Presumably it happens to us when we are young.
With the insensitive words of an impatient teacher, the neglect of parents, the bullying of peers, or that one traumatic event that tore at our soul, or a series of traumas, or even, all of the above!
Maybe we can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened to us or how, but apparently we’ve become a nation of people who are afraid to speak. A nation of voluntary mutes who would rather shy away from a microphone than be heard.
They say Americans are digging little graves for their voices and burying them under all kinds of emotional baggage that prevent them from speaking in public: the nation’s number one fear.
How ironic that fear of speaking in public has reached the epidemic proportions it has in a country that allegedly values freedom of speech!
What are we so afraid of?
Are we scared of being harshly and unfairly judged by others? Are we scared of being misunderstood? Are we scared that what we share may not hold value to anyone else? Are we scared that our words might hurt others or be used as weapons of destruction? Or maybe our voice has gone unheard so often that we fear anyone will really listen? So we don’t execute our own sense of authority, while fighting our own insecurity like toxic waste, and making efforts to save our confidence from extinction, lest our voice never fully express itself.
I grew up in a developing country in which freedom of expression was regulated by the government and its underground branches. If the power at hand determined that your art, or your book, or your lectures, etc, was a threat to their power, they would deliver death threats to you and your family and then assassinate you. No questions asked.
When I was a young girl my father’s colleague was assassinated in this way. He was killed because his voice, his work, felt like a threat to those who killed him. He was shot in the head, execution style, on the way home from work one night.
Killings of this type were typical of the country in which I was raised. But this one came a bit too close to home since my father also wrote his own newspaper column, and death threats had already begun to arrive by telephone each night. I remember the way my mother lived in fear, insisting that we move back to the United States where our family could feel safe again.
Such events in my life caused a fatalistic short-circuit in my conditioning, which basically programmed me to connect expressing myself freely with death.
I was a natural born performer: As a little girl I was always talking, dancing, singing, making music, acting, being dramatic, writing, painting, running, moving, making jokes, infinitely expressing myself in all kinds of wild and unrestricted directions. But after that tragic death, I muted my voice as a sub-conscious act of self-preservation. Expressing myself just seemed like too much of a risk to me! I was young, and scared.
We all value safety in life. If we perceive a threat we want to extinguish it. Primal instincts demand that we do anything we can to survive. But what is so dangerous about exercising our own voice? What is so terrifying about being ourselves? Do we all fear assassins? Or have we become our own threats? We feel it is safer to mute our own voices than share them. But what are we protecting? Why have we become a nation of individuals who withhold their expressive energy?
It might seem unbelievable to have to weigh the expression of one’s voice against life and death scenarios, but for much of the world, and throughout history, this has been the tragic reality. People all over the world are prosecuted for their creations: their books, their works of art, their poems, their plays, etc. Sometimes the prosecutors are external ones, and sometimes, as for many Americans, they are internal ones. But whether the culprit is the mafia or our own self-sabotaging tendencies, something is stealing our voices.
I personally experienced the powerful voice-thief push my art into hibernation after the tragic murder of my father’s colleague. Little did I know how much energy it would take to suppress my own natural outbursts of expression! It’s like trying to hold lava in an active volcano! My reaction, however, neglected to take into consideration that we humans are designed to express ourselves. And life, by nature, yearns for each of our own unique and original, one-of-a-kind expressions to be shared.
So, as Anais Nin puts it, “… the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
That’s when the volcano erupted, and my artistic voice emerged in wild spurs that took nothing else into consideration. It flowed gradually, yet powerfully, like hot rivers of lava which destroyed all in their path. What was in their path? My fears.
To resuscitate the expressive person I was, I knew I had to murder my fears.
And no expensive life-coach, or Indian guru, or exotic-raw-food-yoga-retreat-tucked-away-on-a-beach-in-Costa Rica was going to navigate me through this one. (At least not entirely.) I needed to saddle that baby on my own, be a brave pioneer and explore the wild, inner terrain that keeps me from settling into just being myself. I needed to just do it, as risky and scary as if felt.
Fear is a funny thing. Some fears are primal reactions nature gave us for our own protection. To exercise caution when exploring potential dangers, and make progress smooth, evolution continuous. Other fears act as just the opposite! Obstacles to our developmental progress. Challenges we need to overcome. How to discern between the two? I think, deep down inside, we know. We know it won’t kill us to speak in public. So if you take the microphone and express yourself in front of an audience, what’s the worst thing that could happen? And, even if it did, could you handle it?
What if no one claps? What if they make fun of you? What if you draw a blank? What if no one buys your book? Or no publisher is willing to publish it? What if your blog gets no subscribers, or your flickr pictures no comments, or your facebook wall no attention? What if people are bothered by your expressions, or insulted, or confront you for them? What if no one bought your art, or was moved by it, or found it beautiful or provocative? If nothing went as you’d hoped it would, would you still express yourself? Take it from me, eventually, you’d have to!
Every expression I had previously feared being judged for. Every thought and idea I failed to voice. Every sensation I neglected to follow. They all emerged most passionately in my art, like colorful flowers that refused to remain in their seeds. The process was wild. (Almost too wild at times.) Unforgivingly primal and definitely cathartic! Best of all, it felt soooo good! Like parts of me were being resurrected with each new, artistic creation. Inside of taking such risks I found my voice again, and it was alive and kicking! And it was beautiful and full of power!
Here is when I used my irrational fears as indicators of where I needed to go. I expressed myself even when a little traumatized voice inside of me said: “Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Don’t do it, or you could get hurt! Don’t be yourself or you could get killed!” Even though I knew where that voice was coming from, the intellectual grasp of it was futile. I needed to emancipate myself from the paralyzing emotional hold fear had on me, by moving forward despite it’s warnings.
Digging out the origins of my fears were inconsequential next to creating experiences for myself that countered them.
This is how I discovered that the most effective way to free my voice was to jump into dark waters. To go against my fear and express myself without compromising. To grab that microphone and let my voice be heard; let my being be experienced to others. No matter what. And it’s been a ride on a bucking bronco ever since! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because the alternative just isn’t living. And life wants us to thrive by sharing our essence, especially when it feels risky to do so. We each have much to offer. Not just to the world, but to ourselves.
“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? You have to take a risk.”
~ Frances Ford Coppola