Some people feel confident voicing their opinions under any circumstances. For the rest of us, there’s often a certain amount of anxiety — or even dread — that comes from articulating points of view we suspect will be unpopular among family, friends or coworkers. We may sit in nervous silence when such opportunities present themselves, then later have misgivings or regrets.
The trouble is, this can create a pattern of discomfort that eats away at the authenticity and depth of our relationships with others even as it undermines the confidence and respect we feel for ourselves.
According to psychologist Susan Campbell, PhD, author of Saying What’s Real: Seven Keys to Authentic Communication and Relationship Success (HJ Kramer, 2005), fears of speaking our truth generally come from our natural desires to be accepted and connected. She asserts that it’s possible, though, to enjoy both connection and integrity. The key lies in finding ways to clearly voice our perspectives, while also expressing care and respect for those willing to hear us out.
Stress Source: Voicing Unpopular Options
Anxiety about speaking your truth when you fear that your views may create discomfort, dissent or distance.
- Fear of offending. “This is rooted in fear that you will break your connection with others,” says Campbell. “That means fear of loneliness and loss of power — the power to get people to stick around.”
- Not wanting to be judged. For Campbell, this is actually a cluster of anxieties centering on self-image: “It’s fear that if you say what you truly believe, you’re not going to seem competent, credible or lovable.” The result is a habit of self-censorship and a lack of confidence in owning your opinions.
- Not wanting to come off as negative. You may have heard the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” and somehow interpreted this as meaning you should never voice alternative views.
- A sense of futility. “If you’ve found in the past that asserting your opinion made no difference to the powerful people in your life,” says Campbell, “you may be inclined to think, ‘What’s the use?’ today.”
- Fear of reprisal. Anxiety about being shunned, ridiculed or attacked can make speaking up feel downright dangerous.
How to Cope
- Stay connected. Campbell believes that since most of our worries about speaking up forthrightly center on the primal fear of losing connection with others, the best way to defuse them is to concentrate on maintaining those links even as we speak our minds. Expressing appreciation for another’s willingness to speak his or her mind, even if it is radically different from your own, is one good way to do this.
- Voice the connection. Another approach that works, says Campbell, is to employ a preamble that states your own positive intent in speaking up. “Let the other person know that your forthrightness is an attempt to be real with him or her and to strengthen the relationship.”
- Name the difference and ask permission. One style of a relationship-maintaining preamble that Campbell recommends is in this form: “I understand that you feel X about Y. I have a very different take on the situation. Can I share it with you?”
- Do an inventory. “Review the occasions when you spoke your mind and the ones when you didn’t,” Campbell suggests. Then ask yourself what fears kept you from speaking and re-create the scene in your mind. Say aloud to yourself what you would have said if fear hadn’t inhibited you. This can help you “retrain yourself for more directness and honesty” in the future, she says.
- Ask for a redo. After the inventory, Campbell says, you can actually revisit the situation by approaching the other person, referencing the earlier occasion, and respectfully telling him or her what you wish you had said at the time. “It can be a lot easier to speak your truth after the fact, when you’ve had a chance to review it, rehearse it and strengthen the connection with yourself as well as with the other person.”
Stress Solver: Partner Yoga
Doing yoga with a partner can build connection, insight and understanding.
“We want to feel open-hearted and connected with people,” says Elysabeth Williamson, a Boulder, Colo.–based yoga teacher and author of The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga (Wisdom Arts, 2004). “With partner yoga we get to experience that in a powerful way.” Partner yoga is yoga for two or more, and the two or more may be life partners, friends or a temporary grouping formed during class. The practitioners support and balance one another as they go through a sequence of postures, some of which may be quite challenging. “It’s surprising how easily you can do apparently difficult poses when you partner,” says Williamson.
Origin: While yoga has been taught in the United States since the 1920s, the idea of partnering is the brainchild of veteran Los Angeles yoga teacher Ganga White, whose 1978 book Double Yoga (Penguin) introduced the practice. Since then, it’s spread quietly. “I think it’s poised to really break out in the next few years,” says Williamson.
Benefits: The real challenges and benefits of partner yoga are more psychological than physical, Williamson explains. Movements involving touch, trust and mutual support naturally create opportunities for self-understanding. “We see that how we are with each other in partner yoga is how we are with each other in our lives,” she says. “Whether we are partnering with lovers or strangers, the lessons tend to be the same. Women may deal with their need to ‘help’ their partner while losing touch with their own centers. Men may move beyond their fears about ‘doing it right’ and learn to open up.”
Simple Steps: While every partner yoga class and session is different, a typical session begins with warm-ups: The entire group might sit in a circle, for example, connecting palm-to-palm. “I invite them to feel the giving and receiving of energy, which is important in the practice,” says Williamson. Then partners may do a short meditation while sitting back-to-back, a very basic partnering pose.
“We might follow this with some simple stretches, one partner supporting the other,” she says, “and then move into some of the poses that look hard but are really very doable if you move into them mindfully: one person doing a forward bend or a back bend over the other’s body; one person resting her hip bones on her partner’s upraised feet and literally hanging there, body relaxed.” Williamson’s sessions conclude with participants lying on their backs, maintaining a connection with their partner through either the crowns of their heads or the soles of their feet.