Finding Your Authentic Voice in 2022

by HARRIET LERNER

I can’t think of a better New Year’s resolution than the commitment to practice having a clear, courageous, and authentic voice. In my half century as a psychotherapist no one has ever entered my consulting room asking for help to become a big phony, or to become invisible in their most important relationships. Who wants to hide in a relationship in which we can’t allow ourselves to be truly known?

Our need for truth-telling and authenticity speaks to the human desire to know ourselves, to know the other person, and to be known. This knowing is at the heart of our deepest longings for intimacy and connection. How our relationships unfold depends on our courage and clarity in having an authentic voice. Even when we are not being listened to, we may still need to hear our own voice saying out loud what we know to be true.

When I was growing up, women were encouraged to keep the peace at any cost. Today the dictate to “Be yourself!” is a cultural ideal. Surely, no one else is as qualified for the job. I love the story I heard about the mother of four young girls who said to each of them, “Speak up, speak up speak up, speak up. The only person you’ll scare off is your future ex-husband.”   It’s terrific advice because if we don’t clearly define our differences, and if we accommodate or silence ourselves to preserve relationship harmony, we’ll erode both the self and the relationship we want to protect.

The Other Side to the Story. 

In the name of authenticity and truth-telling, we may also unwittingly move things from bad to worse.  A therapist colleague of mine once teased me, “Harriet, are you writing another book to help people speak up? I’m trying to help my clients be quiet!”  Then she said more seriously, “Why do people think they have to tell each other everything they feel?”

She was referring to the corrosive criticism, confrontation, and advice-giving that wears relationships down rather than enhances the possibility that people can find happiness together and deepen and refine the truths they can tell each other over time.

Having an authentic voice isn’t always the same as spontaneous, unvarnished candor. What good are our attempts at truth-telling if we leave the other person feeling shamed or diminished, or if our words narrow rather than widen the possibilities of truth between us?  Sometimes, our efforts to speak our own truth make it less likely that two people can hear each other or even stay in the same room.

It’s not easy to decide when you should rush in and tell all, or when you need to first warm things up, calm them down, and get more bite marks on your tongue.  It helps to be honest with yourself about your intentions.  Is your intention to be your uncensored real self, no matter what the effect on the other person or the future relationship?  Or is your intention to speak in a way that will give you the best chance of being heard, and the relationship the best chance to succeed? 

What It Means—and Requires—to Have an Authentic Voice

Everything worth doing requires practice, and having an authentic voice is no exception. Here are my CliffNotes on what an authentic voice requires. No item on the list requires an intense or angry confrontation. Anger and intensity only elicit other people’s defensiveness and invite them to see you as the problem.

Having an authentic voice means:

Our challenge as adults is to develop a strong voice that is uniquely our own; a voice that reflects our deepest values and convictions. Once we are comfortable within that voice, we can bring it to our most important relationships. We can choose to move to the center of a difficult conversation—or we can let it go. We can speak—or we can decide not to. We can learn to listen well, even when we don’t want to hear what the other person is saying.

Will the Real Me Please Stand.

Although I resonate with the phrase “finding our voice,” the image it evokes is deceptive.  We don’t dig our authentic voice out of the muck like a dog digs through the dirt to uncover a prized bone.  What we call the self is always under construction.  We are a work in progress up until our last breath.

We don’t just have one authentic self that we would bring to all our relationships if only our parents hadn’t screwed us up. We have multiple selves and possibilities that various contexts and relationships will evoke in us.  Your so-called true, authentic self does not exist apart from the interconnected web of relationships you operate in. For this reason, it’s important to have people in your life who really see you, who enhance your sense of worth, courage, competence and possibility, even when you’ve lost sight of these.

The challenge in our relationships is not just to “find” our authentic voice but also to enlarge it, not just to be ourselves, but also to choose the self that we want to be. Steps in this direction require us not to rush in and tell all, but also to consider how our words affect others.

Authenticity does not demand that we say everything we think and feel.  Rather it demands that our voice reflects our core values, such as kindness and compassion.  Kindness is not some sort of sentimental pap, nor is it about putting a false patina of brightness over real feelings.  Kindness—since our world needs more of it—is not optional.  Anything that needs to be said can be said with kindness.  Any tough position we need to take can be taken with kindness.  No exceptions.

Developing an authentic voice that allows us to speak our truths with genuine concern and kindness is not easy.  It takes practice and patience. It takes resolution. It’s worth the effort because over time it will make for a stronger “I,” a more gratifying “we.”

And it will make for a happier new year.

HARRIET LERNER

Harriet Lerner, PhD is one of our nation’s most trusted and renowned relationship experts.  Her New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger, continues to transform the lives of millions of women around the globe. She is also the author of the incredible Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.  You can visit her website at www.harrietlerner.com and  follow her on Instagram at @harriet_lerner  

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