Women are trained to take care of other people’s feelings; through our conditioning, we learn early that it’s our job to make other people happy, to take care of other people’s experiences. And that it’s our fault and we should feel guilty if we don’t.
Sharing a truth we think will be displeasing, inconvenient, or disappointing brings anxiety, guilt, and even fear. If it’s not absolutely necessary, we often don’t share it at all. But sometimes, we have to say something someone doesn’t want to hear.
To manage this conflict, we develop all sorts of strategies, the most common of which is to apologize for who we are and how we feel. We apologize in a thousand different ways… for having an experience that’s not OK for someone else. While apologizing, we often throw ourselves under the bus and criticize ourselves as a gift to the disappointed listener. We blame ourselves and feel guilty—for not being able to offer a more likable truth and likable us.
So, too, we justify our experience and explain, usually in multiple ways, why it makes sense for us to feel the way we do. We twist ourselves into all sorts of distorted shapes and perform high-level mental gymnastics to convince the other person that our truth is valid, understandable, and shouldn’t make us unlikable. And therefore, why they should give us permission to own it.
If apologizing and justifying don’t assure/save our likability, we move on to other strategies, attempting to explain why our truth should be OK for the other person. Not just why we’re justified in feeling the way we do, but why wanting what we want is actually a good thing and will work for the other—not just us (which would be unacceptable).
If plans A, B, and C don’t succeed at making everyone OK, we start rolling back our truth. We agree to a more likable version of what we need, or we abandon our truth altogether and agree to whatever is better for the other person to keep the peace and retain our likability.
In learning to communicate more authentically, many women struggle with the actual language to use.
Women ask me all the time: “What do I actually say when they ask me why I can’t or don’t want to do it?” “How do I explain my truth when it’s not OK with someone else?” “What do I say that’s not nasty but also doesn’t apologize for or cancel what I want?” It’s strange, but we don’t learn the language of sharing and standing in our truth.
To start with, something women are never taught is this: “No” is a complete sentence. Even though we think “No” needs to be followed up with a thousand other words, justifications, apologies, and sweeteners, it doesn’t. It’s a stand-alone word.
While an unadorned “No” may be the most direct, sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to only say that. And so you can also say things like: “That doesn’t work for me,” “I actually don’t want that,” and “I’m not comfortable with that.” These are just some examples of words we can use when sharing displeasing truths. Adding in “right now” can also soften the blow of delivering a difficult truth, as in “That’s not going to work for me right now.” Play with it; the skill is to keep your words short and simple, say less, not more, and stick to what’s true for you.
At the end of the day, the way to stop taking responsibility for other people’s responses to your truth is to practice not taking responsibility. Even if you still feel to blame, guilty, and desperately uncomfortable on the inside, the idea is to keep your mouth shut and refrain from reacting to that guilt. As you stand there with your mouth shut, not rushing to apologize or make it more comfortable, it can be helpful to repeat a mantra inside your head as a way to distract your mind from instinctively apologizing or justifying and also support yourself in this change process. “I’m not responsible for their feelings,” “It’s not my fault,” “They can figure it out,” “It’s not my job,” and “Say nothing” are mantras that may prove helpful. Use whatever keeps your mind occupied so you don’t react in the old habitual ways. This is a skill that gets easier with time and practice.
The notion that you are responsible for everyone else’s feelings is also a shared belief in our culture. That said, there’s a good chance you will be actively blamed for your unwanted truth and accused of causing the other’s upset. When someone tries to engage you in this way and insists that you’re responsible for their feelings, you can actively choose not to bite the hook, not to engage in this codependent system. You can stay quiet and silently repeat your mantra inside your head as many times as you need, which may be hundreds of times. You can also repeat your initial words out loud, “That doesn’t work for me,” “I’m not comfortable with that,” or just simply “No”—but without the apology that instinctively follows it.
The reality, however, is that we do care about other people’s feelings and don’t want others to be upset. We’re not unrelated, and it often doesn’t feel right not to address another’s experience, particularly when it’s in response to our words. Not all of this is about our conditioning; we are still human beings who care about other people.
And yet, there are ways to empathize without abandoning yourself, rejecting or distorting your truth, and fixing their experience. If it’s true, you can say things like “I’m sorry that this is upsetting or disappointing for you” (which is different than apologizing for your truth). Or perhaps, “I wish this weren’t difficult for you to know,” or some other sentence that attends to their experience, but without taking responsibility for it, making yourself guilty, or trying to make them OK. The point is to be intentional and deliberate about your words—to not engage in the entangled and archaic system that holds you back and disconnects you from your authenticity and power.
Despite what you’ve been taught, you are not responsible for other people’s happiness.
When what you want is unwanted, you’re not to blame and don’t need to apologize. Learning to speak your truth and then to stop speaking—not to sweeten, adjust, or abandon your truth to make it “work”—is one of the greatest skills you can learn. Know this too: When you get the hang of staying silent after sharing an uncomfortable truth, of not fixing what’s unlikable, that gap of unfilled space can shift from feeling scary and awkward to feeling exciting and empowering. You are literally standing on new ground and, most importantly, standing in your own shoes and showing up as your authentic self!