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? 

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.”

There’s a name for this—it’s called self-silencing. 

What is Self-Silencing? 

Self-silencing means stifling your own thoughts, feelings, and desires in order to preserve a relationship. Think about what that means. If you’re self-silencing, that means you’re literally preventing who you are from being heard, or known. 

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]

What is self silencing?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 (or 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]

So let’s take a look at what’s behind this harmful habit.

The 4 Aspects of Self-Silencing:

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

What is Self Silencing?

Self-Silencing Aspect #1: 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.

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]

Self-Silencing Aspect #2: Biting Your Tongue…Till It Hurts

The second aspect of self-silencing is stifling your own voice.[11] 

Stilfing your voice happens when you suppress your own thoughts and opinions in the hopes of making someone like you or when trying to keep the peace.

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

Finding your voiceSilencing 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.

Self-Silencing Aspect #3: Caring Too Much—Is That a Thing?

Healthy relationships have plenty of this give and take. Serving and caring for each other is a foundational part of successful relationships. 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 overly self-sacrificing 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.

Be careful with this one. Love and serve and care for those in your life, but do it because you want to, not because you think that’s how you earn love. And love and serve and care for yourself as well. (And allow others to love and serve and care for you.)

Self-Silencing Aspect #4: 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?

Overcoming feelings of resentmentA 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.

Breaking the Silence—How to Find Your Voice

There’s a lot involved in self-silencing 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’re seeing the signs that you are self-silencing, it’s time to make a change. I’ve got a self-silencing mini-course that I think you’re going to LOVE and really make progress with. 

Check it out here: 

How to Stop Silencing Yourself

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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