WRONG: Staying Silent for Fear of Being Wrong

When I was in elementary school I would often daydream. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what was going on in the class or didn’t understand it. I thought it was just because I wanted to be outside playing. What I’m realizing now is that it might have been because I felt anxious in class. I would often say the answer to the teacher’s questions in my head but never raise my hand to answer. When a teacher would start to look around for students to call on to answer, I would think “Oh please god, not me. Not me. Don’t pick me.” I didn’t want to be wrong and have the kids laugh at me or the teacher look at me in disappointment. Most of the time I knew the answer, but I second guessed myself. Then, after the right answer was stated, I would chide myself for not speaking up when I was write the whole time. 

I was a good student in that I got good grades on tests and minded my manners. But I struggled with completing my homework. The teachers tested me for a learning disability, but it turns out I didn’t have one. It would take me forever to do my homework and now I think it was because I didn’t want to get it wrong. One teacher suggested to my parents that they give me 30 minutes every night to get my homework done. Even if I didn’t finish I still had to turn it in anyway. That fixed the homework problem, but I still failed to participate in class all the way through high school.

I’m not sure where this fear came from. I can’t pinpoint a date when it came over me. I’ve just sort of always been worried about being wrong. Which is silly if you think about it. No one can be right all the time. But being wrong gives me such anxiety it sometimes paralyzes me.

Recently I’ve started going to a book club with a group of some of my feminist friends. I went to the first one excited to talk about how much I loved the book. I spoke up and expected everyone to agree with me. (I realize how arrogant that sounds. LOL) Anyway, one of my good friends looked at me and gave it two thumbs down. I was shocked. I thought for sure we’d all be on the same page. I felt vulnerable and exposed like an outsider. This may seem trivial, but at that moment it all clicked. This was what I was afraid of all that time. And here I was, basically being told I was wrong in a group of people whose opinions I really value and respect. I tried to save face, but stumbled over my words and probably made no sense. I didn’t speak up much after that for the rest of our time together.

But, you know what…I survived! My friends are still my friends despite me not having the same reaction to the book as they did. They didn’t point and laugh. They didn’t throw rotten tomatoes at me and say “boo! hiss!” like you would imagine in some 80’s teen drama. Everyone just said what they thought. Some had the same reaction and some not. But, we moved on. That was it. They probably don’t even remember that part of the conversation, but it stuck with me. It was very freeing after I got over the initial shock. I realized I could have an opinion all my own and that is okay.

Now, this may not work in all situations. I was with a group of my good friends. But it made me a little bit braver. Moving forward I will allow myself to stick my neck out a little bit and test the waters. I’m by no means going to start speaking up at every turn, but I won’t shy away from using my voice as much as I have.

That may seem odd to people who know me. Many have told me they like “my voice” on Facebook. “Sharing” or speaking my mind online is a little easier though, because you have some space between you and your “friends”. They may comment that you’re wrong, but you can always delete their comments. LOL Joking. (Sorta.) But, you know what I mean. Having that buffer allows you to be a little braver and say what you really think. Trolls take advantage of this all the time and use the anonymity of social media to harass others (mostly women speaking their mind). So, I guess the modern-day version of what I’m afraid of when I don’t speak up is those guys with their mean, hateful, sometimes violent comments. But I’m not going to let their threats (or the threat of their threats) keep me from being present and participating in the world.

I’ve had my eyes opened (thanks to my Women’s Studies classes) to the fact that girls have been socialized to be seen and not heard. They are supposed to be pretty to look at but not have their own ideas and opinions. (Watching Mad Men and hearing some of my mother’s childhood stories has confirmed this for me.) I didn’t learn this from my family. They were and still are very supportive and love me for who I am. I absorbed the negative messages through peers, TV shows, movies, music, older generations in my town who weren’t so open-minded about what girls could and should do, etc… I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see it now. I remember the disapproving looks when I started wearing pants to church. I remember the approving looks I got when I participated in and won my town’s little beauty pageant. It’s not just about what they tell you not to do, but what they expect you to do and grin and bear it.

The TV show, movies and music had plenty of messages about who I should and should not be as well. My family listened to a lot of “oldies” where songs were sung about girls belonging to men and their measurements being the most interesting thing about them. There were no songs praising girls or women for their college degrees, awards or other accomplishments. Girls sang songs about boys being dreamy and sweeping them off their feet. Fast-forward to music today and some of that has changed. There are empowering songs for girls and women. But you don’t hear songs praising boys about expressing their emotions or supporting their girlfriends in their careers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it nicely in her Ted Talk that was sampled by Beyoncé in “Flawless””:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls,
‘You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man.’
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are…”
The socialization that I experienced, despite the best efforts of my feminist mother, profoundly had an effect on me. However, the work that my mother did do to empower me has helped me to learn more about myself and my abilities enough to now, a few years later, say that while I am still a little afraid of being wrong, I will no longer be silent. I may get butterflies in my stomach before speaking my mind, but I will do it anyway. And I will also listen and learn from others about their experiences, because I know that mine is not the only one and their voice deserves to be heard too. And I’m not wrong about that.

So, if you have had similar experiences, fear not. Take a chance. I promise you the world will not end if you speak your mind. And if trolls threaten you, report them, block them and keep on truckin’. (If they persist, reach out to my friend over at Working to Halt Online Abuse for support.)

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