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Blog Short #83: Are you afraid to say what you think or how you feel?

Photo by Tharakorn, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Let me start by adding a qualifier to that question:

Are you afraid to say what you think or how you feel when speaking face to face with someone?

Social media or texting doesn’t count. It’s much easier to say anything when you don’t have to face the person on the receiving end. But when you can see, feel, and directly hear someone’s reaction, it’s a whole different story.

If you have no problem with communicating your thoughts and feelings, keep reading anyway because I’m going to talk some about how to do it in a way that’ll increase your chances of being heard.

But first, let’s start with the obstacles that get in the way of speaking your mind truthfully. If you know what’s holding you back, it’s easier to clear the way to move beyond it.

What Gets in the Way

Fear of Anger or Conflict

You may be afraid of someone’s reactions to your true thoughts or feelings because the person in question has shown an inability to hear something they dislike without becoming volatile or defensive. If that’s the case, the problem is related to just this person.

But if you find yourself worrying that anyone could get angry when you express your feelings candidly, then you likely have a parent who gave you messages to suppress your emotions and reacted negatively or angrily when you did.

Fear of Exposure

You feel too vulnerable when you let someone into your inner world. You might not trust anyone to know you because someone could use this knowledge against you at another time. Maybe you were shamed growing up when you exposed yourself. Or you were hurt by someone you thought you could trust, yet they betrayed you. So you’ve closed down to avoid pain.

Fear of Criticism, Humiliation, or Dismissal

Have you ever said something and felt stupid? It’s that feeling of being in the spotlight and wishing you could evaporate. You feel even worse if the person you’re talking to openly criticizes you or dismisses you without a response. You feel humiliated and demeaned.

Again, this might be a function of the person you’re speaking to, but if you have a general fear of being criticized or scorned, you most likely experienced this growing up.

Chronic criticism and dismissal of your thoughts and feelings, even as a child, can be devastating over time and instill a fear of the same as an adult.

Fear of Not Being Heard or Understood

This fear is related to several possibilities.

  1. You might have difficulty articulating what you want to say. You get tongue-tied or overwhelmed when expressing yourself verbally, and you don’t come off the way you want to.
  2. Secondly, you might feel that the other person can’t relate to what you have to say or isn’t good at listening. Maybe they tend to take over conversations, offer advice before you’re ready, or interrupt too much.
  3. You become self-conscious and uncomfortable when the attention is on you and find it difficult to speak up without feeling intimidated.

What You Can Do

1. Learn to label your feelings succinctly and accurately.

Be specific, use the most accurate feeling words you can, and provide enough information so the listener won’t have to work to understand you. Say something like, “I’m feeling quite guilty about canceling plans with my friend this weekend to go kayaking,” instead of “I feel bad.” It makes a big difference to the listener. You might like reading Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown to help with this exercise.

The other half of this is becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings and allowing them to come up instead of suppressing them. If you know yourself well, it’s easier for others to know you.

2. Start by practicing with people you trust.

Practice talking freely and expressing yourself first with people whom you know are receptive, trustworthy, accepting, and interested.

Take your time honing your ability to articulate your feelings. Begin with casual subjects to get the hang of expressing what you have to say without much stress. As you get better at it, you can move on to more complex subjects that have emotional meaning for you.

A caveat: If you have a partner or someone close to you who loses their temper quickly or regularly shames you, consider talking to them about their behavior when you’re not in the middle of a conflict. If that seems too complicated or dangerous, seek counseling together if they’ll agree. If not, go yourself.

No one should be intimidated by a partner, family member, or friend.

3. Listen at least as much as you speak.

Make sure that you make room for the other person to respond or say whatever’s on their mind in any interchange. Listening is the other side of speaking and significantly impacts how well any conversation goes.

The great thing about asking questions and showing interest in the other person’s point of view is that they feel valued and are more likely to value what you have to say.

Good conversations are reciprocal. Listening with interest will draw people to you, and you’ll find it easier to relax. They’ll enjoy talking to you.

4. Work on desensitizing yourself from anxiety while speaking.

Getting over the fear of criticism, dismissal, or shaming is a process of desensitization. The more you put yourself in situations to have honest conversations where you reveal yourself, the less fear you feel and the more comfortable you become.

You should aim to be open, candid, and direct with people you feel are receptive to you and who you trust. You especially want to be able to speak about things that are important to you or that have an impact on your relationships. You do need to be choosy about who you tell what depending on your level of trust.

Remember that what you have to say is equally important as what anyone else has to say. Your thoughts and feelings are valuable, and you have the right to express them as long as you’re respectful.

Basic rules of conduct to follow:

  • Avoid personal attacks.
  • Use “I” messages.
  • Own your thoughts and feelings without blame or shame.
  • Listen as much as you talk.
  • Show empathy for the other person as well as yourself. Empathizing with someone’s feelings keeps you both on the same side.
  • Agree to disagree when there’s an issue. Respectfully listen to someone else’s ideas without personally denigrating them, yet don’t feel you need to agree.
  • Take your time and speak slowly if you find your thoughts moving too fast. It’s OK to say, “I’m having trouble articulating this. Let me try it a different way.” And then try again.

Last Thing

Try therapy if you have difficulty speaking up because of low self-worth or thinking you’re not good enough. That’s a great place to get used to verbalizing yourself freely and without judgment, while also getting better at recognizing and becoming aware of exactly what you think and feel.

A second way to improve verbal skills and get more comfortable speaking is to take on leadership roles. You can do this at work, engage in community projects, join an organization, or join a book club.

Above all, don’t let fear get in the way of expressing yourself. Verbal communication is the primary way we connect, so it’s worth working on!

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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