When I was younger, I was conditioned to yield to authority. Go to school. Go to church. Obey the parents.
One of the most common commands was: Be quiet. Hush. Pipe down. Silence is a virtue. Children should be seen and not heard.
So I learned to stay quiet – about problems, about desires, about feelings. I developed a rich inner world, but supposedly it wasn’t meant to be shared. My thoughts were to be kept mostly to myself.
On the positive side, that made me more self-reliant. But it also ensured that I didn’t get to experience what I wanted, as the wants and the communication both got suppressed under a blanket of silence.
It took a long time to learn that it was okay to communicate about needs, desires, and feelings. As I got older, I found people encouraging me to open up and share more, such as friends in college. That was difficult to do though. I wasn’t used to it. When people wanted to know more about me, it felt like they were shining a burning spotlight into my soul. I couldn’t go there, so I shared various masks instead. I kept people at a safe distance.
But this left me stuck inside my own thought bubble with no way to break free from it. Because I couldn’t talk about what I felt, needed, and wanted, no one could help me make improvements. Even if people offered support, it was misguided because they didn’t really know what I wanted. They had to guess, and their guesses were wrong.
As I began making a long-term investment in personal development, I read lots of books and listened to many audio programs. I liked it when other people share their stories, goals, ambitions, mistakes, and feelings. Every now and then, I’d come across something that struck me as really honest and authentic. And I silently thought to myself, I could never do that.
What probably helped me shift the most was meeting people who were unconditionally accepting of other people’s wants, needs, and feelings. Around such people I felt like I could open up a little more. I sensed that I could trust them, even though I wasn’t sure why. I just naturally found myself sharing more honestly with them. It would feel off if I wore my masks around them too often. I was surprised when they didn’t judge me for my candor. They actually seemed to like and appreciate hearing the real truth and going deeper than the surface masks. It took a while for me to warm up to that since it was outside of my comfort zone.
There was a long progression with many steps forward and backward, like an awkward dance, but eventually I felt more comfortable sharing more of my inner world with people. I could talk about desires, problems, and feelings openly. I didn’t always feel drawn to do that, but I didn’t feel particularly blocked in doing so either.
And that’s mainly because I got to see the positive shifts in others when I did so. I made more authentic friends this way. But I was also able to experience more of what I wanted.
By saying, “I want to kiss you” instead of keeping silent, I kissed more.
By saying, “I have this frustrating tech problem,” I solved more tech problems.
By saying, “I feel so blah today,” I understood and shifted my feelings more easily, and my default state gradually became happier.
Initially my timing was off though. I was too hesitant to open up when the timing was right because the intensity was too great. But by waiting for the intensity to come down, I was late in expressing myself. I realized how lame I was being when I kept missing opportunities because of that tendency to hesitate.
For a while I got results like these:
Me: I kinda wanted to kiss you last night.
Her: I wish you’d said something. I would have gladly kissed you back.
Me: Last month I had this frustrating tech problem that was a real mess, but I finally got it figured out.
Her: Oh… why didn’t you tell me about that when we last spoke? I had the same problem before, and I could have shown you how to fix it in two seconds.
Me: I was feeling so blah yesterday.
Her: I could tell. I was thinking of offering you a nice head scratching, but it looked like you wanted some space.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Sharing late is at least better than not sharing. When you see how many opportunities you’re missing due to silence, it’s good motivation to be more courageous and speak up sooner.
Silence can be a virtue, but keeping quiet can be really problematic if you overdo it. How can you tell the difference?
Is the silence peaceful? Does it feel good to remain silent? If so, then enjoy the silience.
Is the silence stress-inducing? Are your thoughts and feelings churning over unresolved issues? If so, then speak up. Get that energy flowing outwardly. Don’t just keep it bottled up inside.
Also be careful not to merely vent sideways. Venting sideways would be doing the equivalent of this:
Me: I wanted to kiss her last night, but I couldn’t bring myself to go there.
Him: I saw the two of you together, and I’m pretty sure she would have liked it if you did.
This is telling the wrong person. When you do this sort of thing, you’re channeling the energy sideways, which isn’t in the direction of resolution. It’s a sneakier form of staying silent. You may think you’re speaking up, but are you?
Sharing needs, desires, and feelings isn’t easy, especially if you were raised to keep quiet about them. It will feel edgy to lean towards opening up, and it will feel uncomfortable to trust that it’s okay to do this. You’ll catch yourself sharing masks repeatedly. And that’s okay. It’s a growth process. It takes time to peel the onion of silence, to find the true voice within, and to overcome expressive scarcity.