MidLife

Silence Renders Me Invisible

Recently I wrote a guest blog post, Thriving Requires Letting Go of the Lies, for Sue’s Over Fifty and Thriving series. The idea for that post was inspired by the book, Girl, Wash Your Face, by Rachel Hollis (my review here). I have since decided to turn the subject into a new blog series: The Lies I’ve Believed. 

In the original guest post, I introduced Delilah, my harsh inner critic who constantly reminds me I am not good enough, brave enough or smart enough. Her loud, commanding voice tells me I am better off alone than out in the world pursuing my dreams. She is quite convincing.

But I’m tired of living this way. I’m merely existing rather than embracing an abundant life. It is time to replace Delilah’s lies with the truth.

This week’s lie: Remaining silent avoids conflict.

Stoicism: a philosophy that teaches people should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submit without complaint to avoid unnecessity.

I grew up in a stoic household. Both my parents embodied this trait.

I don’t necessarily believe stoicism is all bad. After all, it taught me to persevere when the going gets tough. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps was a familiar refrain.

Stoicism taught me emotions are fleeting and cannot be trusted. Sometimes we have to do things whether we want to or not.

But stoicism also taught me that suppressed emotions are preferred to expressed ones. I was eight years old before I first heard my parents argue. And I can count on one hand the number of times I heard them argue in my lifetime. The silent treatment was the usual display of disagreement.

Mom suppressed her emotions to an extreme. I remember frequent episodes of lower back pain that would keep her in bed for days at a time. The bedroom door remained closed, indicating she was not to be disturbed. I look back now and wonder how much of that self-diagnosis was a form of depression. Rather than dealing with the problem, she chose to hide in silence.

Mom often boasted of never shedding a tear after my father died. After 55 years of marriage, two children, and an enviable retirement lifestyle, she could not allow herself to grieve. The pent-up emotion eventually caused a complete mental breakdown.

Because I married a full-blooded Italian, I’ve learned to communicate in a more expressive way. Italians are passionate about everything. They speak in raised voices with wild hand gestures. Emotions always run high. While I still shy away from conflict, I have learned to express my opinions at home.

photo credit: pixabay

However, outside those familiar walls, I clam up. I hug the walls at social gatherings. Nod-and-smile is my natural method of communication. I struggle with small-talk and much prefer to listen instead.

In professional settings, I take copious notes but never participate in discussions. In part because of my shy, reserved nature. But mostly, it is a fear of looking foolish. What if I ask a stupid question or offer an obvious suggestion? Perfectionism renders me mute.

I reasoned my silence did not distract me from learning. I knew it distracted no one else. But this logic fell apart in the summer of 2014.

I enrolled in a summer writing course at the University of Iowa. Prior to the weekend class, we had to write a “sense of place” essay (I harbored dreams of becoming a travel writer at the time) and submit to the professor. He, in turn, made copies of all essays for each of the twelve participating students.  We had to read the essays in advance in order to provide crucial feedback in classroom discussions.

Being a diligent student, I wrote (and revised) my essay before sending in on time. I read every one of my classmates’ essays and provided detailed notes on each one. I attended every class session and listened attentively to the feedback. But I never uttered a word.

In the final minutes of the last day’s session, the teacher began to wrap things up. He thanked us all for coming and reminded us to complete the course evaluation form. At this point, a fellow classmate raised her hand and said, “I don’t think Molly had a chance to share.”

photo credit: pixabay

The teacher never noticed this oversight. My silence had rendered me invisible.

While I was grateful to my classmate for remembering me, I was appalled at myself.

My opinions do matter. Keeping them to myself is selfish. While my feedback was rarely unique, it did help corroborate what was already expressed. Writing is a group activity and I was not a team player.

I  do want to learn and improve. But my silence came across as being aloof and indifferent. By not expressing myself, I left others no choice but to misunderstand me.

The truth: Remaining silent makes me invisible.

I have a voice. It is time I use it.

26 Comments

  • Devbie

    I really enjoyed your post on Sue’s blog Molly, and this follow up one too. You have a voice and you’re not invisible. I’m sure there are lots of us who can relate to your post. Take care. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I’ve shared for #mlstl

    • Molly Totoro

      Thanks so much for stopping, Deb … and for your kind words of support and encouragement. I find that it is easier to share my voice in writing, but I’m working on overcoming the mute button in social situations 🙂

  • Min @ Write of the Middle

    I nodded along all the way through reading this Molly. Much of what you have described is me. Not all – but most. I have a terribly mean inner critic and this can be exacerbated by anxiety (which happens to be what my latest post is about). Both have been triggered by the fact I’m a finalist in a blog award and will be attending an event with the other finalists later this month. My inner critic tells me I am unworthy, a fraud, less than the others, an embarassment, and much more. I too can clam up for fear of saying something embarassing or making a fool of myself. Sometimes though, when nervous, I can talk too much! I am also a perfectionist … and boy oh boy it can be draining can’t it? I think by having your blog you are well on your way to finding your voice. All the very best to you!

    • Molly Totoro

      Min … CONGRATULATIONS!! Do not allow that harsh inner critic to take away this glorious honor. I hope you can silence her voice later this month and thoroughly soak in the moment. I look forward to reading about the event on your blog 🙂

  • Terri Steffes

    YES!! I am hearing the echo in my head. My mother was passionate about her feelings and I learned that people could be annoying when expressing them, so I learned to not express them. Now, I am a person no one knows, because my true feelings are hidden, my voice silent. I’m pondering what action I need to take.

    • Molly Totoro

      Terri… I never thought of the repercussions of living with a passionate soul from your perspective, but I completely understand! I hope you can learn to express your voice in a way that feels comfortable for you. The world needs to hear from you 🙂

  • Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au

    Molly I felt every word of this – I feel like I’m an outgoing person trapped in the body of a fraidy cat. I have so much to say and so much to offer, but take me out of my comfort zone and I’m mute. Once I know you and feel safe then I’m happy to speak and give my opinion, but the fear of judgement and looking the fool silences me too. Maybe that’s why blogging appeals so much – it gives us a voice and at the same time we get to step back from being front and centre? I really appreciated this post.
    MLSTL – and I’ve shared on my SM 🙂

    • Molly Totoro

      I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said, Leanne! I have a feeling we are kindred spirits. I wish we lived closer than halfway around the world.

  • Molly Stevens

    A close relative of remaining silent is speaking up and then feeling shame about it. This is something I often do. I reprimand myself for not keeping my mouth shut. Where does this come from? I suppose from childhood like your situation. I’m glad you’ve exposed this lie! We have voices and it is okay to use them.

    • Molly Totoro

      When I’m not mute, Molly, I share this same experience. I’m not sure where we pick up all our excess baggage, but at this stage of life, I’m ready to do some cleaning 🙂

  • Pat

    Oh yes. Perfection renders me mute. Using my voice will show I am a fraud, foolish, stupid. I still re-write posts multiple times, have someone else read them, and still might not post something for a few weeks if I feel it could be at all controversial or unpopular (conflict!) My recent post is prime example!

    I recall that when I was working, if I did say something in a meeting, some folks knew it was going to be very important because I needed so much courage to talk there! But they knew me well; in new situations/new people, I just came across as indifferent.

    I never took my quietness as stoicism. I always thought it was my inner voice – fear of being shown to be an imposter, fear of looking stupid. I can say that I learned to be able to do small talk…but often (usually!) I prepare 3-4 topics of conversation (questions to ask) even before I arrive at a gathering. That’s the planner in me coming to my rescue.

    • Molly Totoro

      Oh My Gosh, Pat! I do the exact same thing. I pre-plan small talk 🙂 And I always try to have a follow-up question ready so I won’t have to talk any more than necessary 🙂

    • Molly Totoro

      Yes, Mary Lou, I still feel my heart racing and pounding when I’m expected to share something in a group. Interestingly, I teach a high school writing class where we workshop papers as a portion of the class grade. I can encourage others to speak – tell them there is no right or wrong answer, tell them their opinion matters, etc – but I can’t quite convince myself (yet).

  • Natalie

    I’m glad you decided to use your voice, Molly. Sometimes silence is interpreted as condoning or in agreement with what’s happening. We need to speak up when it matters. #MLSTL

    • Molly Totoro

      Natalie, you bring up a good point: silence implies agreement. While I know this is true, I often fear speaking up because I’m not sure I can properly defend my stance. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much about the “proven” statistics and simply rely on what I feel in my gut is right.

  • 1010ParkPlace

    I’m not stoic or shy, but have an innate sense of when to keep my mouth shut… which isn’t very often. My mother also slipped off the edge into a total nervous breakdown after my father died. She and I role reversed, so perhaps that’s when I learned to speak up. Molly, please continue to work on finding your voice. It’s one of our greatest gifts, as is interacting with those around us. Neither of our mothers were the best role models in this way, but you could say they modeled how not to keep things inside of us. Brenda #MLSTL

    • Molly Totoro

      Brenda… I love this: Mom taught me the harm of keeping things inside. That is SO true!
      I never thought of my voice as a gift, but you are right. It is a marvelous gift that, when paired with the mind, can effect positive change in our lives and in the world. I feel myself growing more courageous each day. Thank you for the support 🙂

  • Janet Mary Cobb

    Molly – silence is never been a word used to describe me, for sure – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend years keeping things bottled up inside. Sometimes the loudest voices are drowning out that which is never spoken. Finding our authentic and honest voice and learning the best time and place and person and method of sharing it is important.

    • Molly Totoro

      You are so right, Janet. There are many ways to bottle up emotions and hide our authentic voice. I suppose it only comes with age (and experience) that teaches us to trust our emotions and to learn how to share appropriately. I’m glad to have the opportunity to learn this valuable lesson … even if it is a little late in life 🙂

  • Suzanne

    Molly, I think you were likely raised very much like I was, with a ‘children are to be seen, but not heard’ kind of philosophy. Any praise or validation from a parent was considered as contributing to an overly inflated sense of self, which would make us feel superior. Conversations were pretty much non-existent, and when our parents did speak to us it was usually to instruct or reprimand. It took just one great boss in my twenties to help me understand my worth and find my voice and I have never looked back with doubt about who I am and what I contribute. Yes, of course I have moments of insecurity, that is natural for anyone, but it does not define who I am.

    Thank you for sharing your story of self-discovery, vulnerabilities and all. Your message resonates on many levels, with many women and you write beautifully, and with a lot of heart.

    • Molly Totoro

      YES, Suzanne, you perfectly described my childhood! How fortunate you found such a kind boss who took the time to show you the true meaning of self-worth. And how wonderful you were open enough to receive and implement that instruction.

      I think this blog series is helping me express my authentic voice in written form. Perhaps someday it will translate into the spoken word. Thank you so much for your encouraging support.

  • Kay

    Molly, I am so excited each time to see a blog post you’ve written. You are doing a great job here and, I think, an important service to many of us. You are putting into words some of the deepest feelings and types of experiences that a person can have. Thanks for speaking to the ‘heart’ of things. I am completely enjoying this journey with you. Maybe there is another book in all of this for you? Just saying…

    • Molly Totoro

      You are a dear friend, Kay! And it is good to hear I’m not the only one who bought the lies for so many years.
      I am currently working on a book about Delilah. It is probably several years in the making, but I appreciate your support of the project 🙂

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