I slouched in the back seat of the parked car as the rain poured down outside, blurring the unfamiliar buildings around us. We mostly sat in silence except for the occasional sigh of I don’t know. They all look good. What do you think?
We’d had a fun morning despite the rain and the traffic, but now it was time for lunch. The treat of going out together somewhere special was overshadowed by the monumental task of choosing a restaurant.
It wasn’t that anyone was picky or pushy. Quite the opposite. All three of us would be happy to go anywhere someone else wanted to go. I think we would have been relieved to have someone just tell us what to do.
My stomach twisted in knots as I scrolled through glowing review after glowing review on my phone, searching for an answer. I simply didn’t know what I wanted. I was afraid of making a wrong choice, even though all the options looked amazing.
I was frustrated with everyone in the car for not being able to make a decision. I was annoyed with myself for not being more decisive.
And I was worried. Not knowing what I want for lunch isn’t that big of a deal. It’s an insignificant choice that I have the luxury to make.
But what about bigger decisions? If I don’t trust myself to choose between stir-fry and gyros, will I know what to do when it comes to something of lasting consequence?
I want to be more visible and learn to use my voice but sometimes I’m not sure I even recognize the sound of it. How often do I look to others to tell me what to do and think?
In some ways this is natural. We are communal creatures. I don’t want to go the extreme of tuning everyone else out, but I do want to learn to listen for the sound of my own voice.
I wish it was as simple as turning on a microphone. Recognizing our own voice and being willing to let it be heard takes practice. Here are a few things that are helping me.
Practice in the small things.
All those insignificant decisions that frustrate me so much are actually a perfect training ground for bigger decisions. As I make a point of listening for what I think and making a choice when the stakes are low, I learn the sound of my voice and grow to trust it.
When someone asks if I’d like anything to drink, I can practice considering what I want instead of defaulting to whatever my host is having. When I get dressed, I can practice choosing what I want to wear instead of mimicking someone else’s style.
Listen for what doesn’t sound like you.
Occasionally when I’m talking, I’ll notice a word or phrase that doesn’t sit quite right. Often, it’s a something I picked up from hearing other people speak.
It may be that the idea behind the words is something I believe, but the way I’m expressing it feels borrowed from someone else. It could be something I thought I agreed with, but when I hear it come out of my mouth I realize it’s actually not me.
When this happens, it’s helpful for me to think about what I’m really trying to say and how I can reword it in a way that feels like me.
Pay attention to your silence.
There are times that I sit silently while people talk around me. Sometimes I get so caught up in listening to and processing others perspectives that I forget to contribute my own. Sometimes I stay quiet because I don’t know what I think yet. Other times I keep my mouth shut because I’m afraid to disagree.
I don’t know that it’s always necessary to voice our opinions out loud in every situation—though there are a number of areas where I want to speak up more than I do. Noticing our silences, however, can show us where we most struggle to know and trust our own voices.
Practice debating difficult questions.
Controversial topics bring out a lot of voices (and the loudest are not always the wisest). As such, they can help us strengthen our ability to hear our own voice amidst the crowd.
Try exploring a controversial question on your own. Find arguments for and against. Practice creating an opinion in your own words. It’s ok if your response doesn’t completely line up with popular arguments. This is about listening for your voice, not about winning a debate or choosing a side. As you form your response, what questions do you still have? How can you begin to answer them?
It’s ok to not know.
Learning to listen to ourselves doesn’t mean we’ll always have a definitive answer. Sometimes our voices will be the quiet ones asking questions—the ones trying to make space for mystery and nuance and the possibility that the answers might be bigger than what we are currently able to understand. This can be incredibly uncomfortable when everyone around us seems so sure.
For me, learning to recognize the sound of my own voice means both trusting what I believe and being willing to acknowledge what I don’t yet know. Often there are no clear cut right answers. We have to do the best we can with what we know and what we have.
If we can continue to listen to ourselves, we have opportunities to continue to learn and grow. We give ourselves space to change our minds. When we force ourselves into a choice just to have an answer, we’re actually reinforcing the habit of ignoring the part of us that still has questions and concerns.
I’d love to hear from you! When is it hardest to hear your own voice? Where do you struggle to trust your voice enough to use it? What helps you strengthen your voice and your ability to listen for it?