I write a lot about the importance of “speaking your truth,” building the courage to say what’s actually real for you, regardless of whether that truth is pleasing or disappointing to another person. In short, to communicate authentically and take the risk that it feels like such a move can require.
And, indeed, speaking your truth is a life-changing skill that can liberate you from the likability cage—the deep conditioning that taught you to take care of other people’s needs at the expense of your own, so as to be worthy, good, and safe. But speaking your truth, which sometimes gets collapsed into speaking up for yourself, can also become a big “should.” Sharing your experience, the whole of it, regardless of the circumstances or other person’s ability to hear or make use of it, can become something it feels like you have to do—to prove that you’re strong and not a doormat.
Dina is an executive, one of several in charge of communication protocol in her company. Recently, a communication strategy within the corporate structure was altered. Just as Dina was about to walk into an important presentation she’d spent months preparing, James (who is junior to her in the corporate hierarchy) showed up in Dina’s office in a rage, attacking and blaming her for the change, without checking to see why it had happened or who approved it.
In that moment in her office, blindsided and barraged by her colleague’s aggression, Dina calmly (externally if not internally), directly, and firmly explained that she had not initiated the protocol change, and that she, too, was learning of it for the first time. She suggested that James investigate who had actually initiated it, and also explained that she needed to attend to her imminent presentation. Essentially, their conversation was finished.
A week later, Dina told me that she knew she needed to “speak her truth” and “stand up for herself.” She should tell him how inappropriate and aggressive his behavior had been and, furthermore, that she was senior to him in the company and he could not speak to her like that and expect to keep his job. Dina felt that if she didn’t speak her truth, she was disrespecting herself, failing all women, and falling short of some modern empowered-woman ideal. She was choosing to be a victim, allowing other people to trample on her whenever they saw fit, and thereby serving the patriarchy. Clearly, there were powerful shoulds attached to telling James what she thought of his behavior.
At the same time, the very idea of being in communication with James on the issue made her feel nauseous. After years of periodically having to push back on him and explain how his behavior affected her and others, she felt like she knew how the story went. There was a futility in trying to use these situations as an opportunity for growth in the relationship or an attempt to repair his brokenness. The act of “sharing her truth,” in fact, became kindling for more of his fire; it cleared the space for a new cycle to begin. Until he started to wake up to his own behavior and how menacing and aggressive it was, any pushback would just leave him feeling and acting misunderstood or sliding into a depressed funk that would impact everyone on the team. The fact was, so many other interesting and happy things called to her more strongly than going down that rabbit hole with someone who had never shown signs of wanting to or being willing to change.
Speaking your truth no matter what, regardless of another person’s ability to hear it, isn’t the same thing as standing up for yourself. Self-care/respect doesn’t always require sharing exactly how you feel with someone who can’t make use of the information, and will only become defensive, disruptive, emotionally abusive, or difficult as a result of your voicing your experience. When the incident happened, Dina told James that his behavior was out of line and baseless and that he should find out who handled the protocol change and bring his complaints to that person—not her. She had addressed the situation at hand and kept the interaction professional, but stayed away from James’s behavior, thereby preventing him from pulling her into what she knew was his muck.
The problem is, we’re always looking for a path, a way of handling a tricky situation or tricky person, that has no downside and comes without any sacrifice. But there is no path, not here and not anywhere—not really. If we speak our truth in full, we will face certain consequences; if we don’t, we will also face consequences. They’re different consequences, but both choices (and indeed all choices) come with challenge and loss. If we’re discerning, however, about which losses we’re willing to endure, and which benefit best takes care of what we really want, then we can determine the next right step.
What Dina wanted more than anything else was peace, and the internal space to focus on the positive, joyful, and growing aspects of life. As much as she would have liked for James to understand that he shouldn’t and couldn’t talk to her disrespectfully and aggressively, she also recognized that such awareness wasn’t possible. In the reality that existed, with James as he actually was (not an imaginary, open-minded, emotionally healthy James), self-respect meant not wasting her energy on his emotional chaos, and not disrupting her own well-being and happiness for the sake of a relationship that wasn’t important to her. True self-care, in fact, was quite different than the packaged social-media sort that tells you being on your own side means speaking your truth no matter what or with whom.
Sometimes speaking your truth is valuable and self-affirming regardless of whether that truth can be truly heard or absorbed. Sometimes it’s empowering to speak up for yourself even if it involves disrupting your emotional peace. But what’s most important when it comes to self-care is discernment. What does it mean for you, in any particular situation, to take care of yourself? It may not be the obvious or popular choice. What do you really want in your life, which is not the same thing as what anyone else thinks you should want? And furthermore, what allows you to achieve that want? Know this: You’re allowed to save your truth for those who matter to you and whose understanding and empathy are worth the effort it takes to get there.