It used to be that if anything ever upset or offended me, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to alienate people. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or ruffle feathers. I silenced my voice because even though my insides were boiling I feel like I owed contentment to the world outside of myself.
It started in high school when I noticed that my sensitivity was a nuisance to my peers. Because I got upset at jokes made at my expense, because I didn’t like pranks or unsolicited water balloon attacks, I was not exactly beloved in my social circle. Back then we never really talked about the impossible concept of “the cool girl.” The girl who laughs things off and doesn’t feel was still seen as an achievable ideal and I was the very opposite of what everyone else seemed able to so seamlessly be. I thought something was very wrong with me. I thought that being hurt and saying so was wrong because it would put a dent in the comfort of others. But thinking it was wrong didn’t turn off my excess of feeling. Keeping it inside only ever made it worse.
When I was first introduced to the writings of feminist sociologists, I found strange, sad comfort in the realization that this phenomenon was not unique to me. They generally posit that women in society have been molded to nurture. It is our duty to make the world an easy place for others to exist in and as such we must silence our voices when they oppose. When we fail to silence ourselves, we must say sorry. Nancy Chodorow writes, “Since our awareness of others is considered our duty, the price we pay when things go wrong is guilt and self-hatred. “ We apologize for having felt something, for having reacted. We pay penance with our words because in expressing ourselves, we’ve made the people around us uncomfortable. And because it is such a society-doctrined practice, these people around us willingly accept the apology. They forgive us for having shared our unease and then treat whatever triggered the outburst in the first place like it’s an unnecessary elephant in the room. And we sit there stewing in our mistake, beating ourselves up over and over and over again for simply having said “Please stop. I do not like how that makes me feel.”
Carol Gilligan explains this in her work, In a Different Voice. In it, she compares Jake and Amy who are both 11 years old and exceptionally articulate for their age. When asked to describe themselves, Jake “describes himself as distinct by locating his particular position in the world,” by expounding on his “abilities, beliefs, and his height.” Amy on the other hand describes herself in terms of her relationship to the world, discussing “herself in actions that bring her into connection with others.” From this and other comparisons throughout her writing, Gilligan is able to conclude that women are shaped by society to be nurturers. It seems to be a natural sort of conclusion. We are, after all, the ones with the biological ability to feed a child with nothing but our bodies. But to have our mindset molded to the role of caretaker as early as age 11 is damning.
How can a young woman learn who she truly is when she must adjust each instance of growth in order to accommodate those around her? We put others before ourselves and, in doing so, forget what it is we need. We deny ourselves the things that would make us our happiest so that others might feel at ease.
We need to stop silencing ourselves. When someone says something hurtful, when we’re uncomfortable, when we feel like we’re being treated unfairly, we need to say so. Even if it disturbs the peace of our surroundings, even if it might ruin the joke. Because your comfort is important, too. Because you are as entitled to safety and happiness as much as the people around you and you shouldn’t sacrifice your own just so some jerk who cracked wise about your love life won’t feel bad.
Respect your voice. Let it roar. Stop thinking about the way your words might cause others to pull away and say what’s on your mind. And support the people around you when they are bold enough to do it, too. We’ve all succumbed to the other side of this; we’ve all shuddered when someone interrupted a conversation to say “This is making me uncomfortable. Can we move on to something else?” And that’s okay because we are as much a part of society as we trapped by its confines. But let’s make an effort not to do it again. Let’s happily lift that person up instead of just tolerating them. Silence may feel like it’s a safe space but you will be so much more fulfilled if you unleash your bizarre, brilliant, strong, unfiltered opinions onto the rest of the world.