A talented writer friend of mine keeps telling me, “For the love of god, please stop keeping your voice to yourself.” My immediate impulse is to wonder what it is she likes about it, and what the hell I’m supposed to write about that matters. I suppose inherent in that question is the underlying belief that I am somehow alone in this experience of humanness, and that my experience can’t possibly be of value to anyone else. Empowering your writing voice isn’t just about writing — it’s about how you view yourself and the value of your thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.
While that’s part of it, I’ve had to come to the realization that I am terrified of being seen – having my writing be seen, having my words and thoughts and beliefs seen by other people, open to their interpretation, their misinterpretation, their layering and their unconscious ideas about who I am as a writer, a woman, a mom, a person. It’s enough to stop me dead in my tracks. I get scared and have a hard time deciding what to write, what to say, what standpoint to take.
The result is that I feel I haven’t used my voice at all in the last year – as a ghostwriter, I’ve used other people’s voices as my mouthpiece, slipping in little pieces of myself where it was possible. It reminded me of the lyrics of the musician ANIMA! and her song Blood:
So I try to put a little piece of myself in
Keep the pretty people listening
Keep in mind all the negatives and positives
Charges floatin’ round the audience
I’m biting my tongue
But the words don’t come
It’s in the air it’s in the atmosphere
I can hear but I can’t tell what it’s telling me
Too many sides to a story, all these colors and shapes
I’m afraid if I love it they won’t agree
There were no stances taken by me, no sir. Nothing to offend anyone. I am so afraid of being “wrong” or argued with, afraid of not being liked, that I keep myself to myself.
The ironic part is that it’s not as if I have a shortage of viewpoints to share – I have opinions all the damn time! Opinions about this, beliefs about that, thoughts about things that are none of my business, opinions about good writing and bad. The more I keep things to myself, the angrier I get, particularly when what I want to speak out about is the incredibly disgusting injustices in the world – children being taken from parents, for one. The angrier I get, the more difficult it is to express myself, and the cycle rolls on.
This happens often for my clients, too. I’m working with one author now who has decades of experience and an almost overwhelming amount of content and ideas. He has a unique voice and perspective, but every time the narrative of his chapters shifts to “I” or “my,” he gets uncomfortable. The focus can’t be on him, he thinks. It feels like it’s somehow selfish or self-centered to express the incredibly valuable experiences he has had over his career. If he continued on this path, his readers would miss out on knowing how he navigated his successes and helped other people do the same.
Overcoming fear and shame in speaking up and empowering your voice isn’t easy. Here is what I’m going to do to flex my expressive muscle, and I invite you to do the same.
- Take one uncomfortable stance a day. This might happen at home with a loved one or out in public with a stranger. The other day I saw a woman in a bakery do something that I felt was negatively impacting the people around her. Instead of standing there stewing about it, I addressed it with her. While I can’t say it went well, it was liberating to speak my mind and to do so in a respectful way, knowing that I was trying my best to alleviate an uncomfortable situation.
- Practice writing out your strong opinions. It’s easy to scroll through Facebook and find yourself forming opinions over the news others share, or the stances they take. Instead of just thinking about it and sitting with a feeling of discontent, I’ve started to write out what it was that triggered me about it. Often it’s the result of an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with that person. When it isn’t emotionally weighted, I can come to a reasoned conclusion which I can back up and express in a way that feels good. Whether I go back and share it is another point — it’s the exercise of working through the emotion and the thoughts behind it.
- Practice expressing the emotion, even if your words are not well-formed. Sometimes there is nothing else to do but say what is really there for us, even if we feel incredibly hesitant to share it out of fear of being rejected.
Speaking further on that last point, I recently attended a cacao and sound healing ceremony here in Boulder, Colorado. As we sat in integration afterwards, I kept having an impulse to share what had happened for me during the ceremony. My rational mind, however, was trying to keep my mouth clamped shut.
“This is too personal, why am I sharing this? This isn’t going to be of value to anyone,” I kept thinking. I was also emotional and I knew the words would be clouded by the feelings and the achy sensation in my throat. Not being one for displaying vulnerability in public, I was afraid I was going to lose it right there and break down crying if I tried to speak.
The facilitator was about to close the session when he said, “I feel that someone else here wants to share. I’m going to wait for them to speak before I close the session.” The whole group sat waiting in silence.
By now it was physically uncomfortable not to share the words that wanted to come out of my mouth — they literally felt like they were waiting behind my lips — so I finally let them out and shared what I had to say. After the ceremony was finished, at least six people out of the 50 there approached me and thanked me for saying what I did. Many more simply looked at me across the room. The words didn’t even belong to me anymore, and I knew that what I had said was not for me but for them.
There is a cost to using your voice. As ANIMA! sings, “Art is work, work is love, it hurts to give yourself to it.” It takes guts to stand up and say your truth, and it might hurt when someone else doesn’t love you for it. However, the cost of refusing to empower your voice in your writing is greater. It might feel safer and less like a burden to keep everything to yourself, but you lose your power bit by bit as you do this. You lose the muscle of expressing yourself and the chance to practice sharing a viewpoint that is unique and possibly contentious. Most of all, you lose the chance to help people around you who can benefit from your experience, your beliefs, your support, and your help.