Speak Up For Yourself if you Want Healthy Relationships
Speak up and risk being erased by her mother’s wrath, or go along with her mother in order to keep the relationship in tact – that was the constant dilemma for 47 year-old-Nina, divorced with 4 teenage children.
All her life, Nina had stifled her thoughts, opinions and needs because she was terrified that speaking up would create a distance between her and her family that was impossible to bear. From as far back as she could remember she had anticipated being disowned, shunned and unwanted. From third grade on Nina bit her tongue and outwardly agreed with her sister about taking each other’s clothes jewelry without asking; bad mouthing a neighbor, criticizing each other’s friends , or taking the friend away and making them their own.
When her mother believed her teacher about Nina cheating on a test, she took what she felt was an unjust punishment and didn’t speak up. The wish to get back on mom’s good side overrode everything else.
Despite these infringements that were very hurtful and demeaning, Nina didn’t feel safe enough to speak up. She wanted to feel like she belonged, was an integral part of the family and would never be alone. So she stuffed her anger, hurt and frustration. Nina acted like the good perfect angel as a wife and didn’t speak up about her rage and hurt when things went south. When her husband left, she didn’t speak up about her disappointment, sense of loss or fear of being alone. Just as she had done with her mother and sister, she kept silent hoping that it would act as a punishment, getting her husband to atone and return. But her strategy never worked in either case.
After years of suffering in this way, Nina’s divorce created a crisis for her that she could no longer ignore. She started counseling to help her cope with her unsettled feelings and her sense of not being in control any longer. Should she continue the way things were, and never speak up or risk feeling even more alone and devalued; or should she start taking her feelings seriously and speak up, in the hope that she would find another partner and no longer need her family so much?
In therapy her feelings started to ooze out no matter how hard she tried to keep them locked up. Sometimes a look on her face or the tone of her voice gave her away. Gripped with fear that that she would suffer the consequences of speaking up, she’d let me (her therapist) know that it backfired when she tried it. Showing any dissension towards her mother and sister resulted in being called “a brat.” For days, weeks and sometimes months, Nina would retreat into herself. She would hole up at home with her favorite alcoholic drink, a boxed video set and scented candles.
She’d wait for her mother and sister to call and apologize but they never did. Nina’s rage escalated. It made her feel strong and righteous at the time. But the strong feelings didn’t last. They filled her up for a while so that she didn’t feel lonely or hungry. But soon the hunger and the longing took over. She wanted to feel connected to mother and sister again. Yet, she felt that they were in the wrong and should apologize and invite her back into the fold. Nina was tempted to speak up, but she stood fast, letting the uncertainty of the connections destroy her peace of mind.
After a while – and it ranged from a few days to months, Nina’s sense of righteousness faded and in its place was anxiety and loneliness. Fear that she had been forgotten by her mother and or sister, OR that they could live without her – that she didn’t really matter to them. Those intense emotions of being thrown aside and isolated posed a primal existential threat, propelling Nina to call her mother and sister – pride disappeared and the need for belonging and connection took over. She chose to speak up for her need to be on their radar and remain there. But she didn’t speak up about her anger or pain of separation at first.
In her personal therapy, Nina came to acknowledge her rage at having to kowtow to her mother and sister if she wanted to be part of their lives. But she hated the idea that she was an angry person. She continued suffering for years, until her therapy enabled her to own her anger and speak up. Therapy helped Nina to understand that just as she could have her feelings and speak up, so could her mother and sister – that having some comeback was natural, normal and part of the discourse.
As Nina progressed in her therapy, she noticed that she was speaking up more without having to think about it. She wasn’t going along with everything her mother and sister said or did, and she realized that the relationship wasn’t destroyed or ended. She began to separate from her mother and sister in a healthy way that allowed for having her own mind and using it, without fear of being abandoned or cut out of their lives in the process. Nina finally became her own person and her relationships thrived outside the family too. Her dating experiences took off after hears of complaints that she would never have a partner again. Her willingness to be with her feelings, and speak up about them, set her free. Nina transformed into a real person who wasn’t a reflection of her mother or sister, but her own authentic self – which was attractive and desirable just as she was.
copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2017
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