“I feel so powerless.” When I heard those words come out of her mouth, I knew we had gotten to the core of what she had been struggling with. She had worked for years in an industry that can suck the life out of you if you let it. Throughout our work together, she spoke of family dynamics that were less than supportive, mean bosses, sabotaging co-workers and unrealized dreams. Any one of these situations could, over time, erode a person’s self-esteem. And I was listening to a very smart, very talented, strong, independent woman who was dealing with a combination of them all.
My clue to there being something more was her on-going relationship with situations that caused deep feelings of anger. In her case, that’s how feeling powerless showed up. In others, it can show up in a range of challenges from overweight, to anorexia; from extreme extrovert to extreme introvert; from sex or drug addiction to being strictly religious. This may seem an odd comparison but for some, it’s more comfortable to have a religious leader dictate how to live so they don’t have to take responsibility for their choices.
The key factor, the similarity in most of these cases comes down to feeling like you have to suppress what you really want to say. In doing so, you feel like you can’t be truly you or you’ll be punished in some way.
In my case, feelings of being powerless came from watching how my mother dealt with certain situations. And I’m sure she learned from her mother and so on and so on through generations of women in my family. Once I became aware of it in myself, I saw it much more clearly in my sisters. The mantra was always “choose your battles”.
Suppressing our feelings is not unique to any one person but seems to be systemic throughout the female gender. That’s not to say that men don’t experience the same feelings from time to time or that all women suppress their feelings. But a look back at the history of females in general shows that we were bred to be silent. It wasn’t ladylike to have, let alone voice a strong opinion.
More recently, we’ve been seeing women breaking that silence and voicing their feelings. More and more women are finding the courage to say what they feel and to ask for what they need. By doing so, these women are breaking the cycle of females being seen and not heard. They’re making it better for future generations of women.
But for every empowered woman, there are so many more who are struggling to find their voice. If you’re struggling with believing you need to suppress your true feelings, here are a few things you can do to begin to change that way of being.
Awareness is the key to making change. You first need to become aware of what it is you don’t want in order to become clear about what you do want. For me, writing is a method I use to clear out the clutter in my mind. If you have a method that works better for you, use that. Find a time when you won’t be interrupted. That in itself can be a challenge but know that you deserve it. Using whatever method works best for you, brainstorm about what it is that gets in your way. If it’s anger, what triggers that anger? Is it traffic? Is it other people treating you rudely? What is it for you?
Perhaps anger isn’t your issue. Perhaps what gets in your way is overeating. When you overeat, what’s the common thread? Do you immediately get a craving for chocolate right after the boss yells at you? What about being an extreme extrovert? Do you feel the need to be the life of every party? What goes through your mind at those times? Is there a need to be accepted? It could be anything. There are just as many possibilities as there are people in the world. We’re all unique and we all have our own unique triggers. Brainstorm to see what common threads come up for you.
Name Your Triggers
Having done the brainstorming above, you may have found something that you weren’t aware of before. What sets you off? When you run to the bathroom after eating something, do you have a touch of the flu or is it an emotional reaction to something that’s hiding? When you want to rip someone’s head off because they didn’t hold the door for you, do you believe that all people are rude? In the case of being strictly religious, how do you react when someone goes against your beliefs? Are you able to accept them for who they are or do you feel the need to convert them to your way of living?
If you’ve spent some time brainstorming all the possibilities, you most likely are able to see a common thread of what precedes your particular reaction. There may be only one thing or there could be multiple situations. Name them. The trigger is what you react to.
Identify Your Story
Analyze each trigger. Working with one at a time, break it down and look at the story you tell yourself about it. For example: say your husband just made a rude comment about your weight. What do you tell yourself about it? How does it make you feel when he says things like he just said? What do you tell yourself about how he’ll react when you tell him how it made you feel? How will your relationship change if you say what you’re thinking? These are the basis of your story. What does this story say to you about who you are? Are you comfortable saying what you want to say?
Next, what action do you take? Do you typically react with a comeback of your own and get into an argument or trade snide remarks thinly disguised as “humor”? Maybe you hold your tongue and have a conversation with yourself in your head about how mean he is or how you’ll get your revenge in some way? Do you automatically head to the kitchen for a snack? More importantly, what happens when you do what you’ve always done?
Changing Your Story
Keeping with the above example, you’ve identified what triggers your response. Your husband said something rude about your weight. You told yourself how that makes you feel and what you believe to be true about yourself. And you’ve seen how your same reaction brings the same result, you feeling the way you always feel.
What might happen if you change the action you take after you analyze the situation? For instance, when he makes a rude remark about your weight, stop and breathe. Recognize this is a typical trigger and leads to an unwanted reaction on your part. Hold your tongue but this time, not to suppress your true feelings. In this case, you’re giving yourself time to regulate your response. You’re recognizing your old story isn’t true. You’re looking at the outcome you would like to see. Perhaps you would rather he realize his comment might have been hurtful and he apologizes for being insensitive. What action can you take to elicit the wanted response? Know that you may not get the wanted outcome the first time you change your reaction. But by being more strategic in how you respond you will get his attention.
Let’s say you calmly reply with something like, “I know you were trying to be funny, but when you say things like that it really hurts my feelings.” If he’s used to seeing you get upset or if he’s totally oblivious to your former reactions, this will come as a surprise to him. Hopefully, he’ll think about it and apologize.
By changing your response to a trigger, you have the ability to change your story. Instead of telling yourself he’s being mean or he doesn’t love you, your story could change to “when I express how his actions make me feel, I’m setting healthy boundaries about how I will allow him to treat me.”
In the above example, the trigger you’re presented with is the remark about your weight. Being aware of how these types of incidents affect you will signal that you’re about to engage in an unwanted reaction. That trigger is a clue to alert you to be more aware of how you manage your actions. It puts you back in charge of your life. By stopping yourself, slowing down the process and regulating your response, you can pivot from your old story of being a victim to your husband’s remarks to your new powerful story of being in charge of how people treat you. By choosing a new story to replace the old one, you’re putting in place a new way of being in order to empower yourself.
While the information here appears to be simplistic, please recognize this is a process and results will not happen overnight. The steps outlined above will take time and practice. They will also require that your expectations be modified on occasion as the outcome is based on other people’s activities. The old adage, you can’t control how people act, you can only control how you allow them to impact you, is very true. By controlling your response to triggers that present, you can begin to feel more powerful and more in control of your life.