The Choice Between Silence and Speaking up can be Imposing

One of my most important habits, in terms of maintaining my mental health, is taking moments throughout the day to be quiet. I take them during breaks, if I’m feeling particularly frustrated, when new work comes piling in, when something goes wrong, when I need to talk to someone who pushes my buttons, and when I need time to clear my thoughts. They’re an integral part of my ability to cope with the mess in my head and the stress of the world around me. It is hard to get at work, but nothing is quite as calming to me as a few moments of silence. When I get home from work after a stressful day, when things are pushing me to my limit, or when I’m trying to sort through a tangled mess of emotions in order to share how I’m feeling, silence is the foundation from which I respond as needed.

There are other times I like silence as well, beyond as an aid to my coping mechanisms or emotional needs. Sharing a few moments of silence with my friends is a great way to get comfortable being around each other. A silent moment with my partner lets me feel more connected and appreciate the moment we’re in. Silence when having a deep conversation lets me take a moment to appreciate what has been said and how I want to contribute. Silence as I go to sleep helps me feel calm and at peace so I can dodge the anxiety cannon in my head that’s waiting for a single spark of a thought to go off. Silence is important to me, as you can probably tell given how often I write about it.

All of those are just times it came up as a major theme or the subject of something I’ve written and posted on this blog. If I spent more time, I could probably find enough references to make each work in the sentence a different link. If I included stuff I haven’t shared, I could probably do that for the entire paragraph.

That being said, not all of those references are to times where silence was a good thing. As much as I enjoy silence, I cannot deny that I have a complicated relationship with it. Being silent because I want peace is one thing, being silent because I feel like I have nothing to say or that I can’t find the right words is something else entirely. This whole blog started with a post about needing to speak up more and to make sure I didn’t lose my voice to choosing silence over speaking all the time. Imposing silence on myself and having it imposed on me by others is a sure-fire way to get me all fired up in one way or another. If I’m doing it to myself, I’ll get a little angry but mostly sad because I’m struggling to fight a habit that has been a part of me for most of my life. If someone else is trying to silence me, I’ll get incredibly angry and will struggle with the desire to make noise simply to spite them.

Choosing to be silent and imposing silence on yourself are two different things. I often choose to be silent in meetings because, while I could affirm the point someone is making or add another data point to the general consensus, me speaking up adds nothing because the point has already been made or the person has already been convinced. I often impose silence on myself when someone says or does something that upsets me because I don’t have the emotional energy to get into a discussion with them or because I just want to move on without making a big deal of what happened. You could say that I’m choosing to remain silent in both situations, but only in the second one do I have something I want to say that will possibly bother me in the future as a result of not saying it. Ultimately, the distinction is only meaningful here because I’m giving it meaning. Other people can define it however they want and give it whatever emotional weight they want, but that is the difference in my eyes.

The problem with such a hair-splitting distinction is that I often struggle to tell which is which in certain situations. Sure, maybe staying silent after my friend says something careless that hurts my feelings is “choosing” silence, but it often feels like “imposing” silence in the moment. I can only really tell after the fact and then, sometimes, it is too late to choose anything else. I don’t like the idea of bringing up stuff from the past, but deciding to watch out for it in the future and preparing to speak out then can create a barrier between you and whoever you’re preparing for. Additionally, it gets harder and harder to speak up the longer you remain silent. Silence in the face of something is often seen as approval and can be widely interpreted by whoever is watching. I’ve had people in the past blow up at me because I was silent a couple of times before bringing something up with them. One of them routinely used it as a way to change the subject and avoid whatever problem I was trying to address by steering the conversation from there using their outrage and anger at what they called an ambush to browbeat me into letting go.

Silence is dangerous. It is addicting and can be used against you. I used to believe that saving my words at my previous job would mean people would take note when I eventually spoke. Turns out that all it accomplished was to get people used to ignoring me. I’m pretty sure my habit of not talking during meetings when I didn’t have anything to actually add to the meeting is what held me back in my manager’s reviews of my performance. Start staying silent when you think you should be speaking up and it becomes easier to justify it in the future. Not necessarily because of the “slippery” slope idea, but because you’ve already done the work of justifying it once. It takes less work after that. Sometimes, in order to combat part of it, you need to create a whole new blog based around the idea of speaking up and, when that obviously didn’t help the way you wanted, commit to updating it every day for a year.

That’s an extreme example, sure, but it’s one I have personal experience with. Even then, it hasn’t helped as much as I wanted it to. I’m still silent most of the time. I hold back and think and then the moment has passed and I feel like saying anything is only going to even more of a disruption than what I wanted to say might have been. Except in writing. On my blog I am honest, I hold very little back (because I don’t want EVERYTHING on the internet for anyone to find), and I feel like I can express myself easily. Half the time, I consider writing a post about how I feel and then sending a link to the relevant parties so they can finally get to hear what I think about something. At the same time, since very few of the people I’m closest to actually read this blog, it’s a pretty safe place to write something without needing to worry about upsetting someone who only has half the picture.

That being said, I’m willing to bet that everyone I’m close to is going to wind up reading this post and having something to say about that. Typical.

Silence can be good. Silence can be wonderful! But it can also be dangerous and you can drown in it. Finding the balance between speaking up at the right times and staying silent when it is a choice is one of the things I need to work on. Even though the list is getting huge, I think I can manage it. I’ve got everything written down in a little notebook using a system I created just for this purpose. Hopefully, I can keep track of everything this way and, between my own efforts and my occasional therapy sessions, work my way through it.

That’d be a nice accomplishment for this decade. I’d like to say “2018,” but setting goals is all about making sure they’re reasonable. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need more than another six months to work through all of this.

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