How To Reclaim Your Voice When You Feel Silenced

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Woman finding her voice and power to speak out

Are you scared to speak for yourself? Right now, people all over the world are speaking out and protesting — in fact, they have been for generations. After all, social movements and the changes we often take for granted today came from protests of various types.

Using your voice isn't just for public protests or raising political issues. In your own life and relationships, finding confidence in your own voice is of massive value. 

Maybe you wish you could be like those people who stand up for what they believe in, or even just one of those people who says "no" easily and sets healthy boundaries, but you can’t say what’s on your mind. Ever.

The question is: What or who has silenced you? This isn’t an uncommon problem. It’s painful, and it can come up in many different situations.

You have ideas to share in a meeting or class, but hold back your words. Someone else says it first. You try to say how you feel, but you’re told, "You’re too sensitive," or some other criticism.

You have an opinion but can’t voice it because you’re afraid to be wrong. The fear of being wrong or "sounding stupid" is at the heart of the problem. You’re convinced you’ll be put down, yelled at, humiliated, and made to feel very sorry for saying anything. If you try, a voice in your head often berates you.

"You should’ve stayed quiet. You know better, don’t you? What were you thinking?" Yet, you want to feel safe expressing yourself. It’s terrible to feel you aren’t — and can’t.

Everyone has the right to a voice. Everyone needs to be heard.

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Here are five simple steps for finding your voice — your own way

1. Ask, "What silenced you?"

Most often, you were silenced in childhood. Sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes in more subtle ones. Maybe you were abused, criticized, or threatened.

Or, maybe you never felt you were important. Your feelings didn’t seem to matter and were written off with a "rational" explanation. You may not have been taken seriously and never felt listened to.

This makes you scared to speak out. These early experiences lead you to believe you must silence yourself, which can be traumatic, whether it’s by those early forces from childhood or forces from within.

When you silence yourself and think no one will want to hear, you keep everything locked inside, including all your feelings.

You have no voice for anger, sadness, or the things that hurt. And that can create anxiety or physical symptoms.

For a very long time, your feelings had nowhere to go. Sometimes, you feel like a pressure cooker. You can’t protest against things that hurt you now, so you just take it.

The most potent weapon against those silencing forces is being able to speak out — or yell. Yet, you can’t.

Now that you recognize the cause, what can you do?

2. Find people who listen.

Do you have a sensitive friend? Someone you trust in many ways? Could your friend tell you about something you relate to? If so, try to take a risk and open up.

Test the waters and share a little information to see how it goes. If it feels safe enough, see if you can share more.

If you can’t, psychotherapy is one place to start. Listening is a therapist’s job. Some therapists are better at listening than others. Find one who understands your struggles, makes you feel heard, encourages you, and allows all of your feelings.

Find a therapist who gives a voice to what silenced you — even before you can say it yourself — who hears the voice imprisoned inside you, the you that lives in shame.

When you have their ear, it gives you the courage so you are not scared to speak. This will help you find a safe place for your feelings.

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3. Know that your feelings aren't "too much."

Have you lived with worry or belief that your feelings are "too much"? It might feel that way because of the people in your childhood or life.

Some people fight off their feelings — even if it doesn’t look that way.

Feelings are feelings. They aren’t right or wrong. Feelings just are. There are people with emotional capacity, empathy, and interest in what you feel. Maybe you haven’t found them, or you don’t trust anyone, so you don’t test it out.

Maybe you even feel that your feelings are too much for you. Is it better to ignore them or keep them where they are? It can feel this way if you’ve suppressed your feelings for a long time — being too scared to speak out.

What’s important is to have a place — a friend or a therapist — where your feelings are wanted and held. Then, you aren’t all alone with them as you open up.

That means all of your feelings, including anger. Your anger needs to feel safe.

4. Accept it’s OK to be angry.

Sometimes, you need to be angry. Otherwise, your anger will turn into self-criticism and self-hate. Anger is not wrong. You have good reason to be angry.

Your anger can help you speak up against those shaming voices in your mind. You don’t deserve those voices any more than you deserved what happened to silence you to make you scared to speak out.

Think of protests that have happened around the world, as well as in your city or neighborhood. Anger fueled them. Anger at abuse and mistreatment. They needed a voice for it to say, "Enough!"

You can do it, too. Say, "Enough!" to thinking your anger could be damaging, to believing your ideas are wrong, and to be quiet and "good."

It’s time to yell.

As psychoanalyst Paul Williams says about his extremely traumatic childhood in his book The Sixth Principle, "Anger will keep me alive."

Yes. Anger can set you free.

RELATED: 4 Ways Childhood Trauma Haunts You As An Adult (& How To Move On)

5. Embrace the value of your unique voice

For example, the #MeToo Movement, and movements like them through history, are about much more than sexual violation. It’s really about finding your voice, using it, and not being afraid to speak out against all the forces that try to shut you up.

Each of you has a different history. Your hurts and needs take on various forms. But each of us has a scared little child self hidden inside who deserves to be heard.

One who’s been frightened to raise their head or hand, expose their anger, and be visible. Not in the shaming way you believe is your fate but in the glory of all you truly are.

You don’t have to live in the trauma of silence any longer. Find a trusted friend or psychotherapist to help you stand up to the shaming voices that shut you down.

You can take back your voice. Whether it's political, personal, or both, feeling your rage and being angry is the path forward. It may be the only way to release your voice from its prison of silence.

Now is the time.

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Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who specializes in working with survivors of sexual abuse and childhood trauma.

This article was originally published at Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D's Moving Forward Blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.