Dear Hailey,

I’m in my mid-50s. My whole life, I’ve struggled to speak up on matters big and small. 

It’s very hard for me to say no when people ask me for help. At work, for example, I’m respected and well-paid in my company, but I often feel burnt out and exhausted from taking on too many tasks. With family it’s much of the same: my adult daughter asks me to babysit her kids all the time, and while I love those kids more than anything, sometimes I need nights to myself to unwind and relax. 

This tendency comes up in my marriage, too. Even when expressing small preferences, like where to go out to dinner or what channel to watch on TV, I find it easier to let my husband make the final decision. I hate the thought of imposing my own preferences on him if there’s a chance he might not enjoy them. 

When I look around me at my friends, my colleagues, and even my daughters, they seem to have no trouble speaking up for themselves or saying what they want. I feel like I must be the only one who struggles this way. I’m trapped in an invisible cage of self-censorship and I don’t know how to get out. 

How can I start speaking up for myself after 50 years of staying quiet?

Signed, 

Vexed and Voiceless

 

Dear Vexed,

As a recovering people-pleaser, I can assure you: It’s not just you!

As children, many recovering people-pleasers learned that we could gain love by subverting our own needs to prioritize others’. Especially if we had caregivers who were distant, neglectful or struggled with addiction or mental illness, we may have learned to make ourselves as small as possible. Our needs or feelings may have been met with neglect, anger, punishment or abuse, and as adults, we may equate speaking our truth with being punished or abandoned.

As adults, we have the ability to identify and break this pattern. But it takes time and effort! I like to think of it as exercising a muscle. After years of putting others’ needs first, your truth-speaking muscle might be weak. By participating in daily “workouts,” you can build strength over time and master the art of speaking your truth.

Vexed, here are a few ways you can strengthen your truth-speaking muscle on a daily basis:

Name how you feel as you read these words

How do you feel in this very moment? Tired? Excited? Anxious? Calm? If you’re a recovering people-pleaser, you might have a tendency to deny or ignore your feelings — especially feelings of sadness, anger, resentment or malaise. Simply giving yourself permission to acknowledge how you’re feeling is a critical step toward acknowledging, and speaking, your truth. 

 

When a loved one asks “How are you?” tell them the truth

On any given day, we might hear the question “How are you?” 15 times. These are 15 small opportunities to practice authenticity. Give yourself permission to say “I’m a little sad today, but I’m hanging in there” or “I’m fantastic. Today’s been an inspiring day” or “I’m so stressed, I can’t even feel my face.” Whatever you’re feeling, give yourself permission to share it. It might not be appropriate to launch into a prolonged monologue about all that’s going wrong for you, but practice being forthright about your emotional state. 

 

Acknowledge your simple, physical desires

Stretch when your body feels tense. Don a cozy sweater when it’s cold. Go to bed when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Think about it: How often do you ignore your body’s needs? As a recovering people-pleaser, you might have a tendency to deny yourself out of habit — but your body can be an incredible ally as you learn to identify and speak your truth. Practice getting in communication with your physical experience, and with time, even more complex desires will arise.

 

Name one thing you really want

Our desires are a critical part of who we are. They reflect our values and our identities. When we’re not in touch with our own desires, we’re susceptible to putting others’ needs before our own. If you’ve been out of touch with your own desires for a long time, saying even one thing you want — something as life-altering as a new job or as contrived as a new blender — can be revolutionary.

For now, give yourself permission not to worry about how you might get it. Just notice how it feels to really want this thing you want. This is just a simple list to get you started.

With time, you will find that it becomes easier to speak your truth. Maybe today it’s acknowledging that you feel sad; maybe three months from now, it’ll be setting a boundary with your daughter around how often you babysit her kiddos. Remember: It’s a process that takes practice ­­— and it is well worth it!

Sending you strength on the journey ahead, Vexed.

With care,

Hailey

 

P.S.: Do you feel like you’re the only one facing a particular challenge or struggle? Or perhaps you have a question you’d like to see answered in the column? Email me at hailey@haileymagee.com for the chance to have it included here.