I recently solicited feedback for a book proposal from a few friends. All of them expressed the same concern: My voice was lost in all the expert quotes. Each chapter summary featured excerpts from bestselling authors, famous psychologists, and notable philosophers. My intention was to ground my points in research and add legitimacy to my thoughts, however, all the references distracted the reader and invalidated the overall premise of the book: to find your voice.
Two types of people
Some people seem to be born with a finely tuned inner microphone. My daughter is one of them. At age two, she wore a patch over her right eye. When mean preschoolers in soiled diapers mocked her, she pushed her shoulders back and said with conviction, “I beautiful.” My husband is like that, too. If someone insults him, he shrugs it off and forgets about it ten minutes later.
Then there are those who emerge from their mothers’ wombs as ultrasensitive, fragile beings. These types, especially if confronted with a dose of childhood and adolescent trauma, solicit and adhere tenaciously to the advice of everyone around them – mentors, teachers, doctors, friends, self-help authors, and husbands – because they don’t trust themselves. They depend on the assessment and opinions from others to navigate their course and to legitimize their place on the planet.
Survey says: No foundation
I have been second-guessing myself since the second grade. A few weeks into the school year at St. Charles Borromeo Elementary School my teacher called a meeting with my mom to express her concern that my need for feedback and assurance was abnormally high and that I had better learn how to trust my own instincts before graduating to the third grade.
Four decades later, I was told the same thing by a physician who treated my depression using magnetic pulses. After 45 sessions, I was still a crying, ruminating insomniac. When discussing next steps with me, she uttered words that stung: “I don’t think a new technology is going to help you. I think your problem is that you don’t have a foundation. You don’t know who you are or what you want.”
I left her office devastated. I almost gave up. But in the anger and dismay was the recognition that she was partly right. While the outlines of myself existed, the filling was absent.
In pursuit of my voice
In the last six months, as a result of a depressive episode, I finally got serious about identifying and trusting my voice. Through intensive psychotherapy, art therapy, and self-compassion exercises, I have attempted to quiet the inner static that crowds out the faint whisper of truth within me. I’ve carved out moments of stillness when I can hear my wisdom and honor what it has to say.
Asserting myself and analyzing all the unsolicited and solicited advice thrown my way is not without painful side effects. I have had to rearrange every primary relationship in my life because playing another role demands new rules. Gone are the days when I absorb every piece of information without review and immediately execute orders.
Some days I wish I could go back to my former self. There was less fighting and friction, less confusion and ambiguity. It’s much easier to let someone else think for you. A substantial reserve of energy is required to sort through the feedback from a doctor or friend or therapist. It takes cognitive power to pluck out the kernels of wisdom that align with your truth. However, if you continue to live your life by a compilation of other people’s advice, you arrive at a shallow self that resembles my book proposal – fascinating facts, but no soul.
Revising my proposal – replacing many of the expert quotes with my own insights – was an important exercise in owning my voice. So, too, were interrupting a well-intentioned friend who described me in ways I felt were far from accurate and beginning to assert my needs within my marriage, tolerating the arguments that happened as a result.
In my own words
Here is where I am tempted to insert some poignant quote by an expert who can back up what I am saying.
Instead, I’m going to conclude with my own words and say that although the process of finding your voice can be terribly painful at times, the reward is a sense of self that fosters peace, a solid ground that doesn’t vacillate according to the input of the hour. Your truth can change, of course, but you own it – and before you know it, you’ll be saying to yourself, “I beautiful.”
Photo by Laura LaRosa