Afraid to speak up? That doesn’t serve the world!

Speaking is as natural as breathing, but somehow along the road we seem to hesitate, hold back or even ignore the urge to truly express ourselves. We fear judgment and/or harassment and to stay safe we tend to shut down. In this article, I’ll share with you my own experience of finding my voice and the courage to speak up.

Before we dive into what I call the 5 phases of speaking up, I’d like to explain how I differentiate ‘speaking’ from ‘speaking up’. 

What does ‘to speak up’ mean?

Speaking up is a way in which you use your voice (loudly and distinctly) to freely express your opinion. To make this visual,  you can think of a baby. Babies don’t care what others think, who they disturb or annoy… They know what they want and they communicate it clearly to make sure that everybody knows. Remember that crying baby on your last flight? that’s what I am talking about!

Once the baby starts talking, everybody seems to be excited. Parents love to hear their child making funny sentences and weird conjugations and encourage the child to keep speaking. 

But after a couple of years, this seems to change. Parents and teachers ask the child to be quiet, not make too much noise, to think before they speak, and to never question what an adult is saying. The way children use their voices is also immensely shaped by their gender and cultural context. Going from a confident and free expressing baby, we evolve into fearful and doubtful speaking adults. 

The main reason is simply to fulfill the basic need to fit in. For most of human evolution, we needed to be part of the group (tribe, society) to stay alive. Being ostracised meant death. But in today’s world, it is no longer true. Yes, we are social beings, but we are freer than ever to express our true selves.

Let’s take a look at how we go through these 5 phases from naturally speaking up, to shyness, to empowering others to speak up.

Phase 1: Learning to speak and naturally speak up

Not long after my first birthday, I started speaking. Not only to my parents but to everyone around me. I remember my dad telling me the story about a camping trip when I was 3 years old. While my parents were setting up the tent, I was gone. 

Not much later they found me in the neighbors’ tent talking and playing with a 7 and 9-year-old, who couldn’t stop laughing. When my dad tried to pull me back to our own tent I started screaming from the top of my lungs, and he decided to leave me where I was. I knew how to use my voice to make clear what I wanted.

Phase 2: Being scared to speak up

As a young child, I was very happy. I had many friends, helped my mom with my 3 younger brothers, and made sure the teacher was always bragging about me on my report card. To the outside world I was doing great, a social girl, loved by all. But secretly I felt ashamed.

You see, there was this boy in my classroom and he got bullied, badly. Bullied by his classmates, bullied by the neighborhood kids, the teacher seemed to be aware of the situation but wasn’t doing anything about it. There was nobody who helped him. And it must be said, neither did I. I had no clue how to handle the situation. Trying to be kind to him was wahat I could do, so we walked to school together, sometimes we played during the weekend, but I always tried to not be seen with him.

I wasn’t shy, but just not ready to speak up. Pleasing others was more my way of going through life, making my parents proud, my teachers happy, and being everybody’s friend. The bullying went on, and I didn’t know how to stop it. So I decided I could be his friend, but only when others wouldn’t see it.

Even though he never knew about it, I’ve always kept an eye on him.

Phase 3: Finding the courage to speak up

During the first year of the internship for my Bachelor in Education. I had a little boy in my classroom. Within a couple of days, I noticed a bruise on his little body, and then another, and another… He was only 4 years old, and couldn’t explain to me what was going on, but one thing was for sure,  something was going on and it didn’t feel good. 

After consultation with my internship supervisor and the school director, I’ve decided to confront his mother with the situation and share my concerns. The next day the boy didn’t come to school, and neither did the day after. One week later, his house was empty and mom and her son were gone. I made a phone call to child protection. They thanked me but told me that there was nothing else I could do. I was just hoping that his next teacher would be just as alert as I was.

Getting Robbed in Indonesia

Another time I had to find the courage to speak up was in Indonesia. After an adventurous solo trip in Sulawesi, I planned to spend the last 5 days of my holiday in Bali. I had found a cute little resort close to the beach and went out for a drink with a boy (he was cute too! And we got married 3 years later, but that’s a whole other story). 

When I came back that evening, I noticed that some of my belongings were not in my room anymore. I’ve been robbed. The next morning we confronted the manager, who literally drove away on his scooter after listening to our story. I quickly called my brother in the Netherlands to block all my accounts, and the bank requested a police report to send me a new bank card.

So off we went to the tourist police station. Explaining the situation to the officer was quite a challenge. They seemed to be more interested in my look than in what I had to tell. After 30 minutes of ‘begging’ for a police report, they let me fill in 4 different documents. He then put the papers together and said: “Now you buy me a beer.”

I looked at him and laughed. “Are you kidding me? I’m reporting a robbery, I have no money anymore, they stole my cash and my cards are blocked! And you want me to pay you a beer?.” He looked back, took my papers, ripped them apart, and pointed at the door. My future husband was just like me: shocked, confused and he mumbled some words in Indonesian. The police guy looked at us and said with a nasty smile: “You can leave now, or I will show you the inside of an Indonesian jail.” We walked out of the door and didn’t look back.

Cell Phone Theft in Madrid

When I got back home to Madrid, another situation arose in which the urge to speak up was needed once again. I had my headphones in and was on my way to Retiro Park. I passed one of the terraces and even though it went very quickly, I saw it happening.

Two young girls sitting together close to the sidewalk were chatting and laughing. On the table were 2 glasses of wine and an iPhone. An old woman selling newspapers passed by and started talking to the girls. The girls were clearly not interested and the woman walked away. It went fast and smooth, but I noticed that the phone was gone. She used the newspaper to cover the table and took the phone when leaving. 

It all took 3 seconds, but I had seen it and couldn’t ignore it. I grabbed the old woman at her arm, but instead of dropping the phone (which I expected), she started yelling like crazy! The police, who were standing at the corner, came running towards me and looked very angry (at me!).

There I was, a 20-something holding the arm of an old woman, while she was yelling at me, with an angry-looking policeman staring at me. Meanwhile, the whole terrace was staring at me, nobody (except me and the old woman) had any clue on what was going on. I felt so confused and overwhelmed by the situation in which I had suddenly become the perpetrator. I knocked her newspaper away and the phone fell on the floor. The blond girl suddenly noticed it was hers, grabbed it, thanked me, and walked back to her table. The woman ran away, the police shrugged their shoulders and strolled back to their corner. I put my earplugs in and walked to Retiro, my heart was beating hard, I felt proud that I stood up

Phase 4: Daring to speak up (despite the risk)

I was in Bangkok for a work conference and after an intense day,  I decided to chill out in a little hidden square with food stands and live music. The band was in the middle of their performance when a muscular white man (most likely a bodybuilder), fully covered with tattoos, dragged a thin Thai woman (badly bruised on both her arms and legs) to a table close to the stage. 

Obviously, it’s never fair to pass any judgment over a situation you don’t know anything about, but the fact that he was very drunk, and kept holding her arm (not her hand) made me feel really uneasy. After 5 minutes he stood up to get another drink, and once he arrived at the bar, the woman stood up and walked away. Well, she tried, because within seconds he stood in front of her and dragged her bag to her seat. No doubt, this was a very unfair situation. He seemed to be very angry at her, but no matter what she did to him, this was no way to treat a person.

The whole story went on for about 10 minutes and then I had enough of it. I walked up to the couple, looked the woman in her eyes, and asked if she was okay. Before she could answer the guy said: ‘That’s none of your business!’ I thanked him for sharing and asked the woman again: “Are you okay? Do you want to sit with us?” She shook her head and looked down at her hands. The guy’s eyes were spitting fire! While looking at her I told her she could come to join us at our table any time, we would be more than happy to have her around. I smiled at the guy and walked back to my seat.

Dealing with the consequences of speaking up in Taiwan

How long it took, I don’t remember, but I think it was less than a minute. There he stood, the big bodybuilder with all his skull tattoos staring at me, with only a table between the both of us. I could feel the whole audience holding their breath, and my husband (ex-commando-paratrooper)  who was sitting next to me clenched his fists.

The guy looked at me and said: ‘You know I’m way much stronger than you and I smack you down on the floor if I want to.” To which I calmly (with a raising heartbeat!) replied. ‘That’s correct, you’re way much bigger, stronger, and probably also faster than me, but if you think that that’s the way to control anybody, you’re actually very weak, and not a man but a coward.’ He threw an aggressive look and then I watched him walk back to his table. 

Approaching a guy who’s (most likely) beating women was maybe not the smartest move, but when we walked out of the square I saw her passing by (alone!) her eyes told me, that I’d done the right thing. 

Daring to speak up when it feels right despite the risks is terrifying. But if you dare to speak up, this can be the trigger needed for others to also open up. This makes me think of the #Metoo movement and the dozen of women who currently are speaking up in The Voice Netherlands scandal. 

Not speaking up is kind of selfish, and not serving anyone (except the person(s) that want you to stay quiet). Remember that between all the haters, there are people who love and care about you, who will be there when you need it the most.

Phase 5: Encouraging others to speak up

This is the final phase of speaking up. And to me, that’s the most empowering one, because it’s the part where you encourage others to speak up. This is the phase in which I’m operating nowadays, as a teacher and a coach.

I was in Nepal the first time I fully embraced it and realized how powerful it is. One day I noticed a flyer on the lamppost in front of my house. It didn’t say much, but enough to grab my attention. ‘A debate between girls of different ages and the prominent ministers. I decided to go, even though my Nepali was limited. I was happily surprised by this powerful experience.

Those girls were clearly making a difference, they were given a platform to speak up and they used it to the best of their abilities. I could see the importance of it in their eyes and how they took this opportunity very seriously. I heard that one of the young girls had been bold enough to tell the minister, “if you take this seriously, tell me when you’re going to take action”. She wanted clarity, a date, a clear agreement, and no vague unreliable promises. And she was ready to challenge him and stand up.

These girls were there to disrupt the system and fight the inequalities and improve not only their own lives but of generations to come. I’m forever grateful that I had the privilege to witness this and acknowledge the organizers to give these girls a stage and the possibility to be heard.

Conclusion: Just do it once, and then some more…

It is time to step away from your safe space and move towards creating a brave space. A space of challenges and risks. A place where you can make mistakes and feel encouraged to do so. A space where participants feel the freedom to start talking their truth. A place where we work side by side towards more love and compassion.

It’s not easy to speak up (read more about ‘how to overcome your fears’). It’s like a muscle that needs to be retrained, which means that you have to practice it day by day, situation after situation, and eventually, you’ll get better and better at it. This is the only way to build confidence, and it will be challenging. But comfort is overrated anyway. Once you do it, you’re able to empower others to take action against harassment, judgment, and violence of any type. I can promise you this, it’s totally worth it!

“You playing small, doesn’t serve the world!
Who are you, not to be anything but great!”

Marianne Williamson

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