A few surprising reasons you haven’t “found” your voice yet (and what to do about it)
I was in the first grade, and I didn’t feel so good. As the volcanic nausea rose in my throat, I shot my hand up so that Sr. Lois would let me be excused. But she didn’t do it fast enough.
That’s when I booted all over my new math book. And the back of Eddie Cramer’s sweater. It was traumatic for everyone involved.
Why didn’t I just speak up? I didn’t know I was allowed to. I thought you had to wait until someone gave you permission.
Now there’s a lesson you don’t have to learn twice.
That’s an extreme example, but the point stands: If you hesitate to speak up, there are consequences. Some messier than others.
I work with people looking to create and elevate meaning in their lives through the work they do and the actions they take. And one consistent reason they give me for not doing what they really want to?
“I haven’t found my voice yet.”
I get that this is a figure of speech, but there’s something dangerous in the metaphor; you may start to believe it—that your voice is lost, misplaced, unrecoverable. Because if you think you really can lose your voice like a set of car keys, then you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
What happens if you don’t use your voice? You’ll have a real hard time getting your needs met, for one. But there are other downsides—you’ll be unable to share an idea or set a boundary, to be heard or understood. To connect with other people, and gain the recognition that could change the arc of your career, and your life.
You could also end up frustrated, unfulfilled. More important, you could find that you’re no longer in control of your own life, and instead, are buffeted along by others’ needs and opinions.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why you think you still need to “find” your voice, and what to do about it.
REASON #1: You haven’t gotten clear on what you want
If you feel like something’s missing in your life, some aching void, it’s worth asking: Have you asked yourself what that is?
I’m not being a smart ass; I mean it. You might very well be feeling the effects of a wish you have not articulated to anyone—including you. It’s easy to lose sight of yourself and your needs when so many other things (and people) demand your attention. But it’s not all or nothing. You can be a great person/parent/spouse/etc and serve your needs, too.
First, you have to do a little self reflection and get honest about it. Easier said than done. For a long time, when a close friend or partner would ask me, “What is you really want?” I’d get defensive and say I’m fine with everything how it is. But was I? No. But down deep, I wouldn’t let myself imagine, let alone say, what I wanted, for fear of looking stupid or crazy or asking for something I couldn’t possibly have.
One thing’s for sure, you can’t have what you want if you don’t know what that is.
There’s an emotional price to pay for long-term suppression of your own thoughts, feelings, opinions. You might think, Oh my turn will come soon enough, but as Seth Godin says, it’s always your turn. You just have to decide to take it.
When you use your voice, you have to use it for something. The first step is assessing what you want to do, share, or change in your life, or the world. Also, you’re a fully realized person with your own mind, goals, desires. And you know who deserves to know about them? You.
TRY IT: Imagine what’s next. Set a timer for 15 minutes (fine to go over, but stick with it for at least 15) and write out your answers to these prompts:
- What would a regular Tuesday look and feel like if you did it your way? How would you spend it?
- You’re raising a glass on New Year’s Eve a full year from now to celebrate what you’ve done the previous year. What change, achievement, or action are you toasting?
- What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen if you take action toward something you want. What’s the best thing? What do you risk by not taking action?
Feeling stuck? Not sure what you’re passionate about?
Free yourself from the (old, unhelpful) ideas holding you back. Download the free mini-course, The Passion Trap: 5 Half-Truths Keeping You From Living a Full Life.
REASON #2: You’re introverted / shy / not that kind of person.
You don’t have to be an extroverted personality or life of the party to be heard or worth listening to. Assuming your particular personality doesn’t come with a voice? Nope. They’re standard issue, and come with every model.
Using your voice is not a character trait. In fact, we may be wired to do it, according to recent research.
Humans devote 30-40 percent of speech output talking about their own subjective experiences, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Is there some kind of intrinsic reward associated with doing it? Researchers Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell tested the theory.
And they confirmed their hypothesis: Communicating our thoughts and feelings engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward. They found that individuals place such a high value on sharing their thoughts, in fact, that some were willing to forgo money to do it. That’s right—they opted to express themselves rather than take the cash.
Think you don’t “need” to say anything? That’s what one female financial advisor told me during a workshop I lead called Unmute Yourself. “I just let them talk,” she said. “They’re the ones desperate to be heard. Not me.”
Interesting. She was positioning herself as “above” contributing, as if speaking is just what you do when you’re desperate for attention. Now there’s a whole thing we don’t have time to dig into right now.
TRY IT: Think of a time when you finally got to say your piece. Where were you? What was happening? What did it feel like to express yourself, whether you were excited or displeased? Now, think of a time when you wanted to, but didn’t. Did you regret staying quiet? If so, why?
REASON #3: You’re afraid of being wrong
Let’s be clear: To use your voice is to exercise your right to share your opinions, ideas, insights, based on what you know right now. All of which may change.
No one is correct all of the time. Even if people think they are. In the catholic tradition, the pope is believed to be infallible, or “incapable of being wrong.” You can believe that if you want. But if you hold yourself to that standard, well no wonder you haven’t said boo.
Why is it worth risking being wrong? Because what you say to someone, or to a group, whether it’s 1000% accurate or not, may help spark an idea or spur action in others. It also allows you to practice using your voice as a working tool for discussion and creation, not as some perfect, final thing. You can always follow up with a correction; you can’t go back to say a thing you wish you’d said.
TRY IT: Risk being wrong. Next time you’re in a meeting or a group gathering of any kind, contribute or share a half-formed idea, a work in progress. Hazard a guess. And see what happens. If you hear your inner critic shouting “You’re going to mess up and look bad and everyone will know you’re stupid!”, calmly respond that it’s really going to be ok. Then pat it gently on the head and send it back to the peanut gallery. Because there’s a gift in letting go of ego, of needing to be right: Tremendous freedom and flexibility. When you don’t have to talk like a textbook, you get to engage in real and meaningful discourse.
You’ve been handed a lot of BS. Time to unlearn all of it.
Download my free mini-course, The Passion Trap: 5 Half-Truths Keeping You From Living a Full Life.
REASON #4: You don't want to be a 'problem'.
Ah, yes. I hear this one a lot, too. One of the reasons people can’t find their voice isn’t because they’ve lost it, but because they’re afraid of the consequences of using it.
Maybe you have this idea that to use your voice would mean interrupting or otherwise offending other people. Let’s dismantle this idea of “interrupting”: Seeing yourself as an interruption assumes you are outside of the action, not part of it. Contributing is not the same as interrupting. Unless you run into the room screaming, you’re not an interruption.
What if you reframed yourself as a presenter of solutions and ideas to support, not interrupt, the effort?
Thinking you’re doing people a favor by being quiet also isn’t true, and may actually put you at risk in the workplace. Leaders are looking to their teams to initiate and contribute, not just follow orders. If you don’t speak up because you think your contribution doesn’t matter, you may end up proving that point.
TRY IT: Pop in with praise. No one, I repeat no one, minds looking good. So one strategy for practicing speaking up in a group is to shine a light on what was just said and give a reason why it works. This is not flattery, by the way. It’s you getting practice taking a stance—not opposite, but side by side with the person who just spoke.
What it can sound like: “Bob, you make a really good point and here’s why…” and then add your contribution/opinion/point. The goal is not to wrench the mic from someone, nor is it sheer flattery; it’s to highlight a strong point while making yourself heard.
REASON #5: You're actually afraid of how much power you have.
You may be under the impression that there’s no point in speaking up or using your voice because it doesn’t matter. I’m going to challenge you on that.
Because if it didn’t matter, if there were no stakes at all, then it would be a no brainer to contribute. Zero risk.
But that doesn’t line up with the reasons why people tell me they can’t. They fear they’ll come off as aggressive, ruin everything, tarnish their reputation, jeopardize their positions.
What if the opposite were true? What if the reason you hesitate to use your voice is because how much power you have? Why else would you be afraid of wielding it?
Thinking you could do that much damage by saying a thing? That’s some serious power.
Here’s how I first learned my voice had power: A gajillion years ago, I worked as a catalog copywriter at a wig company and was invited by the HR woman to take part in a special committee. OK.
Bessie wasn’t friendly, not even ‘corporate’ friendly. She was wiry and hard with tight grey curls and a face like a closed door. It looked like it physically hurt her to smile.
All I remember from those meetings is that there was a lot of talking in circles. I have no patience for this. So I jumped into the rudderless discussion and started to steer.
Bessie pulled me aside afterwards and asked if I would mind not speaking up in the meetings. Why?
"Because when you talk, people tend to listen."
Discouraging young female employees from engaging in meetings is the opposite of what an HR person should be doing. But for whatever reason, I posed a problem. For her.
I also realized that if what she said was true, then it wasn't a liability; it was a strength. And while it might’ve been wasted in this particular group, I realized I had something that would serve me my whole life.
Deep down, you know that if you were to use your voice, to explore and express the full spectrum of its potential, you would unleash a kind of power that could and would change things for yourself and others. This, in fact, might be the biggest reason we pump the brakes.
Will people have a problem with it and you? Disagree or criticize or judge? Of course! But they would do that anyway.
You owe it to yourself, and everyone else, to embrace your voice and the power it has, and not shy away from that power, but become familiar with its heft. Because it’s the only way you’ll start to see just how strong it can be.
TRY IT: Think of a time when you realized that what you said carried weight. Maybe you were thrilled about how it turned out; maybe you regret it. What did you learn in that particular experience, and how has it changed the way you use your voice?
Now, think about a conversation on the horizon, regardless of what it is, where you have the opportunity to make an impact. What do you really want to say? What good things could happen as a result of you speaking up?
Start living on your own terms.
Download a free chapter of Unfollow Your Passion: How to Create a Life that Matters to You.