replacing their heartfelt adlib with an outer persona who’s acting out from fear of not being respected or admired.

What’s dangerous about this, is we tend to believe what we say if we say it often enough, again, a credit to the magic of language.

Words are vessels for thoughts and feelings. They were created by us to transfer ideas back and forth. Culture preserves language to free every new generation from having to create their own symbols from scratch. A tricky endeavor because without language you would have to first realize that such a thing as language is possible.

Communication brings us closer, allowing us to express our emotions and avoid unnecessary anxieties by talking and explaining things out. Our ancestors did this, and brought about a social dimension that often required us to love and teach one another. Children have an obvious curiosity to catch up and figure the world out, their young minds woken by the fires of consciousness. At first they focus on the world at large and how it functions but eventually, having that, on more solid footing, they become young adults and set their sights on themselves and others. We all desire connection and want to understand the needs of those we connect with,...The only catch is they have to speak up...And so do we.

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