Have you ever held your tongue when you’ve had an opinion because you didn’t want to make the other person mad? Or maybe sometimes you haven’t wanted the pressure of making a decision, so you just shrugged your shoulders and let the other person decide?

What about saying yes to something that you really didn’t want to do but you felt like you should do? (Case in point—I served two years as the PTA president at my kids’ school. Not something I really wanted to do, but pressure from outside sources had me signing up for that job and putting all kinds of hours into it over those years.)

It’s not at all uncommon to silence your own thoughts, feelings, or preferences in favor of another’s. People pleasers do this constantly—they silence their own desires and say “yes” when inside they are thinking “no.”

Many women’s concern for preserving relationships (or being liked) leads to hesitation in sharing their own opinions or desires[1] and instead, serving and giving until they are completely drained. And modern gender norms teach men that true masculinity means not disclosing your most personal feelings or emotions to others.[2]

Self-silencing and how to overcome itBasically, we’ve got a whole society who is often afraid to speak up for themselves or to share their feelings (and I’m not talking about the rude opinion slinging on social media. I’m talking about true concerns and genuine feelings. I mean letting people see who you truly are.)

We have a society that is afraid to sincerely say or do what feels right to them in their heart or to act with integrity.

We have people who are afraid to let others truly see them.

We’ve got silence.   

This isn’t the kind of silence that sounds like an absence of noise. I’m talking about the kind of silence that Simon & Garfunkel wrote about decades ago and Disturbed sang of with such angst more recently.

“People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share…” 

There’s plenty of noise around us. Plenty of talking and input, too many loud opinions, constant media bombardment of our thoughts.

What we don’t have as much of is genuine sharing and true listening—the kind where you open your heart to another and let them see you for who you truly are, weaknesses, fears, and all. For most of us, that feels scary. If you let someone really know your thoughts, or if you really share your heart, they might reject you, so it’s easier to silence those true feelings. Instead of sharing genuinely, you stifle what you’re really feeling or share only surface-level feelings. There’s less threat in that.

The Silence That Kills Happiness & Intimacy

When we silence our own voice in order to preserve relationships or because we feel uncomfortable sharing who we are (what scholars call self-silencing), it limits us in a number of ways.

People who self-silence are more likely to struggle with depression[3] and anxiety,[4] as well as other health challenges such as IBS, HIV, or cancer.[5] This happens for a number of reasons, but a lot of it has to do with not prioritizing one’s own health or needs (or in other words, silencing an important part of yourself).

And even though self-silencing is often done in order to preserve a relationship (‘I don’t want to make him mad if he disagrees with my opinion, so I just won’t say what I really think’), it actually really limits emotional intimacy and connection and decreases things like happiness in a relationship and sexual satisfaction.[6]

Breaking the Silence—How to Find Your Voice

Now, of course, compromise and caring for one another are important—even essential—characteristics of good relationships. None of us would be able to work together, be friends with each other, be married, or even tolerate each other’s presence if we weren’t willing to hear one another’s opinions, consider differing viewpoints, and find a middle ground. Marriages and other relationships don’t work if we don’t look out for each other’s needs and sacrifice a bit of ourselves for the good of the other.

How to stop worrying about what other people thinkBut the crucial aspect of compromise is that both parties need a voice.

The critical part of care is that both need to be cared for.

If you have lost that voice, have given too much of your self, or feel uncomfortable asserting your opinion or sharing your thoughts…you’re not alone. It happens to many of us.

The good news is that part of overcoming self-silencing is simply realizing that it’s happening. As you start to recognize times that you hold back from sharing your thoughts, ask yourself why.

Why am I not more comfortable sharing what I really think in this setting?

Self-silencing can happen in four ways that are all related but each a little bit different. Let’s take a look.

But What Will Others Think?

The first, what experts called externalized self-perception,[7] is characterized by judging yourself based on other people’s expectations (or at least by what you perceive as their expectations) or worrying too much about what other people think. I like to think of this as the “shoulds” and the “supposed to-s” that we put on ourselves—things we think we should be doing or ways that we should be living.

For example, maybe I have a belief that because I am a mom, I should feel joy all the time in caring for my kids and should want to get down on the floor to play trains or that I am not supposed to ever lose my cool with them.

Or have you ever driven home from an event and thought something along the lines of “oh why did I say that? People must have thought I was so (insert whatever you think they might think of you).”

These are prime examples of evaluating yourself by others’ standards.

Finding your voiceI often think back to a conversation I had with a friend one day years ago when I was having a bad week. We’d just gone for a long walk in the canyon and sat down to stretch at the end and I was telling her some of my concerns, things like “but my kids want me to do this…” and “I think my in-laws might think I am weird because I….” I had a whole string of concerns about other people’s opinions.

Her words to me were simple, but they struck me really hard that day. She simply said, “you’re worrying too much about what other people think.” Of course I was, and that probably should have seemed obvious, but somehow I needed to be made aware of that.

I was trying to please all the people in my life and surprise surprise, it wasn’t working. You’ll never be able to please everyone or live up to all the expectations you perceive that others have for you. That’s why trying to live the way that you think other people want you to can be so harmful.

When you externalize your perception of yourself (meaning you allow others to decide who you are or who you should be), it makes being in relationships hard. You’ve got less brain space and less attention to focus on the relationship or what’s happening in the moment and instead, it’s taken up by worrying about what others think.

This is true for everyone, but especially for women. Women who worry too much about others’ judgments are less likely to enjoy close connection and intimacy in relationships[8] and are less likely to enjoy sex.[9]

Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself to assess whether this whole externalized self-perception thing applies to you.

If these sound familiar, you’re probably relying heavily on other people’s expectations:

  • Do I often feel responsible for other people’s feelings?
  • Do I feel dissatisfied with myself because I should be able to do all the things people are supposed to be able to do these days?
  • When I make decisions, do other people’s thoughts and opinions influence me more than my own thoughts and opinions? [10]

These and similar things can really take a toll on you because again, you will never measure up to all of these expectations. That’s ok. You aren’t supposed to. You’re human, you’re supposed to fall short sometimes.

And more importantly, you are supposed to be the one who chooses how you want to live.

Biting Your Tongue…Till It Hurts

The second aspect of self-silencing is called silencing the self.[11] Given the name, you can probably guess that this is a huge part of self-silencing.

Silencing the self happens when we suppress our own thoughts and opinions in the hopes of making someone like us or when trying to keep the peace.

Again, compromise and working together are always going to be key aspects of a relationship. This isn’t that.

What is self-silencing?Silencing the self happens when one person in a relationship continually silences her own opinions or when someone consistently keeps his thoughts to himself. This may also look like constantly suppressing personal needs in favor of the other’s.

The key point though is that the person is doing this because they fear the relationship will not survive if they were to speak up. Or that their own needs or feelings don’t matter as much.

It’s about suppression of yourself—and I think we all have experiences that have taught us how that feels. Not great.

Being able to have a voice and to share it authentically is critical to well-being in a relationship. It makes for better sex,[12] for deeper connection and intimacy,[13] and allows us to grow together as a couple. When we feel free to share thoughts, feelings, struggles, and successes in a relationship, we are much more likely to thrive.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to consider whether you might be silencing yourself:

  • Do I speak my feelings in an intimate relationship even when I know they will cause disagreement?
  • When my partner’s needs or opinions conflict with mine, rather than asserting my own point of view do I usually end up agreeing with him/her?
  • Do I rarely express my anger at those close to me? [14]

If these ring true for you, consider ways that you can speak up more often and find your voice. It will be hard at first, but take small steps to make sure you’re not silencing yourself in your relationships.

Caring Too Much—Is That a Thing?

Years ago, my husband was a Ph.D. student in a rigorous chemistry program at UW-Madison (go Badgers!). We had little kids (1 when we started, 3 when we finished) that I stayed at home with, and because of his long hours, much of the childcare and housework fell to me.

How do I love myself better?But I also had an active social life there and some really great friends and many evenings I would leave him with the kids so that I could go to book club or a night out with the ladies. I remember so many nights, coming home from my night out to find that he’d vacuumed the house (my true love language) and folded the laundry. He knew how much this meant to me, so he made sure to get it done while I was gone.

Healthy relationships have plenty of this give and take. Serving and caring for each other is a foundational part of successful relationships (and not just the romantic ones).

In fact, now I am the one in school, working towards my PhD and guess who is doing a lot of the cooking and childcare? He is.

Sacrificing and caring for the other is wonderful.

Until it’s not.

There are times when a person gives and gives and gives until she breaks. Or feels like she’s going to. We’ve all heard clichés like “water can’t be drawn from an empty well.” Sayings like this are probably common clichés because they are so true.

And it’s not like we don’t believe it. I think most of us do. But sometimes there are so many demands on us or expectations—hello again externalized self-perception—that we feel like we are drowning and that no one is caring for us in return.

The self-silencing aspect of care as self-sacrifice is not about loving and serving those around you. It’s about when a person does this expressly to secure the relationship. If I love and serve and do nice things, THEN this person will love me.

When care is done with love and concern, it can increase intimacy and happiness in a relationship.[15]

When it’s done in a way that silences personal needs, it becomes a problem.

Here are some questions to consider that might help you see if you’re caring too much and silencing your own needs:

  • Do I believe that considering my needs to be as important as those of the people I love is selfish?
  • Do I believe that in a close relationship, it is my responsibility to make the other person happy? Or that I don’t usually care what we do, as long as the other person is happy?
  • Do I believe that doing things just for myself is selfish? [16]

Be careful with this one. Love and serve and care for those in your life.

But love and serve and care for yourself as well. And allow others to love and serve and care for you.

Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde

Have you ever known someone who seemed to be putting up a happy, pleasant, maybe even overly positive front but you didn’t feel like you were getting a clear picture of who this person was inside? Like they were only letting you see as far as the surface and no deeper?

I can think of several people like this that I’ve known through the years. On first glance, they seem happy and content. And yet something doesn’t feel genuine about it. Somehow, I feel like I’m missing something.

Angry inside happy outsideOr have you ever been that person who is snapping at their kids as they pull the car up to church (‘I don’t want to hear another word about how uncomfortable your shoes are right now!’) and then hops out and greets a friend with a smile on your face? (‘Oh me—yes, I am doing just great! How about you?’)

A final aspect of self-silencing is the divided self. The divided self is that happy exterior that we all often put on when sometimes inside it’s much darker. This often happens when we are putting so much effort into caring for others that we are silencing our own needs and resentment starts to build inside.

This can also look like hiding who you are for fear that others won’t like what they see if they get a real look at you. Rather than truly letting someone see you for who you are, you just put a smile on your face, pretend all is well, and keep moving forward.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t feel very genuine—to yourself or to others. It’s hard to feel happy if you don’t feel that you are authentically being you[17] and it’s hard for others to get close to you if they don’t feel like you’re sharing your whole self.

Here’s a look at some signals that you’ve got a divided self happening:

  • Are there times that I look happy enough on the outside, but inwardly I feel angry and rebellious?
  • Do I ever feel that my partner does not know my real self?
  • Do I feel I have to act in a certain way to please my partner? [18]

Just like all of the other aspects of self-silencing, the divided self comes from not being authentic and not letting others hear from you or see you as you are.

There’s a lot involved in self-silencing (and this is a long article!) and just like everything else relating to authenticity and building a strong sense of self, it’s a process that takes some time to develop.

The best thing you can do today is to simply start to recognize ways that you are self-silencing and as you become more and more aware of them, stop. Instead, allow others to see you as you truly are.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read through the three posts that walk you through living authentically. It takes time to develop, but you won’t regret it.
how to be authentic

Self-Silencing

References:

[1] Jack, D. C. (1991). Silencing the self: Women and depression. Harvard University Press.

[2] Ferree, M. M. (2010). Filling the glass: Gender perspectives on families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 420–439. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00711.x

[3] Duarte, L. M., & Thompson, J. M. (1999). Sex differences in self-silencing. Psychological Reports, 85(1), 145-161. doi:10.2466%2Fpr0.1999.85.1.145

[4] Traeen, B., Hansen, T., & Štulhofer, A. (2021). Silencing the sexual self and relational and individual well-being in later life: a gendered analysis of North versus South of Europe. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1-16.

[5] Maji, S., & Dixit, S. (2019). Self-silencing and women’s health: A review. International Journal of Social Psychiatry65(1), 3-13. doi:10.1177%2F0020764018814271

[6] Price. A. A., Leavitt, C.E. (manuscript in progress) Silencing the Self & Emotional Intimacy in Romantic & Sexual Relationships

[7] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

[8] Price, A.A., Leavitt, C.E., Larsen Gibby A., Holmes, E. K. (manuscript in progress) How Does External Referencing Define Sense of Self and Link to Relational Well-being?

[9] Price. A. A., Leavitt, C.E. (manuscript in progress) Self-Silencing & Emotional Intimacy in Romantic & Sexual Relationships

[10] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

[11] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

[12] Kleinplatz, P. J., Ménard, A. D., Paquet, M. P., Paradis, N., Campbell, M., Zuccarino, D., & Mehak, L. (2009). The components of optimal sexuality: A portrait of “great Sex.” Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 18(1-2), 1-13.

[13] Price. A. A., Leavitt, C.E. (manuscript in progress) Self-Silencing & Emotional Intimacy in Romantic & Sexual Relationships

[14] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

[15] Price. A. A., Leavitt, C.E. (manuscript in progress) Self-Silencing & Emotional Intimacy in Romantic & Sexual Relationships

[16] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

[17] Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385.

[18] Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of Women Quarterly16(1), 97-106. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1471-6402.1992.tb00242.x

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