When I was 8, my mom went to a parent-teacher night at school. When she sat down with my teacher, the teacher smiled and said: “So how are Susan’s swimming lessons going?”
My mom frowned, confused. “Susan isn’t taking swimming lessons – perhaps you’ve confused her with someone else?”
“No, I’m sure,” my teacher insisted. “Susan told me that she has to leave at 3 o’clock every afternoon, right when the bell rings, to make it to her swimming lessons on time.”
Leaving at 3 o’clock gave me a head start on Ivan, the towering taunting bully who walked home the same way that I did.
If I got outside fast, sprinted up the outside stairs and off the school property, I could be around the corner and home free before he even walked out the classroom door.
It never occurred to me to tell the teachers or my parents about Ivan. I don’t know that they could have done much, anyway. The way I saw it, if I complained about Ivan to the “authorities” they might scold or penalize him, but one day I’d eventually be on that street alone again. Alone with Ivan, that is, with 10 defenceless blocks between me and my house. And now, because I’d complained or tried to stand up to him, I’d be worse off than ever.
Some people seem to naturally stand up for themselves. They radiate this quality through the way they stand, talk and even look at others. Bullies often avoid this type of person, and instead seek out another type – the person whose gaze is a little less direct, who has a more passive stance, who apologizes too quickly and works too hard at keeping the peace at all costs. Someone more like me.
I’m not an expert on this, but I’ve read enough to know that people may exhibit this type of passivity because of their personality type or because of formative experiences such as an angry, neglectful or alcoholic parent, or other adults who continually dismissed what that child had to say. Maybe the child did try to speak up, but whenever he did he was punished, mocked, or simply ignored.
What we end up with is an adult who finds it hard to confront another about a difficult subject, especially if it’s someone who is likely to respond with anger or some other negative reaction. I prefer to write an email about anything difficult rather than say it out loud. And if I have to say it out loud, I’d prefer to say it over the phone rather than have to watch the other person’s face begin to contort into their predictably explosive or unpleasant reaction.
Avoiding direct confrontation takes up a lot of energy. Especially if in trying to avoid upsetting someone, the information gets presented in such a gentle or overly explanatory way that the other person misses the point. Emailed words can get totally misinterpreted when there’s no audible voice tone supporting them – I speak from rich experience!
I believe there’s a survival type of fear behind this behavior. Somewhere, a child got the idea that if they spoke up or confronted someone, their world might fall apart. This might be true if that child depends on that adult to survive, or risks severe bodily harm from an abuser. The same goes for someone living in a situation of domestic violence – that’s a whole other circumstance, and that’s not what I’m addressing today.
In most cases, receiving an angry, mocking or dismissive response from another adult doesn’t actually kill you or significantly damage your life. In fact, if you speak up today, you might be surprised at your resilience in response to any and all possible reactions.
We avoid confrontations because we’re irrationally afraid of what will happen, we think that we can’t handle it. The only way to break down this fear is to do what we’re afraid of. That allows us to discover that we can actually handle the consequences, that our world doesn’t fall apart, and in the majority of cases our relationships actually benefit from our honesty. Assuming, of course, that we’ve done our best to communicate our truth in a straightforward, non-abusive, respectful way.
With the help of a friend who been been calling me on what she calls my “passive-aggressive ways” (read: not standing up for or speaking up for myself in order to keep the peace, even though I have strong feelings about a situation … feelings which typically come out later or are acted out later at an inopportune time) I am learning to stand up, take a deep breath and say it like it is.
More often than not after I’ve finished a scary speech I look up and around and observe that the world actually did not come to an end. The reactions from others aren’t always fun, that’s for sure, but there’s such strength in saying the truth. Though people may not like what you say, through your directness you’re showing that you care enough about the integrity of your relationship with someone to be brave and real with them.
Is there something you have been afraid to say? Is there someone in your life that you need to say something to?
Take notice the next time that the thought of speaking with someone about a difficult subject makes you want to run and hide. Notice when you feel tempted to compose long wordy agonizingly over-edited emails instead of speaking to someone personally. Could this be the moment that you stand up and speak out instead?
Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.
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