Fear: Why We Silence Ourselves in Relationships

How Does Silence Happen?

The longer I am in practice, the more I see the insidious impact of fear in many of my clients’ lives. While I have been thinking about this, I have realized that it will take me several posts to explore the multi-faceted effects of fear. In this post, I want to address a key way that I see fear affecting relationships.

The following conversation is imaginary, but draws on countless real conversations that I have had in therapy. As you read through it, please feel free to listen for your own voice. Has this ever been your experience?

ME: So, how long have you been upset with person X about their behavior (or lack of communication, or insensitivity to feelings, or ….)?

CLIENT Y: I don’t know. Maybe a few weeks (months, years, decades).

ME: Have you ever talked with them about exactly how you are feeling? How did that work out?

CLIENT Y: I have tried, but they don’t seem to hear me and they get angry. OR: No, not really. I know person X didn’t mean to upset me. I don’t want to start a fight (or I don’t want them to be mad, or I don’t want to hurt their feelings, or I don’t want them to leave).

Did you see the dynamic of fear in that conversation? As I said, it’s one that I have almost daily with clients. Sometimes, I’m having the conversation with myself. The dynamic begins when we become frightened of a relationship consequence, which might range from a disagreement to hurt feelings to the end of a relationship. Our fear prevents us from addressing our concerns in a timely way (see related post on when conflict in relationships can be healthy). In effect, our fear silences our authentic voice.

How Fear Manifests in Relationships

Over time, this silencing can have a toxic effect on relationships. When we allow fear to silence us instead of voicing our true experience, we begin to lose touch with our own voice. We begin to experience a sense of frustration, of resentment, of invisibility. These feelings often express themselves in two common patterns:

The Martyr
The martyr shows up when one person in a relationship is so frightened of expressing their own difficult feelings that they will sacrifice them indefinitely. Clues that the martyr pattern may be emerging are statements such as, “I don’t want to upset my partner (parent, sister, friend), so I just keep those feelings to myself.” or “I don’t want to impose my feelings on anyone else.”

Over time the martyr pattern can be very harmful. Individuals who are stuck in this pattern can begin to internalize a diminished sense of self. They may begin to believe that their own voice is less important, less worthy, less valuable than those around them. They become stuck in the cycle of fearing that to speak the truth of their experiences is to “burden” those around them.

Another difficulty that can come up with the martyr pattern is that people stuck in this pattern struggle to set healthy boundaries. They may give up their own goals and interests as they try to avoid conflict. This isolation makes them more dependent on the relationship. When that happens, the fear of losing the relationship, even if it is an unhealthy or hurtful relationship, can keep them stuck and silent.

The Exploder
The exploder is someone who participates in a cyclical process of silence and loud noise. They allow their silenced experiences to build up over time in a pressure-cooker of frustration and resentment. Eventually, something happens to “over-pressurize” the situation. Then, exploders have a loud, noticeable response.

Since the response to that specific situation carries the pressure of many previous situations where exploders felt silenced, it is often hard for them to be heard and validated. Because the reaction is out of proportion to the specific situation, the other person in the relationship may dismiss the exploder as “over-emotional, unreasonable, histrionic, or over-reacting.”

The “explosion” can make it difficult for the other person in the relationship to receive a clear, explicit message about how their actions affect the exploder. It may even trigger the conflict that the exploder was afraid of from the beginning. Unfortunately, the process of explosion often reinforces the belief that silence is an effective way to manage communication. What I hear from exploders is: “I tried to communicate how I felt, and everything just blew up. I’m better off keeping my feelings to myself.”

The Costs of Silence

One thing that both patterns of silence share is the underlying desire to preserve relationships. The pattern of silence, whether you tend to explode or to be a martyr, offers a false promise. It says, “If you can just tough it out and avoid the conflict, you will be able to keep your relationship.”

In reality, this promise is impossible to keep. If you are silent to avoid conflict, then a culture of mistrust grows in the relationship. If you are silent to avoid conflict, you begin to doubt your own worth and the value of your feelings.

How to Break Free From Silence

The first step in changing patterns of silence in relationships is to acknowledge that the pattern exists. As you think about important relationships in your life, consider these questions:

Do I feel as though the relationship is active and growing?
Do I feel heard?
Do I feel free to express my feelings as they happen?
Can I say what I feel without fear of negative consequences?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then a pattern of silence may exist in that relationship. The first step in breaking free of silence is to acknowledge its existence. The next step is to begin to reconnect with your voice. This may involve journaling, talking to others you trust, or even spending some time with a therapist.

Once you have reconnected with your voice, then it’s time to practice using it. Choose a small issue that has been creating distance between yourself and your loved one. Use your voice! Once you have gotten a little bit of practice, try a bigger issue.

The difficulty about using your voice in a specific relationship is that your fear of speaking in that relationship comes from an awareness that the relationship is facing big challenges. If the relationship has foundational flaws, honest conversations may reveal those flaws. A critical part of regaining your voice is developing the conviction that you deserve a relationship that is healthy, even if that means letting go of the relationship that you are in right now.

I know that the challenge of connecting with and exercising your authentic voice is frightening. I also know that fear constricts us, holds us back, limits our ability to contribute to the world. Please take this as my invitation to face your fear. I believe that, in the long run, your freedom will be worth the journey!

Please share your experiences of finding your voice, and experiencing freedom from fear.

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