How often do you struggle to say what you mean? Is it challenging to express yourself in ways that feel heard, understood, and respected? Does the word “communication” excite you or make you break out in a cold sweat?
I often find myself working with highly sensitive, intuitive people experiencing anxiety. They also tend to be folks who are so tuned into the needs of others, they’ve started to lose track of their own.
While this orientation towards others is an effort to sustain relationships (by avoiding conflict, hurting someone’s feelings, or disappointing the other person), it actually tends to compromise feelings of closeness and intimacy. This can spill over into the various important relationships in our lives—romantic, professional, familial—impairing our ability to communicate effectively, establish boundaries, and express ourselves authentically.
What are the barriers to self-expression?
- Empathy & Sensitivity: I often find myself suggesting to clients that their empathy, sensitivity, and depth of insight is both their superpower and their kryptonite. The ability to “read the room” and intuit the experiences of others can be such a gift when it is shared consciously and skillfully! However, when it becomes a default to shapeshift and accommodate others for fear of the repercussions, it can erode our sense of self and compromise our ability to show up in our relationships honestly and healthfully.
- Childhood Experiences: Sometimes, a sense of being seen, heard, and understood wasn’t reliably available in our early environments. This isn’t to suggest mal-intent from caregivers, but to acknowledge the both subtle and explicit ways thoughts and feelings may have been talked over, shamed, challenged, or denied—and to notice how what is modeled to us in these early experiences can lead to the adaptations we use to manage our circumstances.
Strategies to support change:
- Consider what the phrase “authentic self-expression” means to you. It may be saying no when you mean no, and yes when you mean yes. It may be wearing that outfit you love, even though your mother may criticize it, or resting when you need rest. Or knowing you want Thai food, not hotdogs, and stating that preference when your best friend asks where you want to go for dinner.
- Journal: Our needs and wants can’t be met if we don’t know them ourselves, or are unable to share them. Likewise, boundaries are harder to create if we don’t know where we need them, or can’t communicate them. I often assign Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise to clients willing to explore it. Cameron’s exercise is for overcoming creative blocks for artists, but I think the foundational principle (free-writing for three pages without lifting your hand from the page) can help to clarify our thoughts and needs. Follow the stream of your thoughts (even this looks like: “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I need to get cheese later, I don’t know what to write”). Generally, by the end of the exercise, there is something on the page you didn’t consciously know. This can be a chance to explore what you’re feeling, what changes you may desire and, if it eventually feels right, to play with how you might want to communicate what you’ve discovered.
Here are some prompts in case they help you get started:
What I really want to say is…
What I really think about X is…
If I were being the truest version of myself, I would do/say/wear/try…
- Support your body: Using grounding strategies and breath work can help stabilize us while doing (or contemplating doing) hard things. You could even visualize yourself expressing yourself honestly, allowing yourself to feel the discomfort that may arise, and then supporting yourself through it using the grounding and breathing strategies. This is a way to practice the skill, or build the muscle, ahead of doing the heavy lifting.
- Practice in safe relationships: A therapeutic relationship is a great place to begin exploring things like dominant survival stances and repressed feelings/needs—and then to practice things like honest self-expression. However, there are often other relationships in a person’s life that can support this development, too. It may be a best friend, or aunt, or mentor, or partner: think about the people and places in your life where you feel most seen and understood and allow yourself to start small. This may mean practicing that Thai Food not hotdogs thing (rather than heading straight into a heart to heart with someone you find it hard to speak honestly to). Taking small steps has a cumulative effect. As we practice and learn that the sky doesn’t fall in when we say what we want or need, we can build our confidence and generate momentum in our growth.
- “I’m having a reaction.” This is one of the most helpful tools I’ve learned. Even if we can’t name exactly what is going on for us in that moment, we may be able to learn how to name it as an experience. “I’m having a reaction” identifies to the other person that something is happening and it engages them in a limited but authentic way (vs. fighting, running away, or freezing). Using this phrase can buy ourselves some time by acknowledging the other person while also allowing ourselves space to regulate our body and emotions before trying to communicate.
About the Author: Hilary Fair is a Registered Psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada. She provides psychodynamic and holistically-attuned therapy to individuals navigating anxiety. To learn more, view additional content she has created, or to get in touch, visit her Frame profile here.