The Sabotage of Women’s Self-Silence

The cosmos started with a Bang!  Human life announces itself in the infant’s power through sound, making the first minute after birth critical to survival.  Both mother and delivery team hold their breath until the newborn’s primal cry is heard, its first breath. Bang! It is now fully alive and in our world. 

The safe water bubble of internal sounds arranged as an experimental experiential jazz piece of gurgles set to a steady heartBeat is replaced by an air environment with various scents, noises, textures and temperatures.   Every request must now be voiced. Non verbal communication, a metaphoric echo of the symbiotic silent in-utero world. Our cry emerges with a measure of rage needed to survive on this planet, otherwise we’d be born laughing. 

The mother, who’s main focus is for the infant to survive and thrive, listens to it all, tunes in, understands, is responsive and embraces us. We are fearless as we know that our voice means something, to someone, which in return is positive for us. Our voice makes us visible.  We trust her, we trust ourselves.

Yet something changes as we move from infancy to childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  Verbal language becomes our main communication. Our words are either heard or discarded. What was once so simple -to express our needs and have them attended to- can now seem like a challenge, one which directly impacts our sense of self-esteem and ultimately self identity as a person who can succeed in having their needs met.  The eroding feeling that we can communicate, reach our goals through verbalising our needs, wants and desires results in a diminished self confidence.

The loss of confidence gap is widened further in relation to gender role conformity by women throughout their lives. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that starts to change in childhood for girls, but it does.  When you come from a minority background living within another dominant group, it becomes even harder to raise that voice. Or when we do, we may try to remove as many traces of our background culture as possible in our speech, so that we may be heard and not judged through a filter of cultural/racial difference. 

The reticence to speak up by women goes beyond shyness, submissiveness, being discreet or any other reason which may try to explain it.  It has been identified as such a problematic phenomenon to women’s health as to now be a theory, The Theory of Self-Silencing, with much study going into it.  A valuable paper on this which is well worth a read, written up in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry: 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020764018814271  

Questions we should ask of ourselves:

  • How and why are we discouraged to expand our voice into the world?
  • How did we start judging our own wants and needs as unworthy?  
  • Why do we fear claiming an aural space for our essence to mark our presence?
  • How do we support and encourage other women to speak, even if we disagree with what they say?

 The less we hear our voices, the more we transfer power and belief that it is up to others to take responsibility for the issues we self-silence.  The illusion of our comfortable agreeableness imprisons us as we look to others to be rescued from it.  Could that be why we over rely on politicians or even celebrities to speak on topics rather than explore our ideas, engage in conversations without canceling each other out and evolve as a society based on genuine respectful communication? 

For many their voice becomes a self conscious conditional whisper.  Women learn to speak in very dulcet tones well into adulthood more so when in the company of men. They stop asserting themselves in order to maintain the status quo, relationships, employment or protect children, at the expense of their health and dignity. Our “cry” may be met with indifference, rejection or silenced into submission.

So we master body language, develop flawless veneers yet never reveal anything less than the appearance of strength and competence.  Our inner world remains secret.  We imitate, use fashion & trends to express our nuanced selves without speaking. Escape into worlds where our opinions are not needed.  Which would all be fine, if it wasn’t at the expense of our voice which seeks to be protected and then projected.

When superficial appearance and busyness curtail truth, we avoid the vulnerability of authenticity, shared ideas, which may expose the value of our fallible human self or less than ideal lives. 

  • How do we hide or distract ourselves from this social mutism? By being constantly busy yet not connecting to others, by overly identifying with social roles thus creating a sense of isolation.
  • Why is speaking up again so hard for so many?
  • What is the consequence of not doing so?
  • When and how do we begin to assume responsibility and shake off the shackles of fear from speaking our soul into life?

In an era obsessed with seeking “empowerment”, authentic grounded power will only manifest through us by acknowledging it was always there, and reconnecting to it. Glinda was right when she says to Dorothy ” You had the power all along, my dear“. 

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I observe my own life and summon the courage to face the reality I hid from myself for a long time. I have been afraid of my own power, so I’ve allowed circumstances and others to dominate. It was easier to self-sacrifice for the sake of others than to risk confrontation.  I had silenced the voice that says NO for fear of the consequences. I have been afraid of displeasing others above my own feelings or claiming too much. Because I consider myself to be strong, I became my own martyr and allowed unappreciative cowards to take advantage. I uplifted others when I could, without having that hand reach back. But I said nothing. I just found a new way to accept what I wasn’t truly ok with. Until I woke up to myself. 

Undoing these patterns has taken time, but once you’re armed with a limitations machete you can slice through the walls. Actually, they weren’t as thick as I thought them to be. The sound of emotional crystal bubbles shattering is beautiful.  What I kept silenced is now free. My voice then grew stronger, more assertive, less apologetic, happier.  The control starts to shift back into my hands. 

Difficult words I once held back. You’ll notice none of them ask the other why they did a thing, I’m just stating what they did or what I needed:

-I feel betrayed by you. You’re boring. You make me anxious . I want to be included. I’m scared.  I don’t care how I look. I can’t change my plans for you. You’re mean and selfish. I told you the truth. You didn’t stand up for me. You ignored my pain. I’ll never marry you. I’m not happy. I don’t want to be alone. You’re an asshole. I don’t want to be here. This is bliss. I love you. I only want cake. I don’t want to leave. I miss you. I still miss you. You hurt me. You broke my heart. I don’t care anymore. You’re obnoxious and vulgar. You repulse me. I know you’re lying. Don’t try to control me. I deserve better treatment. I can’t help you.  You’re too critical.  I don’t accept your judgemental attitude. You’re not supportive. I have chronic fatigue. I am good enough. I don’t have to be perfect.  NO!-

By reclaiming our voice, we summon the power which allows us to bear the responsibility for changing our situation. Now connection is possible, creation can begin. Now our real, distinctive and unique voice can be projected without fear.  Allow it to exist, breathe and release it in the moment it needs to be acknowledged. In this way the silence is broken.  The power we’re each born with is anchored once claimed.

No matter how long we’ve been self-silenced or silenced by others, it’s never too late to start to speak who we are into existence and not just be a carefully curated over manicured hollow image which can be replaced.  It’s not healthy to be a good little quiet girl nor an agreeable, nice, silent woman hiding behind the veneer of politeness. Kindness is preferable to “niceness”. Respectfulness has a strength which agreeableness doesn’t. Being nice or agreeable for the sake of it, give away our dignity.

Think about when you’ve held your tongue afraid that others may not want to accept you, listen to you, acknowledge your contribution, love you, share power, money or control with you, or have their ego challenged, was it worth it?  Sometimes those others will be other women, sometimes men.  

For my part, I vow to myself to always speak my truth unafraid of judgement, honouring my voice even when it falters.  I also vow to be grounded enough to hear the truth of others without being judgemental, instead with patience and greater compassion.  This seems to me to be the only way to move forward as a society that values wellbeing, equity and empowerment. But it starts with ourselves.  So how about it? Do you vow to give your voice the value it deserves?

 

For further reading:

oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/…/acprof-9780195398090

webmd.com/…/self-silencing-potentially-deadly-for-women

wp.nyu.edu/…/the-gendered-landscape-of-self-silencing

https://www.amazon.com/Silencing-Self-Depression-Dana-Jack/dp/006097527X

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