In my practice, one of my specialties is working with people who struggle with various types of anxiety. One of the themes I see almost across the board with anxiety is the comfort zone with silencing one’s own voice — whether it’s out of fear of rejection, judgment, or otherwise. This has a far-reaching impact on how people experience who they are as a person, having needs met in relationships, as well as emotional states in relationships and friendships with others.
It can be easy for a person with anxiety to become accustomed to having their voices in the background in relationships (I’m referring to all types of relationships, not only romantic). When this happens, it often has the impact of compromising their needs in the relationship, which almost always leads to an increase in anger and feelings of resentment. But silencing one’s voice is something that’s not easy to avoid if you were growing up in situations that have caused your voice to shrink back and hide.
What’s in a voice anyway?
For starters, our internal and external voices are ways of understanding and communicating who we are to ourselves and to others. When our voice is stifled if can be difficult to have a full sense of who we are and what we are about. Silencing our voices can unintentionally involve shutting pieces of ourselves down from emerging. It keeps parts of ourselves clear from exposure to judgment and rejection from others, but at the same time keeps these parts of ourselves removed from our own view as well.
Also, as mentioned above, our voices contain our needs. How we communicate in relationships with others about what’s essential to our satisfaction and what helps fulfill us as human beings is all in our voice. If our voice is shut down, it’s likely that our needs are marginalized in the relationship, and maybe even out of our own awareness as well. This can lead to a great sense of frustration and irritation over time
But why does this happen in the first place? Why is it so hard To put My voice forward?
Obviously, these dynamics are complicated and vary from person to person. However, what is generally the case is that over time, for one reason or another, people who struggle in this area have learned to see their voice as a source of pain and rejection. Some examples:
One or both parents silencing or disregarding your voice (or needs) during upbringing (learning there is no room for you)
Peers in school or elsewhere putting down (shaming) or dismissing you
Being led to feel you’re “stupid” or in some other way coming up short when allowing your opinions, thoughts, ideas, or other expressions of yourself to be known
Being led to feel you’re “too much” for others if you fully express yourself, whether from being reprimanded by authority when growing up, or by rejection from others
These are just a few examples. But the common thread between each is generally a feeling of shame and disconnection from others that has become deeply associated with your voice — who you are and your needs.
Now, in the present, the feeling of vulnerability and fear of rejection that comes along with trying to bring out your voice after so many years of experiencing a feeling of shame is almost automatic. It can make it incredibly hard to allow yourself to trust your voice and, as a result, end up dynamically shutting down in various relationships. Your voice can end up in the background much of the time, leaving you bottling frustration until the resentment builds to the point it can’t build any further. This generally leads to a strong feeling of dissatisfaction, or even an overall rupture in the relationship.
When there is a general anxiety about being judged or rejected, it becomes incredibly easy to silence your opinions, not share the full extent of a thought, or otherwise cut your voice short, even internally. It can be very easy to lose sense of who you are, as the stronger your internal voice becomes, the more difficult it is to keep it removed from the vulnerability of judgment. So keeping your internal voice away from awareness starts to feel safer.
In the long run, the more we cut off and dissociate from parts of ourselves, the more susceptible we can become to anxiety, depression, difficulty with intimacy and relationships, even things such as chronic pain (migraines and IBS for example), and others.
How do I learn to allow my voice to come forward?
It would be really nice if there was a quick solution to this issue. However, for most people who struggle in this area, it’s often from a lifetime of learning consciously and unconsciously to dissociate their voices. Therefore, undoing this does take a bit more than a few behavioral suggestions.
Psychotherapy is what I’ve seen work best with learning to develop one’s internal and external voices. Part of learning to bring out one’s voice is learning how to be okay with your own vulnerability, as well as learning to accept to some degree that there will always be some risk of rejection when bringing your voice forward, and how to cope with not always having your voice received as well as hoped. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that people will always embrace who we are, and waiting for that guarantee will render you forever silent.
It is also necessary to work through the associated pain and other emotions related to being silenced in various ways throughout your life. It is important to be able to shed the grip of the pain that has been carried from the past into the present.
While this may sound daunting, it’s very possible to overcome this issue. I’ve seen many people develop their voices and have a strong sense of themselves internally and externally through an effective psychotherapy process. The first step is just starting to become aware of and talk about the struggle.