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Finding Your Voice

On the porch of my childhood home, a plaque hung on the exposed beams, just about where your eyes would naturally rest when you were gazing up in thought. The plaque contained a quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln: 'Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.'
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On the back porch of my childhood home, a small, wooden plaque hung on the exposed beams, just about where your eyes would naturally rest when you were gazing up in thought. The plaque contained a quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt. I read these words a lot, sometimes purposefully, as if to remind myself of their importance, and sometimes passively, as I would drift into daydream on summer days. The words were etched into the landscape of my psyche.

He had a point, Lincoln did, and I'm sure we all know people who should heed that advice from time to time. But the message for most of us -- and certainly to me -- was to hold back on speaking your mind. Be careful when you open your mouth. This phrase actually paired quite well with another edict from my youth: If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, then don't say anything at all.

But there's a problem with those messages. A problem that I didn't recognize until later in life, and that was that if you spend your life keeping your thoughts to yourself, holding back when you have something to say, then you miss an opportunity in life to influence outcomes -- to change an opinion, to clear up a misunderstanding, to give support, to challenge an assumption, to keep someone from making a mistake. Your voice begins to fade. You can even miss the opportunity for your words to change you.

I love words. I always have. I loved them so much as a kid that I would read the back of every aerosol can and lotion bottle sitting on the bathroom counter, every word of the TV Guide that arrived weekly without fail, every label printed on items from clothing tags to cereal boxes, and (my absolute favorite) every handwritten remembrance on the back of family photographs. Oh, I read books too, of course. The point is that I loved written words.

Spoken words were terrifying.

I was one of the quiet ones in class, all throughout my school years. Even through my training as a psychologist. But that slowly began to change the more therapy clients I saw. Because one of the most salient characteristics of the people who come to see me, regardless of whether their presenting problem is depression or anxiety or trauma or insomnia or failed relationships, is that people suffer from losing their voice. Losing their words. Losing the power to verbalize what they have been thinking, feeling, and experiencing.

In my job, that is what much of psychotherapy is all about: helping people put words to their anger, disappointments, shame, and jealousies and to guide them in creating a narrative about their lives that includes much more than just their names and occupations. One of the most poignant therapy sessions I have ever had was with a 60ish year old woman who was so worn down from life that she couldn't even tell me that I had been pronouncing her first name incorrectly. After 2 years of working together and learning to talk about her horrific past, she was leaving my office one day, paused at the door and said, "Oh, I should've said something before, but my name is actually Aleeza, not Aliza (long e, not long i)." A simple error to most people, but let's face it, your name is the most central identifying thing about you. I had it wrong for two years and after every session, she had just let it go, and didn't say a word. Not one word until that day.

It was a profound moment in her recovery.

When we don't speak up about how we feel or don't question what seems wrong, we allow the existing narrative in the world to not only prevail, but to be reinforced. And that just starts to feel awful. Have you ever let something go and wish you had spoken up? Did it eat at you? It's never too late to say the things that you want to say, even if you couldn't find the words in the moment. Circle back around and let people know what you were thinking about, even if it was after the fact. The more you do this, the easier it will become and you will find that you do it more spontaneously over time. And you know what? When you speak up, you don't drive people away. You don't make things worse. And you sure as hell don't look like a fool. So, let's rewrite Lincoln's quote, to suit those of us who need encouragement.

It is far better to speak up and remove doubt than to be misunderstood and unheard.

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