Do you ever struggle to know when to speak up and when to stay quiet?
It’s a balance that many people find tricky to navigate.
For some, there will be a tendency to keep quiet so as not to rock the boat or risk confrontation. For others, it might be they blurt things that they wish they hadn’t.
Whatever the tendency, it usually comes back to a situation triggering an emotional response within us – and it will often lead to us falling back on learned behaviour patterns from childhood.
Whether you’re a bottler or a blurter, it can be helpful to know that if a situation makes us feel unsafe, it activates a part of the brain called the ‘amygdala’. This part of our brain is tied up to our ‘fight or flight’ stress response and when it is activated, it changes how our brain functions.
Because this part of our brain is intimately linked to our ‘safety’ (not necessarily real safety but perceived safety), it becomes a priority pathway, so we tend to have an inability to focus on anything other than what is bothering us. Also, we can experience a reshuffling of our memory hierarchy which means that anything relevant to the perceived threat is easy for us to recall and most other things are deemed irrelevant.
In his fascinating book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the term ‘amygdala hijack’ to describe what happens to our brain in these situations.
Our response—whether to bubble over or hold on to our words—will depend on whether our body feels it is safer to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’.
It can be helpful to understand that the way we use our brain changes entirely when we feel unsafe. If we can learn to bring awareness into those situations, it will allow us to recognise what is happening and make different choices.
Here are some tips to help you decipher when to speak up and when to stay quiet.
Give yourself some time
If you notice yourself reacting to a situation, give yourself some space from it. If, for example, a discussion becomes heated and you can feel anger rising, perhaps suggest that you come back to the discussion later. This will allow you to cultivate a sense of calm and approach the situation later when your brain isn’t being hijacked by your amygdala.
Check your motivation
Does your desire to speak up come from a place of hurt or pain? From a drive to fix or rescue someone? Or because you feel a need to be heard? Does your motivation to stay silent come from a place of fear or worry about what might happen? What someone might think of you? Enquire within yourself to discover what might be driving your tendencies. Knowing what is driving you may be all that you need to feel better about something.
Help your body to feel safe
If we are communicating danger to our body by perceiving stress at every corner, it’s going to affect our biochemistry. And if our body is stressed, it will impact on how our brain works! So help your body to perceive safety. This is best achieved through diaphragmatic breathing. If you feel that your breath is shallow and sharp, practice a long, slow breathing exercise daily and prioritise rest and self-care.
Meditation or other mindfulness-based practices can help us to cultivate awareness so that we’re less likely to be hijacked by our emotions. It also helps to quieten a busy mind and gives us a tangible practice to help soothe and calm us. Meditation and mindfulness practices don’t have to be lengthy to be beneficial. Even just 10-15 minutes a day can help.