Speaking Our Minds / by Michelle Cowan

How do we balance the expression of our authentic selves with the desire to be kind to other people? Honesty must be tempered with thoughtfulness if we are to live truly satisfying lives. Sure, I would love to run around saying anything and everything on my mind, but I also value the people around me, especially my friends.

If we err too much in one direction, we say nothing at all or fall into people pleasing. We may say things we don’t mean because we think we know what the other person wants to hear. If we can’t determine what the “appropriate” response should be, then we say nothing at all. I’d say that most people who are out of balance fall into this category. Human beings are built for community and often seek to preserve it even at personal cost.

This can be good. Sometimes, it serves no benefit to irk another person just because we have a differing opinion or we notice something that might irritate that person. But many times, valuable points of view are suppressed out of politeness or fear of rocking the boat or embarrassment. We all have to learn, at some point in our lives, that our individual voices matter. We must step out and say what we are thinking. We must risk hurting another to be honest.

We have to do these things or our personal feelings will stay bottled up inside until there is no room for any more repression. That’s when negative physical and mental conditions surface. It may take psychotherapy or another transformative experience (usually a combination) to move us into a healthier means of expression, where we assert our voices without deliberating too much on the repercussions of others. We can only sweep our side of the road. We cannot control the thoughts or feelings of others. It’s time to speak for ourselves.

However, oftentimes, after that transformative moment when we start learning new ways of expressing ourselves, the formerly repressed person can err too much in the other direction, where we can thoughtlessly speak our minds and ignore the consequences. Of course, there are people who naturally start out at this other end of spectrum, too.

At this end, we say what we feel in the midst of whatever company might be around. We believe in the value of our speech. Healthy self esteem can be at play here, but there is a point at which we can alienate or unintentionally hurt someone else. We may also spend too much time talking without reserving space to hear other perspectives.

Because the power that lies within each human being is a fascinating and exhilarating thing, especially when discovered inside oneself, people can become someone addicted to the rush of adding personal opinions to every conversation. If emerging from a repressed state, self-expression can require such a concerted effort and feel so foreign that an individual may still doubt s/he is expressing her/himself enough, even if that person is really going overboard. Because of this doubt, some cross the line into offense.

To be able to speak one’s mind, the constant worry about other people’s feelings needs to be lessened—but not eliminated. Self-expression should not be restricted simply because we fear we might offend someone. We have no way of knowing what might offend other people. But I believe that there are situations in which we can make educated guesses. The key is slowing down.

I must admit that I am quite familiar with the route from tight-lipped people pleaser to quick tongued attention seeker. I enjoy expressing myself and value my own opinion, but I have to balance this with an appreciation of other people’s expressions and a respect for their points of view. I am likely to say something shocking for mere entertainment value without considering the wounds it could cause in certain members of my audience.

I will never encourage someone to stifle their thoughts and not speak up when they feel like it. But I do advocate slowing down before responding and asking one to three questions before opening one’s mouth:
1. Will what I’m saying probably hurt someone?
2. Will I probably be hurt more by not saying this?
3. Is there a way to say this that will lessen the hurt for both me and the person (or people) this could hurt?

Notice that number one does not read, “Could what I’m saying hurt someone?” Anything could hurt anyone at anytime without us knowing it. People who tend toward quietness often overthink the likelihood that they will hurt someone else, almost always concluding that their words could hurt. Yes, they could. But the first question above asks if it would probably hurt—and that does not mean offend, but truly hurt. We can all distinguish this in most cases. Most of the time, what we say probably won’t hurt, and we can speak freely. On the other hand, we’ve all been in situations where we know that something we want to say requires a second look. That’s when we move to question two.

There are times when I will hurt more by not speaking up than the other person will hurt if I speak. If someone else needs to hear what I have to say, even if it hurts them at first, I can speak. I do not have to live knowing that I kept silent when I could have brought something important to light. Think of all the people who have written articles or made speeches that they knew would offend others (such as many vocal speakers in civil rights movements). Yes, they offended some people. But the need to say the things on their minds outweighed the hurt that may have occurred.

We can also reduce this to smaller issues. Do I really need to tell so-and-so that her lipstick color is completely inappropriate for the occasion and does not flatter her skin tone? I may take great pride in knowing the best color combinations and being at the height of fashion. So-and-so may need to know this to avoid future embarrassment. Some people wouldn’t mind having an on-the-spot consultation. But we all know people who would be crushed to know that they don’t look as beautiful as they thought. Even in seemingly casual things, we need to take the other person into account. Just because we might not care if someone told us something like that doesn’t mean that our more sensitive friends might not be crushed in that moment. We have to take into account the situation (party or private dinner, crowd or one-on-one) and the person (Do they need this information for the future, and can I even determine if they do?).

If it seems like the person would be significantly hurt by what I have to say, but I still feel a drive to say it, I can move to question three. Can I rephrase my thoughts? I don’t have to spout of the first line that comes to my head. I can mitigate the hurt. I can even see where my statement might be taken incorrectly and figure out a way to say it that will make my true meaning more apparent.

Personally, my first inclination is often to say the most shocking, bluntest thing. Being frank often garners the most attention, and that’s what I want if I feel that what I have to say is important.

However, there are times to smooth the edges. If I am honest with myself, I can often see that the bluntest way of saying something could be misread a million different ways. If I can simply be clearer, I can avoid hurting those I care about…and even those I don’t.

As my mom likes to say, “There’s a fine line between being honest and being a bitch.”

Anyway, not everyone needs this advice. Many people are completely capable of balancing their own need for expression with the needs of others. For some of us, though, we need some coaching before we can naturally feel out situations. I know that with email especially, sentences can be combed over a dozen times and the virtue of hitting the send button can be contemplated ad nauseam. Sometimes, words can be sent as-is, without another thought. Other times, those words may need some reworking. And in many instances, the send button can be avoided altogether.

Good luck in your eternal pursuit of balance. I’m working on mine for sure!