Ever since I developed the ability to talk at less than one-year-old (first word was “quack” because I’m OBVIOUSLY a very advanced person nbd) I’ve had what my parents, ex-boyfriends, friends, teachers, former and probably current bosses, and even strangers who eavesdrop at coffee shops call “last word syndrome.”
If I have something to say, believe myself to be right (read: most of the time), or even just have a fleeting thought, my natural impulse is to always say it and to do so instantly. To be the period at the end of the sentence. To be the last one to get a word in. To be the one to leave the situation with the most impressionable thought. I have always been the person who has this innate desire, almost a need, to have the last word.
Throughout my adolescence, this was undeniably my biggest character flaw. This mouth has gotten me into trouble so many times I’ve lost count at this point. I got sent to the principal’s office for calling Kalae Loudenslager a bitch in gym class. I was sent out in the hall countless times in 7th grade for letting my homeroom teacher know every time she was irritating me and (probably) the rest of the class. My mom once very seriously considered kicking me out of a moving car because when she told me that I was heading down a slippery slope, I just looked at her and said, “Then it’s a good thing my shoes have grips.”
I’m always quick with a comeback, bold with my opinions, and have often had the problem of speaking without actually thinking.
One of the biggest benefits of things like getting older, going to therapy, and deciding to work on yourself is you stop making excuses for your flaws. You stop seeing your fatal flaw as “character” and start seeing it as something to work at. This absolutely doesn’t mean that you lose a part of yourself or dim your light or whatever, it just means that you stop actively getting in your own way.
And for me, that meant working on learning the magical value in shutting the fuck up.
For something like 4 years during and after college, I worked at a small business with some of the most incredible women who to this day I consider to be my absolute role models and also a reason why I am the way that I am today. I don’t remember the specific conversation that I had with one of them or what exactly we were doing etc, but I’ll never forget when she took me aside to “give me some feedback.” Internally I’m sure I rolled my eyes, knowing I was about to be reprimanded and lectured. But what she said absolutely stuck with me.
“You really should start paying attention to the way that you speak. Because your tone isn’t matching your intention, and you’re actively turning people away from you by ignoring the impression that you give.”
I would be lying if I said I made the switch immediately. I definitely didn’t. But over the years as I grew up, matured, and also did things like finally going to a therapist to work on my mental health issues and start the process of “becoming an actualized person,” I started doing this extraordinary, revolutionary thing called listening.
I started listening to myself, and the way that I sounded. I started being deliberate with my words, instead of reactionary and impulsive. I started listening to the people around me, and the tone that they gave and the feelings that they needed and deserved to express. I started pausing instead of jumping in. I started paying attention instead of constantly demanding it.
I started shutting the fuck up.
The thing that I’ve realized is that a huge chunk of maturity comes from recognizing that we all have this insane power with our words. With the words we choose to speak and the ones we never do. There is equal (sometimes arguably more!) power in speaking your peace and saying, “This is my time to just listen.” There is power is taking a step back, and knowing when the only thing you’re adding to a conversation is the sound of your own voice. There is power is being able to say, “You know I think I spoke too emotionally and/or quickly. What do you think I have to learn?”
There is power in saying, at times, nothing at all.
This has been applicable to me on countless occasions. When the toxic ex comes back clearly trolling for money and a handout, rather than opening myself up and expending emotional energy telling him off and getting into a whole thing, I just ignore the text. When I get a pissed off email from someone demanding an explanation that they’re not entitled to, I recognize that they’re simply looking to be heard and are going about it in the wrong way. When I am confronted with a mistake I’ve made and my first reaction is to make excuses and say, “But! But! But! But here’s why you’re wrong and are misunderstanding me!!!” I take it as an opportunity to listen to someone who is ultimately helping me on this messy journey called “being a better person” and to do better next time.
In taking the chance to shut up and listen, I’m actually equipping myself with the tools and ultimately better and more thoughtful words for the next time I’m going to speak up.
Listen. This isn’t a thousand words in an essay to say, “Never speak up for yourself!!!!! Stop doing that!! How dare you!!!” It’s simply saying there’s a way to speak up for yourself, a way to get that last word in, but a way to do so thoughtfully. There’s a way to speak up for yourself and state your thoughts and opinions, while also continuing to grow and evolve as a person. It’s saying that in order to effectively speak your truth, you also have to know when it’s time to balance speaking said truth with also being mindful.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have a little bit of last word syndrome.
But learning to take your time to get that last word in, and making sure it’s the most well-rounded, educated, methodical last word, will be the way to actually make it stick.