February 13, 2012

Losing and Finding Your Voice.

A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings.
Alone must it seek the ether.
And alone and without its nest shall the eagle fly across the sun
~Kahlil Gibran

Sometimes it’s easy to let your voice be heard, and sometimes it’s not. Where those moments appear is different for each person, and even changes for each person over the life course – from time to time, from relationship to relationship, from setting to setting, from topic to topic, and so on.

Image: Yugenro

We spend a lot of time with ourselves (all of it, right?), so we may think that we know what kind of instances are easy for us to find our voices and what kind of instances are difficult. But, as with everything in life, sometimes there are surprises.

I am, to put it bluntly, a big mouth. I have thoughts about most everything and I’m usually not afraid to share them, in written form or oral. Friends who have met me online before meeting me face to face have been surprised that I’m not physically bigger than I am and that my voice isn’t deeper and more powerful, because my “voice” in terms of being forceful in my communication is strong. It’s not unusual, however, for me to experience specific instances where I feel like I’ve lost my voice. Some of these fall into the category of a predictable loss, while others are quite unexpected.

One place where I have often experienced “expected” loss of voice is in my job. An example of the voice loss that I have here happens when I’m at events that require me to make conversation with people I don’t know, while wearing fancy clothes and heels and juggling a wine glass. I get uncomfortable in such situations, even in my off-work life. But, at a casual cocktail party, I can drift over to the snack table and just wait on someone to talk to me. This isn’t true at work, where my position requires that I mingle and schmooze.

Sometimes I have unsurprising (to me) loss of voice in more casual situations. For example, I love music, a lot, but I don’t sing. I was told at an early age that I’m tone deaf, and though I don’t even really fully understand what that means, it has become a part of my understanding of myself. I don’t karaoke. I don’t sing happy birthday at a party (unless I can basically just talk the words). I don’t sing the alma mater at university events. I do not sing in public, with the exception of at rock concerts where it is so loud that I know no one can hear me. Thus, I was not shocked to find it extremely difficult to find my voice for chanting in Sanskrit during yoga teacher training. I could hear the rhythm and the words in my head very clearly, but as soon as I opened my mouth, the voice that came out was soft and timid and very unsure. Over the course of the class, I got more comfortable chanting with the group (again, hard to hear my voice mixed in with the others) but when time came for me to lead a chant, my voice disappeared again.

Image: John Hopper

In an example of a less expected loss of voice, a while ago, I found myself at work needing to support someone’s right to speak an unpopular opinion. Being a communication scholar, I’m rather fond of the First Amendment, so I would have not expected it to be difficult for me to find my voice about this issue. But, because the opinion that had been expressed was very counter to my own beliefs, it was shockingly difficult, and even more so because what I needed to say went against the reactions of some others in the organization. It was tricky and I noticed that, though I would begin an interaction with some degree of confidence, I kept quickly losing my voice and really needing to work to find it.

Having a voice, not necessarily in the physical sense but in the psychological/relational sense, is important in our well being and in our relationships in the world. When we butt up against obstacles in finding our voices, we need to think about what is keeping us from finding that voice and what we can do to set it free.  For the events that I have discussed here, I’m pretty sure that the issue for me is my worry about how others will perceive me. I don’t want others to think that I don’t know things, to notice my bad traits (horrible voice, inability to small talk), or to think poorly of my opinions. This is very wrapped up in ego and self-concept. I know it, but I haven’t been able to let it go in all situations – yet.  However, I think that knowing where the issue is marks the start of being able to find the voice again. Unlike a case of physical laryngitis, time won’t always heal the emotional loss of voice, unless and until we can identify the underlying cause and figure out what kind of work we need to do to address it. For me, that has meant working on letting go of my self-criticism and need for others to perceive me as always in command of myself and the situation. It’s an ongoing process, but I’ve made some progress (I’ve even participated in kirtan a few times).

Where do you lose your voice?  What do you think causes it?  What are you “doing” about it?

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