We often hear that it’s important to speak your truth — to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. But how often do we create rifts in our relationships following this dictate too rigidly?
We want to be true to ourselves and live with authenticity and integrity. We don’t want to be codependent and conceal our true feelings in order to protect or placate others. Intimacy cannot thrive in a climate of emotional dishonesty and inauthenticity.
However, the research behind Attachment Theory tells us that we need safety in our relationships as a foundation for love and connection. So the question is this: What would it take to be ourselves and speak our truth while also maintaining a climate of emotional safety in our important relationships?
We’re all prey to the grip of narcissism, and to the extent to which it snares us in any particular moment, we’re not inclined to consider how we’re affecting others. We may pride ourselves on, “I say it like it is” (or how we think it is) without regard to the potential fallout. Lacking empathy, there is little caring about how others feel.
Many people have worked hard to heal childhood wounds and overcome a history of being shamed and disrespected. Crippled by a tendency to think there’s something wrong with them, they tend to put others’ feelings ahead of their own. Struggling through decades of downplaying what they want in order to respond to what others want from them, they may feel relieved to declare, “I have a right to honor my own experience and express my true feelings and needs!”
Speaking our truth can be refreshingly empowering. It’s a relief to speak our mind without feeling overly responsible for others. But we cross into a danger zone when runaway self-expression becomes so dominant or intoxicating that we cut ourselves off from how we’re affecting others.
As we gain more facility in knowing and expressing our personal feelings and views, we can learn to do so in a way that preserves interpersonal trust. We can develop the skill of going inside ourselves, noticing genuine feelings, and pausing long enough to consider whether it feels right to say something—and then most importantly, how to say it.
When we know in our bones that we have a right to our feelings, we can give them space to percolate a little longer without acting them out, which buys us time to respond with sensitivity rather than react impulsively.
John Gottman conducted important research into what makes relationships thrive. One vital discovery was that partners do better when they’re mindful about how they’re affecting each other.
It takes a hearty amount of self-worth to realize that our words and actions can powerfully affect others. Growing up feeling powerless, we can forget that we have the power to hurt others with a casually unkind word or an attitude of contempt. Being aware of the power of our words can remind us to pause before we speak. We can go inside, notice what is emotionally resonant for us, and find a way to convey our experience so that it’s more likely to preserve trust than blow up the interpersonal bridge.
Communication expert Marshall Rosenberg was acutely aware of the importance of speaking our truth while also maintaining safety in our relationships. He spent a lifetime refining tools for communication that would allow us our voice while also inviting people toward us rather than pushing them away.
When the “fight” part of the fight, flight, freeze response gets triggered, we’re prone to attack people who we feel wronged by. Itemizing their many flaws, we blame, judge, criticize, and shame them in the name of speaking our truth—often with a subtle air of self-congratulations and arrogance. But unless our truth is presented in a way that embodies respect and sensitivity toward others’ tender hearts—that is, unless we put safety ahead of impulsive self-expression—we will continue to damage trust, leaving us alone and disconnected.
We need to speak what’s true for us. But if we want nourishing relationships, we also need to safeguard trust. It’s an ongoing practice to speak our truth while maintaining some attention to how we’re affecting people. This may include noticing the healthy shame that results when we violate another’s boundaries—not beating ourselves up for our human miscues, but learning from them.
Speaking our truth in a way that preserves trust means cultivating inner resources that enable us to expand our tolerance for emotional discomfort. We need to dance skillfully with our fiery emotions rather than act them out. Taking time to gently hold our feelings internally before we speak allows us to find a non-aggressive, trust-building way to reveal what’s in our heart.
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