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December 11, 2012 > Counseling Corner: To speak up Or not to speak up?

Counseling Corner: To speak up Or not to speak up?

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

You are really upset with a friend, a partner, a room-mate, or a co-worker. This person didn't do something horribly evil, but what they did bothers you as much as a lingering cold in winter. You stew over this endlessly at work and at home -- the annoyance bugging you like a bad rash that won't go away. You talk about it with everyone except the person who wronged you - but talking about it with friends and colleagues only relieves your feelings temporarily. You imagine all kinds of scenarios in which you confront the person and you wish you had the courage to carry them out. However, for one reason or another, you decide not to speak up. It's not a satisfying decision, but it's the best one in your mind. The unresolved irritation continues to fester inside you.

Friends, family, and colleagues can hurt us in a multitude of ways and in any day of the year - they might say the wrong thing, do something thoughtless, or act in a way that insults us. Whenever something hurtful happens, we are left with a choice point - to speak up or not to speak up?

We've all probably been in situations when we swallow our feelings and don't speak up. There are lots of reasons why we might choose to remain silent. Perhaps it's too risky or even dangerous to do so, perhaps we fear saying something, perhaps we are afraid of damaging the relationship irreparably, perhaps we don't know how to articulate our feelings, perhaps we feel foolish for our reactions, or perhaps we don't feel confident that the other party would be receptive to what we have to say.

Depending on your situation, it might be wise to remain silent. For instance, if you are in an abusive relationship or involved with someone with a violent temper, please seek consultation before you voice your feelings - it might not be physically safe for you to speak your mind. (A wonderful local domestic violence resource is SAVE: (510) 794-605)

In other situations, it might be healthy for you and for your relationship to make the choice to speak up. In my personal life as well as from my professional experience as a psychotherapist, I have observed the following "side effects" from not speaking up:

* Withdrawal
* Increased tension, stress, and internalized anger
* Passive-aggressive behavior (e.g. acting out in some other way to punish the other person)
* Taking your feelings out on someone else
* General unhappiness with your overall life (this can affect your loved ones as well)
* Physical symptoms such as insomnia, stomachaches, and headaches
* Frustration
* Increase in unhealthy behaviors to deal with the stress (e.g. eating unhealthy foods or drinking excessively)

This is certainly not a happy list and it isn't even a complete rendering of all the consequences of not speaking your mind! Sadly, there is a price to pay when you don't get to speak your mind. Often, you are the one who pays that price.

Of course, you can't always voice your feelings. There are certain situations at work or in your personal life where it's best to preserve the silence. However, if it's not dangerous or risky for you to speak your mind and if it's worthwhile for you to speak up, you might want to think about experimenting with saying what's in your heart. There is no perfect formula for speaking up since each situation varies with the personalities of the people involved, their emotional capacities, and the history of the relationship. But here are some ideas to get you started:

* Figure out the goal for having this conversation: do you want a better relationship? Better communication? Keep this goal in mind as you plan your talk with the other party.
* Be clear about your personal goal for having this conversation - what do you want to see in yourself when you have this conversation?
* Discuss a strategy for speaking up, preferably with an impartial person who can give you some objective feedback
* Be honest about your feelings without being unkind and disrespectful to the other party
* Propose a solution(s) for how the conflict can be resolved
* Be interested in the other party's perspective (even though this is extremely hard to do!)

I'll be the first one to tell you that it is not easy to voice your feelings when you've been wronged. There are, however, some clear benefits to be gained if your feelings can be aired and you can reach a better understanding with the other party. Not only will you experience relief from the "side effects" outlined above, you might also enjoy a strengthened relationship, a sense of personal empowerment and confidence in your growth as an individual.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful holiday season and may your feelings be honored and validated!

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers, lives, and relationships. Her website is

(c) Anne Chan, 2012

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