I was raised by two opinionated, well-spoken, not-afraid-to-say-something people. My mom is the youngest of nine children, with four brothers before her. Her dad was a checked-out alcoholic, so her mom (my grandmother) stepped up, worked three jobs, and raised her nine kids alone. My grandmother, “Mom-Mom,” speaks her mind and raised my aunts and uncles and mother to do the same.
Though my dad’s parents are more reserved–in fact, his nuclear family falls into the meek and mild category–he and his sister are both quite outspoken. When something needs to be said, my dad says it. Both of my parents are very kind and considerate, and they’re also not afraid to share their thoughts and opinions openly. This is how I was raised.
I grew up surrounded by headstrong and verbal people. When I was bullied in elementary school, I distinctly remember my parents encouraging me to stand up for myself and say something. When I’d complain that my sister took my CD from my side of our room, they’d tell me to confront her. When my school’s gym teacher started calling me “Bel Air” to be “funny,” I readily corrected him in front of the class, “My name is Blair, not Bel Air, Mr. Schafer.” And my seven-year-old voice didn’t shake when I said it.
I was taught to speak up. To use my words and be brave with them. I am thankful like I can’t explain for that gift. I know women who struggle deeply to say the words they want to say, but that’s not been a part of my journey thanks to my upbringing. In fact, I have the opposite struggle. Growing up in a near-filterless home, I have worked hard on learning to bite my tongue. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to literally explode when someone says something I completely disagree with or know is wholly incorrect. It’s like my body needs me to speak in opposition so it can settle down.
But sometimes, words are better left unsaid.
In this age of women’s empowerment, the message seems to be “Always speak your mind and share your opinions and screw anyone who doesn’t agree with you.” It sounds good, and maybe it feels good, but I don’t know that it is good.
There are times to speak up, of course, but there are also times when I need to bite my tongue. When someone is utterly and completely convinced that A is true, and I’m utterly and completely convinced that B is true, “sharing my opinion” will usually result in a dumpster fire of a conversation. This is a truth I’ve learned as I’ve matured: it’s not my job in life to convince everyone that I’m right or even to convince everyone to see my side. What a relief that not every opinion I have has to be spoken in every situation.
Sometimes, words do need to be said, but they need to be said in the right setting. Timing is everything. It may be worth waiting to “speak up” until the environment is calm and receptive rather than abruptly throwing out harsh, unrefined words because “I had to say something.”
I have several people in my life who are classic limit-pushers. They love to push conversational limits with the intent of evoking overly-emotional reactions. (I find this incredibly annoying.) Obnoxious or not, the best way to diffuse the build of intensity within the conversation is to react with gentleness. It takes every part of me to do this, but I’m getting better at it. Sometimes, in these situations, I’ll just smile and change the subject. It often works.
I’m a Christian, and two verses from the Bible on this subject that hit me over the head again and again are “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” which is Romans 12:18 (NIV) and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” which is Matthew 5:9 (KJV). In the former, my favorite part is the clause: as far as it depends on you, which is to affirm that we can only control our own words and actions, not anyone else’s. There is peace in freedom in that truth alone.
When I feel my fiery spirit rising and my intensity building, I often think of these two verses. Am I doing what I can do to live at peace with everyone? Am I being a peacemaker right now? Usually my words in those moments are emotionally-charged, self-serving, and anti-peacemaking. These are the times when I need to bite my tongue.
One of my favorite metaphors is the following: Imagine every tense conversation or situation to be a fire. The intensity and discord of the situation determines the size of the fire; a friendly disagreement is like a small flame, a massive familial or corporate eruption is more like a house or building fire (perhaps even a forest fire). When we walk into these conversations or situations, we can choose to be gasoline-bearers or water-bearers. We choose whether to do our part to help bring peace and calm, to look past our own needy opinions and be peacemakers instead–or, we have the option to pour more gasoline on an already-agitated and fiery situation. This mental image often comes to mind in tense moments. Let me be water.
Please hear me when I say: a radical truth, or taking a stand, or speaking out, or sharing an unpopular opinion can be powerful and life-changing and important and necessary. Incredible, strong women (and men) throughout history are known for saying what needed to be said in the moment when it needed to be spoken. Rosa Parks said one brave word–“No.”–and it changed the course of history. I admire her greatly.
I’ll never be a “woman of few words.” (I write as I hit over 1,300 words on this blog post alone.) I’m even less likely to be a woman with few opinions. I am who I am, who God made me to be, I have the personality I have, and I had the upbringing I had. These things can’t be changed; I don’t want them to. However, with self-control, I can choose to work on understanding the weight of words in an effort to speak in a way that promotes peace, compassion, and commonality instead of division and anger.
When the right words are said with the right tone at the right time, a situation can be flipped on its head in the best possible way. When the wrong words are said with the wrong tone at the wrong time, an already-tense situation can erupt. Let’s be water-bearers when we need to be.
It’s not necessarily about saying less, it’s about choosing what I say–and don’t say–carefully. Because I have a passionate, fiery personality, I will likely always struggle with this. I could throw my hands up and say “I am who I am, no use trying to change it!” (as many people do), but I think this tension is one that’s worth pushing into. I don’t want to be known as a woman who tramples others with her opinions and words. I’d rather be known as one who has strong convictions but is able to voice them graciously.
My point is this: there is a time when words should flow freely, and there is a time for silence. I believe that graceful, strong, empowered women are the ones who know the difference.
// Do you struggle with biting your tongue?
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