Greg considers himself a good worker though rarely, if ever receives any praise or positive feedback from his boss. Recently Greg, who works for a small family business attracted a moderate new contract. Greg had expected his boss to thank him for showing initiative however this hasn’t happened. Later that night after a particularly hard day, Greg vented to his wife telling her how ungrateful his ‘idiot’ boss is and how ‘disrespected’ and ‘taken for granted’ he feels. ‘Next time’ he sees a business opportunity, he reckons he’s just going to ‘keep his mouth shut and stuff his boss’. When Greg’s wife suggested talking to his boss, Greg flew at her, telling her ‘thanks’ for her support and informing her that he would be sacked if he did so and did she want that!
Sylvia has been married to Sid for 27 years. For the last several years their sex life has dwindled and is not almost non-existent. She wouldn’t mind so much if her husband’s affectionate gestures to her hadn’t also disappeared at the same time. Sylvia is aware that her husband recently saw his GP, a rare thing indeed, for some concerns re his prostate. She did ask how it went but he was reluctant to speak about it and hasn’t mentioned it since. She knows Sid well enough to know that he does not like to be ‘questioned’.
Marcia hates the way she talks to her husband, particularly in front of her adult children but she feels she can't help herself. Marcia knows that her resentment towards her husband is long standing but 'doesn't want to go there' as it might cause the fight of all fights. Instead she niggles at him almost constantly. He in return is often absent, drinks too much when he is home at night and spends more time at work even though he is supposed to be winding down for retirement.
While these scenarios appear to be about quite different issues, at there core is the same problematic coping strategy: AVOIDANCE. Most of us don’t like the idea of having conversations that might end in an argument. Most of us don’t want to be the target for someone else's aggro. Instead we tell ourselves it's better to 'let sleeping dogs lie' and to 'not rock the boat'.
The result then is that we find ourselves for weeks, months or years silenced, stifling what we really want to say all to keep things calm. While Greg avoids his boss, and has a lot to say at home, at work he becomes more and more silent, more and more unhappy about his work situation. He remains adamant that speaking to his boss would result in the loss of his job but is this really the case? Sylvia's silence about their lack of intimacy also continues and with good intent: she genuinely doesn’t want to upset her husband but what does the future hold for their relationship if she continues to remains silent? Similarly Marcia tells herself she is 'doing the best she can' but her constant criticisms have made their house, now empty of any children, an uncomfortable and increasingly lonely place to be.
All these people and thousands others like them have the same dilemma. Is it worth the risk to speak up?
Is it worth it to speak to your boss and potentially have a better working life?
Is it worth the risk of speaking to your husband to improve your sexual relationship?
Is it worth it to speak to your partner about things that happened years ago in the hope that it might make a difference today?
Is our silence the answer to our problems or the reason they remain problems?
Time and time again as a therapist the most common problem working with clients is their silence, which whatever way you look at it is really an avoidance strategy. Whether it's the husband who avoids talking to his wife, the adult child who avoids talking to their ageing parent or the employee who avoids talking to a manager, they all firmly believe keeping silent is the answer. All are convinced that to speak up would spell disaster. And yet their unhappiness, discontent and loneliness grows with each new silence.
It's a significant cost just to keep the peace.
Somewhere along the line these very different people have learnt the same thing: if you want to be loved don't disagree with me. Probably they've learnt this very early in life: 'children should be seen and not heard'. The problem is that while this may have been appropriate sometimes as a child, it's not very effective for being an adult. It means that any time a possible difference in opinions arises, silence is the answer. It means a life of bowing to the ideas, demands and expectations of anyone that we want to keep in our lives. It means a life time or swallowing our thoughts, ideas, opinions and needs. It means a life of being an adult but continuing to live as a child.
The truth is are you really only lovable if you tow the party line? Will people really stop loving you if you dare to speak your mind? WIll it really be the end of the world as you know it if you speak up?
Even if the absolute worse result happened, would you die if someone stopped liking or loving you?
Avoidance, in all its various forms is the most costly life-strategy I know. Your plan to avoid conflict may be successful in never having anyone get mad at you or reject you but at what cost? A life of silence is a high price just to keep the peace. Taking the risk to speak up is scary but if you don't speak up for you, who will?
Clive Williams PhD