One Block in Any Direction

My earliest memory of being unable to speak for myself goes back to when I was four years old. I was allowed to cross the street, one block in every direction. When our neighbor found me playing across the street, he didn't believe I had permission to cross. He brought me home in "disgrace" and ranted on and on like he was some kind of superhero who saved me and the planet from certain destruction. No one spoke for me.

Inwardly I screamed, "One block in any direction! I'm allowed! Why aren't you telling him?" Outwardly I could only cry. I doubt my mother understood what she taught me that day. She may have thought she taught me to put my best foot forward, but she actually taught me to put a false front forward. She taught me that if someone is likely to object to what you have to say, you don't say it. She taught me that if the truth is likely to rock the boat, you stay silent, you pretend.

An Early Tsunami Warning

Silence is a lesson I learned all too well. The first half of my life was based on the theme of putting a front forward that wouldn't rock the boat, create waves or even a tiny ripple. That continued until I avoided a ripple that was really an early tsunami warning.

The tsunami was my late husband Mike's cancer. The ripple I avoided was his wrath when I voiced my concerns about early indications that something was terribly wrong. I got a clue of what when I read a passage in a book telling how Harvey Peterson beat his tumor to the punch. I was shocked to realize that Harvey's symptoms sounded just like Mike's. I showed the passage to Mike, who took the book, threw it across the room and screamed, "Damn it Meryl, I don't have cancer! And don't talk to me about it again! Don't you dare say anything to my mother."

I responded in what had become my habitual way...if my husband was upset with me, obviously I had done something terribly wrong. If I had done something wrong, I needed to avoid doing it again. I returned to the "safer" waters of agreeing with him. I almost drowned nine months later when I lost him to untreated cancer.

Whose Hand Is Over Your Mouth?

After Mike died, I considered myself a victim of his denial. It took a year for me to realize I was really a volunteer who chose to put a false front forward when heartfelt honesty was the only hope we had.

It happened at my counselor's office. He interrupted himself mid-sentence to ask, "Why is your hand over your mouth? Whose hand is that? Who is keeping you from speaking?"

I was stunned to realize I had my OWN hand over my mouth. I silenced myself. And it always had been my own hand over my mouth. Mike could never have silenced me had I not chosen to allow it.

Boat Rocking Lessons

I silenced myself because I didn't want to rock the boat. Now I realize that some boats desperately need to be rocked. If I don't speak for myself, no one else will.

I became a woman on a mission - a mission to figure out how to rock the boats that need to be rocked without capsizing or sinking.

That was over twenty years ago. I've rocked a lot of boats since then.

It didn't happen overnight. Once I realized I had lost my voice, it took years to find it again. I started in safe environments. I started speaking up and out in the safe haven of my counselor's office. (That was harder than you might think because my habit of "making nice" was so deeply entrenched.) I started being stronger with my son. (Was it possible that that beautiful being of light was manipulating me?) I set better boundaries with my boyfriend. (He resisted and we broke up.) I began to say no to my clients more often. (Some of them didn't like it, but I sure did!)

After ten years of reclaiming my voice, I contacted a seminar company and told them I wanted to work for them (even though I had no relevant experience.) They said no. A year later I contacted them again and told them I still wanted to work for them. They said yes. Speaking up for what I wanted worked and felt really good.

Helping Others Rock the Right Boats in the Right Way

In my role as a seminar leader, I encouraged others to address issues and be their own advocates. I adopted a simple phrase that epitomizes my approach to communication - I'll give it to you now. That phrase is: Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don't be mean when you say it.

The simplicity of that phrase makes it powerful.

During my seminars I noticed how empowered people become when they get the right words to address their own hot-button issues. I call those perfect words Power Phrases. When I shared my Power Phrases, I saw people transformed in front of my eyes. They actually seemed taller. I decided to write my first book, PowerPhrases! to give people actual words for their most difficult situations. I started my weekly newsletter, A PowerPhrase a Week to reinforce the new behavior.

Had I Known Then What I Know Now

It's possible that had I had the words and the communication skills when my husband became ill, he would still be with me today. It was one of the most treatable kinds of cancer there was. But there are no guarantees. I still may have lost him...but I would have not lost myself. It's much easier to weather the loss of a love when you haven't also lost yourself.

A Stunning Contrast

When I compare life now to my "pre-tsunami life," the contrast is stunning. I used to live in a constant state of resentment. Now I've almost forgotten what resentment feels like. I used to have chronically conflicted emotions. Now inner conflict is rare for me. But best of all; while I used to hide behind a false front, I'm authentic now. I love being me. And I love helping others be themselves.

I also love saying what I mean and meaning what I say without being mean when I say it.

Author's Bio: 

Meryl is the President and CEO of SpeakStrong, Inc. a training, speaking, consulting, and information services company. Her first book, PowerPhrases! has sold over 200,000 copies. She has since authored four other books, How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say and Get What You Want, How to Say It: Performance Reviews, Perfect Phrases for Managers, and the Unite and Concur eBook, available through her SpeakStrong website. She is also the author of a weekly email newsletter called A PowerPhrase a Week, which boast thousands of subscribers.

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