“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to slaughter.”
—George Washington

I’ve always been a non-confrontational sort of gal. Even though they are often necessary, I don’t like difficult conversations (not that anyone does). I abhor messy and petty drama — you know the kind flooding cable networks in the form of (scripted) reality television shows —, as I found myself involved in some messy scenarios in high school which is how I know I have no taste or patience for it. I’ve even shied away from managerial positions when I was still working because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of telling other grown folks what to do. That’s how much I skirt away from confrontation if I can.

Before we proceed further, let’s address the word confront, because when we hear the phrase that someone is being “confrontational”, our minds automatically go to “trouble”. The word confront in and of itself has a negative connotation. I’d like to make clear up front that when I use the word “confrontational”, given my nature, I am not referring to the get in your face, raise my voice, roll my neck, and never back down style of confrontation. That’s not me. What I’m referring to in its most simplistic term is just having the guts to respectfully speak up and address an ill remark, poor behavior, and/or poor treatment of yourself or others.  According to dictionary.com, The word confront is defined as:

verb (used with object)

  1. to face in hostility or defiance; oppose.
  2. to present for acknowledgment, contradiction, etc.; set face to face.
  3. to stand or come in front of; stand or meet facing.
  4. to be in one’s way.
  5. to bring together for examination or comparison.

Did you take note of the very first definition of the word? Hostility. Defiance. As it refers to this author, this body of work and the context in which the words “confront” or “confrontational” are used, there is no hostile or defiant neck rolling involved. Shall we continue?

Recently, I was having a conversation with my business coach, Melitsa, and we were discussing my dislike for confrontation and how my voice has been silenced because I tiptoe away from it and she asked me what the deeper meaning of that is. That one stumped me. I never considered there was something below the surface that could be the real reason for my non-confrontational posture. I just thought it was part of my innate personality, you know, the stuff I’m made of, but she challenged me to take a closer look and I’m glad she did.

She reminded me that as children, especially for our generation, spankings were quite normal and acceptable (I am not sharing my views on spanking in this post nor am I willing to discuss it. Moving on.) and often in the moment of being popped or spanked, we were simultaneously told, “And you better not cry!” or, “Keep crying and I’ll really give you something to cry about!” You mean I’m feeling something, physically, emotionally and mentally in this moment because YOU, adult, physically hurt me and instead of being able to express it through the natural reflex of crying, I have to repress those feelings in fear of further physical punishment? How dysfunctional is that??

That truth really stuck with me, and after our call I continued to ponder some of the other ways I, and so many others, were silenced as children. Standards that “Children should be seen and not heard” and non-adults should “Speak only when spoken to” screams volumes to the place a child’s voice has in juxtaposition to that of an adult. I am not suggesting or advocating that children be rude, disrespectful and belligerent in their basic human need for voicing what they feel, but I do believe that for many children—not all—the message given in childhood is: When you confront how you’re feeling with an adult about something, even if done respectfully, if it contradicts with what I as the adult feels and/or believes, there will be negative consequences.

Many children grow into adults who, despite being stifled in their youth, still manage to find and use their voices as an act of self-love, or, to make a positive impact in the world, while some adults continue to allow their voices to be muted and avoid speaking up, speaking out and respectfully addressing issues even at the cost of their own peace and well-being. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter group.

The more I pondered the snowball Melitsa had started rolling in my mind, I saw all the ways I’ve avoided confrontation and standing up for myself as both a child and an adult. In elementary school there was a girl in my class who sometimes didn’t like me. I say sometimes because some days, we were friends (I use that term loosely), but on other days, out of the blue, she’d announce to me at lunch or during recess, “I’ma kick your ass after school!” My heart would sink because me, being my non-confrontational self, couldn’t figure out what I could have possibly done to upset her. I was kind and careful, so annoying a peer to the point of wanting to beat me up always bewildered me.

Did I get a better grade than her on a test? Did I unknowingly check out the book she wanted on our weekly trip to the school library? Was her hand raised and the teacher called on me instead? Was my hair styled in a way that she wanted but no one would do it for her? Was it because I was lighter than her?(She did occasionally make the negative light “skinneded” ((purposely misspelled)) comments to me and unfortunately this is a real and unfortunate problem in the black community). I never knew, but I knew exactly what I was going to do after school, and it wasn’t going to be meeting her head on to hash out whatever issue she had with me. Instead, I took the coward’s way out.

As soon as that school bell rang I kept myself stuck as close to a nun or lay teacher as possible. I’d slip into the school office momentarily because what I wasn’t going to do was leave myself a sitting duck while I waited for my grandmother to pick me up. Once I knew which nun was directing the car rider traffic, I promptly followed her out of the office and to the back steps of the school that led out to the large playground that also doubled as a parking lot and the car rider loop. I didn’t leave her side until my grandmother arrived and it was safe for me to walk over to the car. I was spared an ass whooping for another day.

What’s funny, I think of all the times she threatened me for reasons still unknown, only once or twice did I actually see her lurking around a corner scowling at me and punching and grinding a fist into her opposite palm. The next day, the threats to pulverize me had vanished. Poof. It was as if less than 24 hours ago the events from the day prior had never happened. This was a regular occurrence until my on again off again “friend”/tormentor left the school.

As a teen and adult, my disposition for avoiding ruffling feathers and excusing myself from conflict continued. Be it not standing up for myself amidst silly teenage he-said-she-said love triangle drama; not having the guts to end a friendship with someone who participated in harassing crank calls with a group of people I didn’t even know who kept threatening me and I knew she was involved because I recognized her voice on the other end; not backing down from a former boss who joined the company while I was on maternity leave and when I returned decided quickly (probably before I returned honestly because what he really wanted was his own hand-picked team) that he didn’t like me and had no problem expressing his desire for me to leave by not giving me a much earned raise or bonus for my annual review; or stewing for days over a tart comment made by my husband and often never saying a word about how or why it bothered me.

I’ve been talked over and cut off in conversations, told that I don’t “get it” in relation to the context of discussions as if my level of comprehension of the subject matter is non-existent and therefore my input irrelevant; ignored when speaking to others as if I’m mute and invisible; not acknowledged when I’ve reached out to talk through awkward situations, and even in the middle of difficult conversations where there has been dialogue back and forth, at one point after another person has said what they want to say and doesn’t want to hear anymore of what I have to say, they abruptly end it by saying “I’m done talking about it” and leave the space, stifling me once again. Growing up my mother was notorious for a variation of that last scenario. We’d be having a difficult mother-daughter conversation and she’d say all she had to say and the moment I’d try to respond I was told to be quiet because she didn’t want to hear it. Usually a threat was offered if I kept talking. In adult-to-adult dynamics I’ve not directly been told to be quiet, but the message is exactly the same: Shut up. What you have to say doesn’t matter.

And I admit, I’ve done some or all of these things to some degree to my own children. It is true that we tend to parent the way we were parented. Ouch. The only way to move beyond that is to choose to take a different approach.

To be fair, as a new mother I did embark upon the idea of doing something new and different with my children. I decided I would allow them to speak their minds, so long as they understood there is always a proper time and place for it. I truly wanted to give them something I didn’t have as a child. I’ve been told that was a mistake. But was it?

While I may not always appreciate the fact that they choose to voice their feelings or protest to something they don’t agree with (I admit that I am still recovering from my controlling parental upbringing and my own control issues as a parent. Real. Talk.), my children can ask for clarification on a subject matter and articulate their feelings and opinions, within respectful reason of course, without fear of punishment for doing so. As stated earlier, I admittedly have occasionally fallen victim to laying down the same faulty communication manifesto for children that was laid down to my generation, but I also have changed the rules by hearing my children out without punishment and taking responsibility as a parent and admitting when I’ve made a mistake and apologizing for it. If it’s mine to own, I own it and do not leave them feeling like everything is their fault, or feeling like their voice doesn’t matter. In my mind it’s basic communication 101.

Still, here I am, realizing that I somehow missed the day, week, month, semester or year Communication 101 was taught and I’ve allowed my feelings, my input and my truth to be ssshhed, muted, drowned out and often non-existent. I’ve been silent for too long. It is time that I speak up and speak out. And with that undeniable truth comes fear. Fear of retaliation. Fear of offending or hurting someone else’s feelings. Fear of being ignored. Fear of being abandoned. Yet, my intentions are not to hurt someone else to cause them to want to retaliate, ignore or abandon me. My intention is to stop hurting myself. My voice matters, even if others don’t agree with what I have to say. Even if I don’t agree with what others have to say, my voice still matters. If someone has been unkind to me or said something out of turn, I have a choice to respond or not, and if I choose to respond, it is within my right to do so. I used to tell myself that saying nothing at all was taking the high road, but truthfully, if something needs to be said and I don’t say it, it’s the coward’s way out. There is such a thing as responding from the high road with dignity and grace, but I’ve been too afraid to travel that path. I cannot be afraid anymore. My feelings and my perspective matter. They always have and they always will. And so does yours.

If you’re anything like me, shut down and silenced as a child and still as an adult, I wish I could tell you there’s a magic formula or some powder you can add to your morning smoothie that will slide you from non-confrontational to the person people call to help them with tough conversations slick as butter, but nothing like that exists. What I can tell you is that it all starts with something as simple as a decision. You have to come to a point where you decide that you and your voice matter enough to be heard. Until you make that firm decision within yourself, any attempts you make to speak up and speak out will be futile. A faint whisper at best.

However, once you do take that loving stand for yourself, the transition happens moment by moment, person by person, situation by situation. This isn’t a microwave instant gratification type of transition. This is slow cooker, patience is paramount change. Your speaking up muscles are weak and the only way to strengthen them is to use them, responsibly, when the opportunity arises. And trust me, you’ll know when the opportunity is upon you.

It’s the moment when your spouse makes an important decision without consulting with you and you decide to either address the absence of communication that was displayed, or you choose to sweep the whole thing under the rug but brood and complain to others about it for weeks. Or it’s when a friend during casual conversation with you feels comfortable enough to say something out of turn about a family member. At first, you let the infraction go, but as you ponder it more you either choose to continue to say nothing, or you reach out, heart beating out of your chest, and say, “I need to talk to you about something. When is a good time for you?” Speaking up and speaking out is about stepping out of your comfort zone and doing the opposite of what you’ve always done. It really is that basic. I won’t say easy, because change often is not easy, but it really is that simplistic in nature.

At first it will feel awkward and painful; something akin to slowly removing a bandaid from a hairy arm, but eventually, the entire bandage is removed and after all those inch-by-inch moments of discomfort, there is instant relief once it’s off. Those moment by moment, person by person, situation by situation opportunities to flex and strengthen that mental muscle of choosing to say yes to your voice will eventually lead you to the relief and comfort you’ve been yearning for. It will lead you to what you’ve inherently had a right to all along: speaking your truth.

I have been strengthening that muscle but I admit, I am still slowly removing the bandage. I don’t know how long it will take for me to get the whole thing off, but I suspect it will take some time given I am literally undoing a lifetime of negative programming and behavior. But you know what? I’m willing to see this through. I’m willing to continue practicing conversations in my car or hushed in the bathroom or my closet so I can feel comfortable with what I’m going to say before I have to really say it. I’m willing, even after all that practice, to trip over my words while my heart is racing and do it anyway. I’m even willing to be prepared for the other person to not respond favorably and be okay with it. I’m willing to go through this slow painful process because I do not need permission from another to speak my truth and most importantly, I am enough, and I am worthy to have my voice included in the world’s melody, regardless to how off pitch it may be.

And so are you.

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